Uzbeks stay in squalid camps, saying they don't trust Kyrgyzstan authorities

After gang violence broke out against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, refugees have been forced to the Uzbekistan border.
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Story
Thursday, June 17, 2010

VLKSM, KYRGYZSTAN -- More than 10,000 ethnic Uzbeks have crowded into this tiny border village in southern Kyrgyzstan, each with a story to tell about the Kyrgyz mobs that forced them to flee for their lives -- and each with a reason not to return home, despite the deteriorating conditions here.

They described how Kyrgyz men gunned down their neighbors and abducted their daughters. They spoke of gangs who torched entire neighborhoods, sometimes trapping people in the flames. And they accused Kyrgyz police and soldiers of participating in the slaughter instead of protecting them.

"How can we go home?" asked Zukhumar Isamudinova, 33, a woman who made her way to the front of a crowd that quickly surrounded a visitor Wednesday. "They're shooting us. They're killing us. . . . They say it's safe now, but we know that's not true."

So the people here -- mostly women, children and the elderly -- are staying put, sleeping 40 to a room or under a few tents set up outside. The water is unclean, food is running out, and doctors in a makeshift clinic say they need more medicine to treat diarrhea -- and depression.

After days of ethnic clashes that left hundreds dead in the region, troops flown in by the country's fragile interim government fanned out Wednesday and appeared to make progress in restoring public order. But the minority Uzbeks continued to barricade themselves in their enclaves, and as the scale of the brutality against them began to emerge, it seemed unlikely that they would put their trust in the Kyrgyz authorities anytime soon.

"While the Kyrgyz seem to be getting back to normal, that's not the case for the Uzbeks," said Ole Solvang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who spent the day in Uzbek districts in Osh, the country's second-largest city. "What we've seen is that the Uzbek population still feels very frightened. They don't feel they have any kind of protection, and there's an enormous distrust in the government and its forces."

Aid not reaching Uzbeks

Such distrust has exacerbated a mounting refugee crisis, making it difficult for the government to persuade people to return home, while also preventing the hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid arriving in Osh from reaching the Uzbek settlements where it is needed most.

Kyrgyz officials say it is too dangerous for them -- and for Kyrgyz drivers -- to venture into those areas. They say they have been giving supplies to Uzbek community leaders instead. But the Uzbeks say they have received little to nothing from the authorities.

Human rights groups say the international community should send a neutral police or military force to establish a corridor for the delivery of aid.

More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates, and aid agencies say as many as 100,000 have crossed into Uzbekistan. But the Uzbek government closed its border to new refugees on Monday and issued an appeal for international assistance, saying it can't handle any more people.

Two U.N. planes carrying tents, blankets and other supplies arrived in Uzbekistan on Wednesday. But on the Kyrgyz side of the border, tens of thousands of people remained in places such as Vlksm, many sleeping on dirt in the open air. Aid workers in these crowded villages warn that conditions are becoming unsanitary and dysentery is beginning to spread.

"We don't have enough water, and we just ran out of anti-diarrhea medicine," said Kalisa Abdurasakva, a doctor who fled Osh and is treating patients in a mosque in the village of Sary-Tash.

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