By Asyl Osmonalieva in Bishkek (RCA No. 594, 06-Nov-09)
No visitor to Altyn Kazyk, a shantytown on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, can ignore the stinking smoke rising from piles of smouldering waste. Residents say it floats over the settlement day and night, and it only takes half-an-hour here to induce a strong headache.
This is not the only health hazard threatening the collection of small, unpainted clay houses. There is a gas pipeline running along the edge of the waste dump, a burial site for sick livestock and some of the homes are even built on top of human graves.
But despite the harsh living conditions in Altyn Kazyk - which means Golden Tether, the Kyrgyz term for the North Star - locals are frightened that municipal plans to tear down the shanty town will leave them worse off than before. Residents are campaigning for their homes to be given legal status before they are demolished, thus guaranteeing them compensation or a plot of land.
Nyshanbubu, 57, lives in a house consisting of two rooms occupied by her extended family of seven - her son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.
Like the majority of the 1,000 settlers here, Nyshanbubu came from the impoverished south of Kyrgyzstan to seek work in the capital, located in the more economically-developed north of the country.
It pains her to talk about the difficulties her family subsequently faced as the money they earned was barely enough to cover rent and food. That is why they have ended up here. "We were tired of moving from one rented flat to another, paying fifty dollars every month," she said.
"When the land grab [by squatters] was going on, we decided to settle here. My son built this house with his own hands. But heavy physical work has damaged his health - last year he had an operation and one of his kidneys was removed," she continued.
Nyshanbubu's story was interrupted by the crying of her seven-month-old grandchild, lying in a makeshift cot by her side. The crib was covered with a worn-out blanket to protect him from the persistent flies, but to no avail.
Her daughter-in-law came out of the house to give him a bottle of milk, but he threw it up. He had not been well for the last several days, the grandmother said.
As bad as things are, her family is better off than the homeless people who live off the waste dump.
A neighbour who did not want to give her name explained how she and her family narrowly escaped that fate three years ago, when houses close to the main road were demolished to make way for a petrol station.
"People were crying and begging [the workmen] not to touch their houses," she recalled. "To save our houses from destruction, we blocked the road and took turns keeping vigil - lighting fires at night and sitting on the ground with arms linked during the day."
Now she fears that the part of the settlement closest to the waste dump - considered a high-risk zone - is up for demolition.
Altyn Kazyk is one of several illegal settlements that appeared around Bishkek following popular unrest in March 2005 when the then president Askar Akaev was ousted.
When President Kurmanbek Bakiev was elected in July the same year, and his government issued a decree stating that land was to be handed out for private and social housing. But the process was allegedly marred by corruption and was not entirely successful, so people began illegally taking over plots of land to build makeshift houses.
Tension is now mounting as residents feel they are under pressure from the authorities to move out. The squatters want to be given official ownership documents for their makeshift houses, despite the fact that they were built without permission.
They see obtaining ownership rights as the only way they will be able to force the authorities to compensate them.
Kalicha Umuralieva, an independent expert on housing and co-author of Kyrgyzstan's current housing legislation, says the authorities have been heavy-handed in evicting people from other squatter areas of the city.
"People have been forcibly evicted with the help of the police, and at all the press conferences the authorities have held, they've said these areas were needed to build multistorey social housing," she said.
These promises were not kept, claimed Umuralieva, "Instead, luxury housing has sprung up there. Landless and homeless people who wanted to acquire ownership of the plots of lands [they occupied] continue to knock on the doors of government agencies, moving from one rented accommodation to another and sinking deeper into poverty."
The situation has been further complicated by inconsistencies in the authorities' approach to the squatters. In Altyn Kazyk, where squatters are having difficulty claiming compensation, the land has little value due to the various health hazards. But residents note that other illegal settlers living on sought-after land in the southern suburbs did manage to get compensation.
Gulnur Abazbekova, who heads the department for the protection of ownership rights in the office of Kyrgyzstan's human rights ombudsman, says the authorities have to take some of the blame. She believes that a mixture of corruption and a lack of legal knowledge have contributed to the problems.
"It was the unscrupulousness and incompetence of bureaucrats that led in the end to the current deadlock," she said.
But when it comes to Altyn Kazyk, the position of Bishkek's city government is clear. Deputy mayor Andrei Filatov, told IWPR that the dangers associated with illegal settlements in hazardous areas mean that something has to be done immediately.
"The decision cannot be postponed anymore," he said. "Those houses that are clearly in risk zones have to be demolished."
Filatov said that the city administration is weighing up various solutions for the future of Altyn Kazyk's residents, and should present proposals within a month.
According to Filatov, if residents have to be re-settled then they will get plots of land in other areas, and compensation is also under consideration. But at the same time, Filatov emphasised that all these houses were built illegally.
Residents are opposed to any demolitions until they know what exactly they will be offered. They say mere proposals are not enough, and they fear the authorities will not honour their promises.
"Some time ago, the city authorities promised to make our land ownership legal, yet now they are saying we can't live there," said one Altyn Kazyk resident.
Residents cite cases where settlers have got lucky and managed to gain legal ownership of their homes.
But according to Filatov, it is difficult to apply the same principle to houses near to hazardous sites.
"No one's going to take responsibility for legalising settlements situated in zones that are at risk," he said. "God forbid there's an explosion on the gas pipeline resulting in fatalities. Who would take responsibility for that?"
Some residents are ready to relocate, such as a neighbour of Nyshanbubu who stressed he would do so only on condition he was guaranteed a plot of land elsewhere and a "red book" - a document setting out his legal right to it.
Nyshanbubu herself says she could not afford to move out even if she were offered another construction site.
"Even if they give us a plot of land in another area, we don't have the financial means or the moral or physical strength to build a new home. We're not moving out of here," she said.
Asyl Osmonalieva is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kyrgyzstan.