Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan and forming the center of a Central Asian diplomatic storm, the men and women sweltering in tents here lived in Uzbekistan, the country next door. They came to the Kyrgyz border on foot the night of May 13, after Uzbek troops fired volley after volley into throngs of protesters gathered in the nearby trading city of Andijan.
Hundreds were killed. "We ran away from the death," said a construction worker who gave his name as Mohammadjan and told of seeing two nephews cut down by automatic weapons. "We came here hoping people will protect us from the death. But day by day, hope is declining."
The refugees fear that the Uzbek government will succeed in an intense campaign to have them sent back to the country they fled in terror. Four were quietly delivered to Uzbek agents in June. The fate of the remaining 450 has drawn so much attention that in some ways it recalls the 19th-century competition between the British and Russian empires for influence among rulers in the region.
In the current struggle, Uzbekistan has found allies in Russia and China, which share Uzbek President Islam Karimov's view that what happens inside a country's borders is the business of that country alone.
The three governments are leaning hard on tiny Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation that became a beacon for democratic aspirations in March when protesters abruptly overthrew its autocratic ruler. Some refugees said those events figured in the uprising in Andijan.
Western powers and international human rights activists are pushing hard for the Kyrgyz government to abide by international treaties safeguarding refugees and to refuse to ship the Uzbeks home to a country notorious for torture.
"It's all these heavy authoritarian regimes putting all this pressure on the one country that has the potential to be Central Asia's single functioning democracy," said Michael Hall, regional director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based advocacy group.
Carlos Zaccagnini, head of the Kyrgyzstan mission of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the international rivalries had helped create a spy-novel atmosphere and that the refugees were "hostages to the whole tale."
As the refugees tell it, while seated on thin mats on the floors of U.N. tents, the story is simple. They gathered in Andijan's public square not to overthrow Karimov, but to protest his government's heavy hand in their lives, especially the economy. The flash point was the trial of 23 businessmen on charges of supporting Islamic extremism. The Uzbek government felt threatened by the businessmen's economic success, many people here say.
"We were confident that nobody would shoot us," said Mohammadin, 50, a baker whose employer had been put out of business by the government. "The same situation occurred in Kyrgyzstan, and no one was killed."
When the Uzbek troops opened fire, from rooftops, armored personnel carriers and barricades, as many as 700 people were killed, according to witnesses and rights organizations.
"If Karimov catches us, he will tear us into small pieces," said Rano, 36, who left behind her husband and five children and, like most of the Uzbeks seeking asylum, declined to provide a full name.
Much about the Andijan episode remains murky. No one has identified the armed men who moved among the protesters (in contrast to the Kyrgyz uprising, which was essentially bloodless). The men abducted government officials, witnesses said, and used them as human shields.
Karimov, whose government has jailed thousands of religious activists, calls the demonstrators terrorists.
"That is his hobby. He calls everybody terrorists," said a refugee who gave her name as Nova. She gestured toward women sewing beaded bags as gifts for the aid workers and journalists who visit the camp, a tidy site tucked between foothills where Kyrgyz men are stationed, either as protectors or guards. "Do we look like terrorists?"
The most active radical Muslim group in Uzbekistan today is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which promotes a utopian fundamentalist vision of a worldwide caliphate but insists that it rejects violence. The group denies any involvement in the Andijan uprising.
In an interview, one prominent Hizb ut-Tahrir member alleged that agents of Uzbekistan's secret police came to the group in February offering cash to mount such an uprising in the city. "But we refused," Dilyor Jumabaev said in the interview on the Kyrgyz side of Kara-Suu, a border town. "They said they were sick and tired of Karimov's regime. But we said, 'After Karimov will come another Karimov.' We said such things are sin. We did not participate."
Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on Kyrgyzstan, which has a population of 5 million, compared with Uzbekistan's 26 million, and recognizes its neighbor's power. In the past, Uzbek troops have crossed the border in the name of chasing terrorists. The country has also cut off natural gas lines into Kyrgyzstan, a lifeline in the winter.
Uzbekistan is also pressuring the United States, sharply restricting flights to a U.S. air base in the country after the State Department condemned the Andijan shootings. This month, Russia and China joined other Central Asian countries in declaring that Washington should set a date for shuttering U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that were opened in advance of the war on Afghanistan.
U.S. officials warn that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not attend the upcoming inauguration of Kyrgyzstan's president-elect, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, if he turns over more refugees.
"People hope for a compromise," said Gulaki Mamasalieva, a civic activist in the southern city of Osh. Some residents there fear letting refugees stay would worsen pressure for land.
U.N. officials say the apparent solution lies in coaxing third countries to accept the refugees for resettlement. The priority is 29 refugees whom Kyrgyz authorities jailed at Uzbekistan's behest and who are believed to be in the most imminent danger. Jerzy Skuratowicz, the top U.N. official in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, said he was working to win Kyrgyzstan's approval of the third-country option.
Human rights groups noted with approval that Kazakhstan, the oil-rich behemoth that looms over Central Asia, recently defied Uzbekistan's demand that it extradite a prominent Andijan eyewitness.
Skuratowicz, noting Kyrgyzstan's successful election, said: "I would say this is the time when the change of the political elites has come. The question is how this change is taking place -- whether it's the old Soviet model, or some new ways are learned. These things are intertwined, and the roles of the big powers and the rivalries between them are having an impact."
Outside her tent, Nova saw it more simply. "They are playing with our souls," she said.