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Central Asia: Uzbek Family Finds Itself Suddenly Straddling Turkmen Border

  • Bruce Pannier --> A joint Turkmen-Uzbek commission recently finished demarcating the two countries' northern border. The agreement clarifies what was previously a poorly marked area. But it may not satisfy all the residents of the border region. RFE/RL looks at one family that finds itself suddenly divided.

Prague, 18 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Brothers Hayitbai and Arabai Almuratov have lived on the same plot of land now for many years. The land is owned by the family -- but one brother is on one side of a courtyard, and one is on the other side.

Now they cannot even approach each other, as soldiers have taken up residence on what was once their property, dividing one family member from the other. The two Uzbek brothers and their homes have not moved, the Turkmen-Uzbek border has -- right through the middle of their property.

Hayitbai, now a resident of Turkmenistan, described the situation to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "Now, there is a section of barbed wire between us," he said. "If we try to cross the border, the Turkmen guards say they will shoot us."

There are, of course, Uzbek border guards on the other side of the courtyard.
None of Central Asia's borders, arbitrarily drawn up by Soviet planners in the 1920s and 1930s, are fully demarcated nearly 13 years after independence.

The joint Turkmen-Uzbek commission for delimitation of the common border recently agreed to return some 18,000 hectares of land to Turkmenistan. None of Central Asia's borders, arbitrarily drawn up by Soviet planners in the 1920s and 1930s, are fully demarcated nearly 13 years after independence. The land in question was technically used by Uzbekistan, according to Soviet plans. Ownership was never really clear, but since both were republics of the Soviet Union, it didn't matter.

At the start of this month Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov toured Turkmenistan's northeastern Balkan Province, which has grown in size as a result of the demarcation. He had a message for the people of what is now indisputably Turkmenistan: "If you want, go to Uzbekistan. If you want, get Turkmen citizenship and stay here. Of course, they will stay here. We have free gas, free electricity. People are happy here."

Neither country is a particularly appealing choice. To the east, in Uzbekistan, is the Karakalpak Autonomous Region, one of the poorest areas of Central Asia. The drying Aral Sea to the north has left alkaline soil flying in the strong winds. The Amu-Darya River, which passes through the area, carries with it an abundance of poisonous fertilizer residue, pesticides, and other chemicals.

Allayar Jumaboev, a 76-year-old man, said he wants to stay in the Karakalpak region, but said he's likely to take Turkmen citizenship. "We would stay in Karakalpakiya. If the Uzbek government gives us a good pension, we will stay," he said. "If not, we will go to Turkmenistan. They would give us $50 a month [for a pension]. Can Uzbekistan give that? No. Where would they give us that kind of money?"

Yoldash Ata is Jumaboev's neighbor. He too said life in Turkmenistan is preferable. "How much land there is [in Turkmenistan], and you can grow what you want without paying taxes," he said. "Free gas, free electricity, no taxes of your herds…it's great! You get millions and millions [of Turkmen manta] as a pension! There are beggars in Karakalpakiya -- no bread, no money -- many beggars. Tashkent and Kazakhstan are full of beggars who came from Karakalpakiya."

For pensioners the situation may look more attractive in Turkmenistan, but for younger people the thought of living in politically restrictive Turkmenistan may have less appeal.

Bilateral relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are poor. The Turkmen government has hinted it suspects that the Uzbek government aided in the apparent assassination attempt made on Niyazov in November 2002.

Some Uzbek residents living near the new border say they fear they could even be deported as other ethnic Uzbek families have been in recent months. Hayitbai said an ultimatum has already been delivered to his family. "Five officers, without showing any identification or authorization, just came in and started surveying our home," he said. "They told us we must move within five days."

Muhabbat Apa is Hayitbai's wife. She described just how difficult and under what conditions the family must now try to move to a new location. "How much can we move in five days?” she asked. “If we don't move in five days the soldiers said they would come and throw us and our bed into Uzbekistan. Where can we go? We have four children. We have grandchildren also. Where can we go? What kind of life is this that we cannot go to weddings and visit relatives? How can we stay in Turkmenistan? They said move to the Amudarinsk region [in Uzbekistan], to the Kirbazar district, there will be new homes built there, but people said they have no money there, no material for building anything. We would be hunting for salt and bread. We just built a new home here and we have no money to build a new one."

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry said the issue is still open and in any event people would not have to decide on the matter so quickly.

(Shukrat Bobojonov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)