Jalal-Abad Oblast, Kyrgyzstan; 20 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is a common belief in Central Asia that societal respect for women generally exempts them from harassment from police -- at border checkpoints, in markets, and even during protests.
Gulnoza, an Uzbek woman who is now living in a makeshift camp in Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abad province, describes the mindset of the women who took to the streets of Andijon on 13 May:
"We went to demonstrate because [the authorities] have raised the fees for gas and electricity, and to demand increase in pensions and salaries a bit," she says. "We demonstrated to demand a dignified life. My husband has been in Russia for two years. I have a child. I myself was sick and recovered recently. I went to the district committee to ask for help. They did not give me even one som [Uzbek currency]. A child until the age of 16 is entitled to a mere 3,300 soms [about $4]. They did not pay social benefits, they did not even lower the fees for gas at least for 50 percent. I haven't heard from my husband in two years. We went to protest because life has become unbearable."
But what had been intended to be a peaceful protest against worsening living conditions soon transformed into what is now often referred to by Uzbeks as "Bloody Friday."
"Women who gave birth to five, eight children will never lie," one Uzbek woman says. "Nobody [from the authorities] came [to speak to demonstrators]. There was [only] the prosecutor of Andijon and a representative of the SNB [National Security Service] who spoke to us. [Then] they started shooting at the unarmed women who were sitting around the square."
An estimated 3,000 people fled the violence in Andijon by foot -- seeking refuge about 40 kilometers away in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
A camp was set up to provide shelter for the more than 500 who safely made it across the border to Kyrgyzstan. There they were provided blankets, food, and electricity. Around 20 people were hospitalized with injuries they sustained in the violence.
Ten children and 82 women were among the refugees at the camp. An RFE/RL correspondent spoke to some of them to hear their harrowing accounts of how the events of 13 May unfolded.
"We came to demonstrate and to stay there if necessary for one month, one week, or 10 days," one woman says. "We women, children, had no weapons. We did not think they would shoot at women. We went out because of difficulties. [When they started shooting] without warning, we dropped on the ground covering our kids with our bodies."
"We went [to the demonstration in Andijon] while sacrificing our lives for our rights," another woman says. "Blood flowed like river."
Umidakhan, a midwife from Andijon, describes the scene: "It was so horrible that our own soldiers opened fire on us. [They were shooting] at women, their own mothers and grandmothers. We escaped into Kyrgyzstan while bullets were raining down on us."
There are reports saying that some refugees were targeted by Uzbek soldiers near the border. This is how refugee women described how they reached Kyrgyz territory: "[In Andijon] there were corpses lying all around us. Women around us were killed. In the evening women left [the town] on foot. [It was raining, so] our shoes sank in the mud. We left at 5 p.m., we arrived in Jalal-Abad [in Kyrgyzstan] early in the morning."
"My husband, five children, my parents and brothers are left behind in Andijon. Others, girls, all women [are here]. Thank you. Thank God, we made it here," a refugee named Tursunai says.
"After crossing the border we hesitated, not knowing whether to return or come here. We did not know how Kyrgyzstan would receive us. We came here by foot," a refugee named Mahfuza says.
But their fears were unfounded, and they are now thankful for the sanctuary they were provided by the Kyrgyz state. Mahfuza describes their reception in Kyrgyzstan: "Very good. When we saw [the Kyrgyz] soldiers, we thought they might shoot at us as well. We kept wondering about what to do next. [We said to ourselves]: 'Let us women not die under fire here.' So we dragged on. [But] we were received very well. Thank you!"
The women are grateful for the help they have received, but long for their homeland. Under current circumstances though, they fear that it would be unsafe to return home. "Our aim is to return to our homeland, if there is peace," one woman says. "But there is no peace there. It is dangerous to go back. How do we return if they are shooting [at us]?!"
Many are concerned that if the situation in Uzbekistan continues to worsen, Kyrgyzstan might be flooded with refugees.
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu said this week that as many as 1 million Uzbeks could attempt to flee to Kyrgyzstan. Such a situation would greatly affect the Kyrgyz economy unless international organizations step in to help alleviate the burden.
By yesterday, local doctors were warning that unsanitary conditions could lead to a spread of infectious diseases at the camp, where water and hygienic items for women are in short supply.
(RFE/RL Jalal-Abad correspondent Yrysbay Abdyraimov contributed to this report.)[For more on these events, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan]Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.See also:
Kyrgyzstan: Aid Worker Describes Refugee Conditions
Central Asia: Are Governments Too Quick To Blame Unrest On Islamic Militants?
What Really Happened On Bloody Friday?
Where Does Crisis Go From Here?
Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs
Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon
Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions
Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'