JALAL-ABAD, 5 July (IRIN) - Hundreds of Uzbek asylum seekers in southern Kyrgyzstan appear resigned to not seeing their homeland again for years and are looking forward to a rosier future following indications from the office for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they may soon be settled in a third country.
"Thanks Allah, at last we have something. One-and-a-half months ago we had nothing, that was the worst thing," a young woman from the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan said in the Sasyk-Bulak camp. The camp is in the Suzak district of the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalal-Abad.
The girl, less than 18, like the majority of Uzbek exiles in the camp, preferred not to give her name fearing that Uzbek security forces may trace her relatives in Uzbekistan and persecute them.
Over 500 Uzbeks crossed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border early on 14 May 2005, the day after Uzbek security forces violently suppressed protests in Andijan. The Uzbek government said that the death told was 176, including security force personnel, but rights groups claimed that almost 1,000 unarmed civilians may have been shot in and around Andijan by Uzbek police and soldiers.
Initially, Kyrgyz authorities placed them in an improvised camp in the Teshik-Tash area only 500 meters from the border. Three weeks later the camp was moved further from the border for security reasons following reports that Uzbek secret service personnel had been seen near the camp. The current camp is only 20 km from the provincial capital. Some 430 asylum seekers are currently living there. None want to go back to Uzbekistan and all have submitted applications for refugee status and are waiting for a decision from Bishkek.
GROUP OF 29
The fate of 29 Uzbeks who were taken from the camp under suspicion of being criminals and who remain in custody in the southern city of Osh, remained undecided on Tuesday.
"The issue of 29 Uzbek asylum seekers currently held in the detention centre in Osh is still under consideration," Lira Sabyrova, a spokeswoman for the Kyrgyz foreign ministry, told IRIN from the capital, Bishkek on Tuesday.
However, a Kyrgyz local official who did not want to be identified said that the Kyrgyz government would probably give in and send back the whole group to ease strained relations with Uzbekistan.
"The Uzbek authorities' argument is that the 29 were involved in the killing of law enforcement officials in Andijan on 13 May, along with extremist activities. The Kyrgyz government is a party to the Minsk Treaty - signed by most former Soviet republics to extradite criminals to another signatory state, so they are under pressure from Tashkent to deport that group," the official said.
LIFE IN THE ASYLUM SEEKERS' CAMP
Some of the young women at the camp are finding ways of taking their mind off the situation, by working at their weaving and embroidery.
"Our guys made the [weaving] equipment; lots of them are masters of trades, including joiners and carpenters. As for materials, fabrics and threads, UNHCR provided them," one said as she sat cross legged in a tent working on an embroidered skullcap.
But the men have not found any useful way of spending their time. Some cook, most drink tea and wander from one endless conversation to another about the situation back home, the fate of relatives and friends and what the future holds for the group that have been branded dangerous Islamic terrorists by Tashkent.
"Certainly, it is very boring [for the asylum seekers]," Abdumalik Sharipov, a rights activist from the local Spravedlivost (Justice) NGO based in Jalal-Abad, said. "We provided them with some books. I wanted to bring newspapers but that was forbidden," Sharipov maintained.
The other activity consists of discussions with representatives of local NGOs and international organisations, who often visit the camp. People coldly recount what they have gone through again and again, recalling the smallest details, as foreign visitors scribble in notebooks or put microphones in front of the group's representatives, before muttering support and disappearing back to the capital.
NEW VOICES CONFIRMING A MASSACRE IN ANDIJAN
A senior police officer in Andijan has given an account of the 13 May violence that tallies with eyewitness reports of massive, deliberate killings of civilians, rather than the government's sanitised version.
The officer approached journalists from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) an international NGO based in London promoting free media, with his story, saying he and many of his fellow officers on the city force were shocked at the order to open fire on crowds of protestors, and were ashamed at the outcome.
But they do not dare voice their concerns in public. The officer, who holds a high position on the Andijan force, has not been named or his post identified in the IWPR report as he fears he would suffer immediate reprisals.
"I'm taking a bigger risk than you," the policeman told IWPR's contributor as the interview got under way. "But I can't remain silent."
Claiming that 4,500 people may have died that day, a figure far higher than estimates by human rights activists which run into several hundred, let alone the government's data which suggest about 170 dead, the policeman gave gory details of how security forces carried out the assault.
RELATIONS WITH HOST COMMUNITY
Conditions in the camp are relatively good.
"We do not have any problems in terms of living conditions," Abubakir Alimov, an old man from the Andijan suburb of Bagi-Shamal, and unofficial spaceman for the group, said.
"Thanks to Allah, the international community, the UN, the Kyrgyz authorities - they have all provided assistance. There are hot meals, we are free to see physicians and lawyers, but time passes slowly."
Last month he turned diplomat as he tried to head off protest from local Kyrgyz villagers who had delivered an ultimatum for the camp residents to to leave the territory of Kyrgyzstan within three days threatening to kick them out by force if they failed to do so.
Local people were concerned that the asylum seekers might be harbouring criminals, religious extremists and escaped convicts. The exiles have been consistently been portrayed as such by Uzbek state media, widely transmitted heard and watched in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Much of the local adversity towards the Uzbek visitors was born of ignorance, Alimov said. "A week after the ultimatum, a delegation of local residents came to visit us. Women got together at one place, old men had their conversations in their own group, the youth talked in their circle and kids started playing together."
"Next time they came with gifts or fruit and bread, they realised we were just ordinary people, not terrorists," the old man recalled.
PRESSURE TO RETURN TO ANDIJAN
But there is still pressure from across the border, the group assert. There have been incidents of intimidation and threats from Uzbek security personnel seen hanging around the camp. Uzbek authorities and law enforcement bodies regularly cross the border and show up at the camp with relatives of the exiles and promise no harm will come to them if they return, one of the young men, who declined to give his name, said.
"Our relatives ask us to come home in the presence of the officials, but when we are alone, they whisper in our ears, 'stay here, you are not safe at home [in Andijan] God willing, we will meet sometime'," he said.
A group of young men playing volleyball on a patch of ground just outside the camp said these kind of tactics were having a bad psychological impact on the group.
"This is so hard for us as we all long to go home and we all worry all the time about what is happening to our families and relatives. But now there is no going back, not until there is regime change and the truth about this massacre is allowed to surface," one player shouted.
Almost all of the asylum seekers would like to stay in Kyrgyzstan if and when they receive refugee status.
"But if this country rejects us, we will have no other choice but seek asylum in another country," said Ismail, a 25-year-old inhabitant of the camp from Andijan.
"Young guys would like to try their fortune in foreign lands, preferably in Europe. They heard that in Germany there is demand for builders, carpenters and stone masons. They know that in that country and others there are several millions labour migrants from Turkey and the former Soviet Union. Also they know there is no discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. They like that," Ismail added.
The possibility of third country settlement has been discussed but most of the Uzbeks think there would be much cultural adjustment needed.
"Canada [and] Australia are just a fantasy, though that could be possible for some of us. All we want is not to be returned to Uzbekistan," concluded a groups of women preparing the evening meal over open fires.
Settlement in Kazakhstan has been mooted, but the idea doesn't meet with much approval.
"No we don't really want to go there [to Kazakhstan], the country is richer and there is more freedom than in Uzbekistan, but it is too close to Tashkent," the women, said speaking with one voice.
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