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

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 17, 2010; 7:28 AM

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.

The U.N. humanitarian office said Thursday that the number of people uprooted by the unrest in Kyrgyzstan had reached 400,000, the Associated Press reported from Geneva. Aid agencies say as many as 100,000 have crossed into Uzbekistan.

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.

"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.

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.

Because only limited supplies have been forthcoming from the Kyrgyz, she said, the village has relied in part on aid passed by relatives through barbed wire running along the Uzbek border.

She said more than 50 people who arrived in the village had died of injuries sustained during the clashes, including severe burns and gunshot and stab wounds. Bakhtikhan Suleimanova, a nurse at the clinic, said she treated three girls, ages 9 to 17, who had been sexually assaulted.

Isolation and anger

Uzbek men are largely absent from these border villages; most have stayed in Osh to defend what is left of their homes and neighborhoods. On Wednesday, they could be seen reinforcing the barricades set up to keep Kyrgyz out, blocking streets with trucks, buses and trees they cut down.

None of them appeared to be armed, as many residents noted when pointing out that the Kyrgyz had attacked them with automatic weapons and armored vehicles. The Uzbeks also said many of the assailants wore police and military uniforms.

The Kyrgyz government has denied that its forces led or allowed the violence, saying that the crowds overran police stations and seized weapons and uniforms. But it has also said that its forces in the south are poorly trained and perhaps more loyal to the recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whom the government has accused of instigating the violence in a bid to return to power.

The fear and anger expressed by Uzbeks in the border villages and the barricaded city enclaves seemed heightened by their isolation. Many fumed about one-sided coverage in Kyrgyz media and were unaware that the brutality against them had received international attention.

Several Uzbeks cast the attacks as part of a long history of discrimination, noting that they have little to no representation in the Kyrgyz government, military or police, even though they account for nearly half the population in the south.

Many said they would feel safe only if foreign peacekeepers arrived, and they demanded an international probe into what they characterized as ethnic cleansing, warning of further violence if they don't get justice.

"The people who did this must be tried and punished," said Akbaratiyev Zafar, 49, an Uzbek construction engineer. "And if no one does that, we'll judge them ourselves. We'll kill, kill, kill."

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