Kyrgyzstan Forcibly Repatriating Uzbek Refugees
The elderly women curled up in a chair looks haggard. She lost her husband and her eldest son in the Andijan massacre of Friday, May 13th, when the Uzbek Army opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing hundreds. They left in the morning from our kishliak (village) to participate in the demonstration and they never returned, she sobs. Agents of the USB (Uzbek Security Bureau) went house-to-house in her village, harrassing the families of the dead and the missing. They threatened me. They said that if my husband and my son didn’t come back, they’d throw me in prison.
Terrified, she sent her remaining three children to live with friends and relatives and fled to Kyrgyzstan on May 20th. She walked all night then crossed the frontier at a place well known to local smugglers, where the barbed wire has been cut with a chainsaw. Like all clandestine refugees from Andijan in the area of Osh, an ancient city of bazaars in southern Kyrgyzstan, this traumatized woman did not wish to give her name or the name of her village. The fear of police reprisals against the families who remain in Uzbekistan is shared by all the refugees, who are afraid of being forcibly repatriated by the Kyrgyz authorities.
Officially some 500 people, crowded into a camp of a few dozen military tents in a muddy glen near the village of Kara Daria and watched by a detachment of Kyrgyz special forces, arrived from Andijian into southern Kyrgyzstan. All the attention of the foreign media and international organizations, the Red Cross, the UN High Commission on Refugees has been focused on this group.
In reality, refugees from Andijan present in Kyrgyzstan are far more numerous. Several thousand people have left Uzbekistan since May 13th. These displaced persons, fleeing a new wave of arrests across the region of Andijian, are hidden with families, in apartments and in squats throughout the region of Osh and Jalalabad. They live in fear of manhunt by Uzbek secret agents and the predilection of Kyrgyz border guards to send them back to Uzbekistan against their will.
As "democratic" as they are claimed to be, the new authorities in Kyrgyzstan, the result of the 24 March revolution which toppled President Akaev, seem to have set as their priority in this regional crisis to appease its imposing Uzbek neighbor. Little Kyrgyzstan (a population of 5 million) lives in dread of Islam Karimov, the Uzbek satrap who, with a population of 25 million, commands the largest army in central Asia.
The crisis is all the more dramatic given the artificial boundaries imposed by Stalin in the 1920s. The region of southern Kyrgyzstan has a large Uzbek minority (500,000 people). The memory of the violent interethnic violence of June 1990 in Osh between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz involving the distribution of plots of land and housing make the Kyrgyz authorites unwilling to welcome refugees from Andijan.
Dozens of cases of forced repatriation have been reported. Our information indicates that 85 people have been forcibly expelled across the Uzbek frontier, says Edil Baïssalov, a young Kyrgyz democracy activist who directs an NGO called Coalition. Our leaders claim that no one has been repatriated against their will, but it is a lie. I personally rescued 4 people by hiding them in my apartment in Osh when Kyrgyz soldiers deployed to the Kara Daria camp began to round them up to transfer them to Uzbek “security”. Every day Uzbek refugees arriving in small groups have identified themselves in to Kyrgyz authorities at the Kara Daria encampment thinking they would receive assisstance. Those poor people are completely unaware of the risk they are running…of being betrayed and sent back to Uzbekistan!, laments Baïssalov.
The fate reserved to Uzbek prisoners is well known: torture and often death await them. The number of 85 forced repatriations since 14 may was confirmed to an AP reporter in the Kara Daria encampment by Colonel Abdurakhmonov. If we let them all come here, they won’t be 500, they’ll be 5,000, he explains.
In his office in Osh, the new “democratic” regional governor Anvar Artikov reacts with unease when asked about forced repatriations. He is of Uzbek origin and denies forcible expulsions but adds: If we identify any “bandits” among the refugees, we expel them. We work in close cooperation with Uzbek intelligence because it is crucial for us that the troubles in Uzbekistan don’t lead to destabilization in Kyrgyzstan as we prepare for the presidential elections scheduled for July.
Western nations have asked Kyrgyzstan to guarantee the protection of refugees from Andijan. Interviewed in Osh where he has been hiding for two days, a miller from Ferghana Valley with a bullet wound to his thigh says he is full of mistrust and fears being handed over to Karimov’s henchmen. Over there, the USB is sieving through village after village and has arrested dozens of people. On the night of 13 May, I lay for 2 hours among the dead before daring to get up and flee. If I go back, they will kill me as they have killed dozens of others.