Uzbek refugees too afraid to return to their homes

The head of local police, Col. Kursan Asanov, center, leads a prayer for peace after negotiations, as he calls on ethnic Uzbeks to pull down a barricade between Uzbek and Kyrgyz districts in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on Friday.  (Associated Press)
The head of local police, Col. Kursan Asanov, center, leads a prayer for peace after negotiations, as he calls on ethnic Uzbeks to pull down a barricade between Uzbek and Kyrgyz districts in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on Friday. (Associated Press)

VLKSM, Kyrgyzstan – Ethnic Uzbeks sheltering in squalid tent camps say they don’t have enough food or clean water but are terrified of going back to live alongside those they hold responsible for days of shootings, arson and sexual assaults.

That air of suspicion was rife Friday among the hundreds of refugees crowded into gray canvas tents on a patch of arid scrub in this Kyrgyz village near the border with Uzbekistan.

“Where can we go now? Our belief in the future is dead,” said Mamlyakat Akramova, who lived in the center of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and the epicenter of the violence that broke out last week.

Entire Uzbek neighborhoods of southern Kyrgyzstan have been reduced to scorched ruins by rampaging mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz who forced nearly half of the region’s roughly 800,000 Uzbeks to flee for their lives.

The U.N. says as many as 1million people will need aid, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued an appeal Friday for $71million. “There are shortages of food, water and electricity in the affected areas, due to looting, lack of supply, and restrictions on movement,” he said. “Hospitals and other institutions are running low on medical supplies.”

The U.S. has released $32.2million to meet immediate needs, and Russia and France sent planeloads of relief gear to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where many have sought shelter from the violence.

The official death toll stood at about 200, but interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who toured the ravaged region Friday, said the real number is likely 10 times higher because many victims were buried quickly in keeping with Muslim tradition.

In the border village of VLKSM, where thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were living in tents or sleeping in the open air, many said they couldn’t bring themselves to return to their homes and live next to their attackers.

“This is our nation, this is a holy land, but I can’t live here anymore,” said Mukhabat Ergashova, a retiree who had taken shelter in a crowded tent.

Supplies of bread and rice were arriving from Uzbekistan, keeping the refugees from starvation. However, overcrowding, bad sanitary conditions and a shortage of clean water contributed to the spread of illness, and overwhelmed doctors struggled to treat outbreaks of diarrhea and other ailments with paltry medical supplies.

Thousands massed this week in VLKSM, a village just miles from Osh whose name is a Russian-language acronym for the Soviet Communist Youth League.

The United Nations estimates 400,000 people have fled their homes in the country’s south, and about 100,000 of them entered Uzbekistan.

By Friday, the huge crowds at the border had largely dispersed, with many taking refuge at the homes of fellow Uzbeks on the Kyrgyz side of the border, often sleeping more than a dozen to a room. Tens of thousands of others have crossed into Uzbekistan and settled into camps there.

In Osh, the atmosphere remained tense, with barricades of burned-out cars and debris blocking Uzbek neighborhoods. Still, some refugees risked coming back from Uzbekistan.

Uzbeks in Osh complained the government was doing too little to alleviate their suffering and said they were relying on small amounts of aid from Uzbekistan. Many refugees complained humanitarian supplies were being blocked and stolen by Kyrgyz officials.

Kyrgyz authorities have said the violence was sparked by associates of ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in April amid accusations of corruption and a crackdown on the opposition. The U.N. has said the unrest appeared orchestrated but has stopped short of assigning blame.

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