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Some of the 41 returnees in Pittsburgh hours before they departed for their homeland early on August 24 (RFE/RL)
PRAGUE, August 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Forty-one Uzbek nationals are on their way back to their homeland from the United States. The refugees had been resettled with UN assistance following their flight after violence in eastern Uzbekistan was met with a bloody crackdown by security troops.
Rights groups call the events in Andijon in May 2005 a "massacre" of innocents, and fear official reprisal against anyone suspected of having a hand in the violence. But bolstered by the experience so far of 12 fellow Uzbeks who returned from the U.S. in July, the latest returnees boarded a bus on August 23 to take them to the airport for the long flight home.
More than a year after the bloodshed in Andijon, this batch of returnees is weary -- and appears convinced that Uzbek authorities won't harass them.
Sanjarbek, one of the 41 Uzbeks on their way to Uzbekistan, spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before boarding a bus to New York's JFK Airport.
"We are leaving because we are homesick," Sanjarbek said. "We miss our parents, wives, and children. We spoke to them in Uzbekistan over the phone. They told us, 'There is no danger, we just miss you badly. There are [going to be] no difficulties. You can return and live as before.' So we decided to go."
Guarantees Of Safety
Sanjarbek said officials from the Uzbek Embassy in Washington have been closely involved in preparing their return -- mostly from Pennsylvania, but also from Ohio and Maryland. He said Uzbek officials guaranteed their safety on their return.
"Of course, Uzbekistan has guaranteed that there will be no persecution. We have trusted them. We trust them 100 percent," Sanjarbek said. "We are returning with hopes that there will be no persecution and that we will be received very warmly. God willing,... a bus will come here and take us to New York. From New York, we will fly to Tashkent; and on [August 25], at around 6 p.m., we will arrive there. Most of the returnees are Andijanis; there is one person from Tashkent region and two people from Kokand."
Sanjarbek insisted that the treatment extended to 12 refugees who returned from the United States in mid-July bears out the government assurances.
Acquaintances of those 12 returnees have said that, in addition to being safe, four female returnees received notes on the pending release of their husbands -- who have been jailed after the Andijon bloodshed in Uzbekistan.
The guarantees don't seem to have convinced four members of the Pittsburgh group who are not heading home, however. Abdumannob is one of the four. He said he is eager to embark on a new life in the United States.
"I'm staying with the other men -- four of us are staying," Abdumannob said. "I want to study, to get an education. I've seen so much here. America is good. There are many good things."
Bahodir Fayz emigrated from Uzbekistan in the 1990s and now lives in the United States. He helped prepare the 41 returnees' trip home. He told RFE/RL that relatives warned the four men who are staying that they would not be safe in Uzbekistan.
"I spoke to all four men, including Abdumannob," he said. "He told me his elder brother had called him from Kyrgyzstan and told him not to return. [His brother] said: 'The Uzbek government should not be trusted; it could be lying. It might not do anything to you now, but later [authorities] are likely to cause lots of trouble. So don't return.' After that warning, Abdumannob decided to stay. So did the other three refugees. They are not going back."
Fayz claimed that some of the returnees expressed reluctance to go back but have been pressured by others in the group.
All of the returnees claim to have been on the central square in Andijon when government troops opened fire on thousands of demonstrators. They escaped the bullets and sought refuge -- first in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, then with UN help in Romania. They were eventually resettled in various cities in the United States. U.S. authorities have reportedly been assisting efforts to bring their families from Uzbekistan.
Why Return Now?
Fayz said homesickness and the difficulties of adapting to a new country and culture are contributing factors. But he claimed the refugees' concern for their families is the driving force.
Fayz accused the Uzbek government of harassing the Andijon refugees' relatives.
"[The returnees] have been blackmailed," Fayz charged. "As you know, the relatives of some of them are jailed in Uzbekistan. Some were imprisoned before the Andijon events; others [were jailed] in connection with Andijon. Some of the [returnees] have been told that their sons might be released, or punishments eased and prison terms reduced."
Some reports from Central Asia suggest that the alleged leader of the Islamic group at the heart of the trials that sparked the Andijon unrest has issued a letter urging members abroad to return. Reputed Akramiya leader Akram Yuldoshev has been serving a prison term in Uzbekistan since 1999.
Uzbek authorities accused Akramiya of organizing a "terrorist mutiny" in Andijon and Yuldoshev of masterminding it from behind bars.
The Andijon refugees deny the existence of Akramiya, much less any letter from its purported leader.
Uzbek officials have not commented on the case of the 41 returnees. But they stressed in July that the first 12 returnees were coming back voluntarily.
An unnamed source within the Foreign Ministry was quoted by Russian news agency Regnum as suggesting that the 12 returnees were not suspected of involvement in the Andijon violence. The same source said the refugees had been "deceived and taken out of the country."
Uzbek state television on on August 18 featured some of those 12 returnees saying they were happy to be back and criticizing the U.S. lifestyle.
The report called the returnees "disillusioned" by their experiences abroad. It also claimed foreign media coverage of the Andijon events was "biased" and "ordered by certain destructive forces."
Not everyone in Andijon welcomed the return of the first 12 refugees.
"Uzbek leaders are very skillful at this kind of game," a 75-year-old woman told RFE/RL. "The returnees will definitely have problems. I don't understand them. Why did they flee, and why return? People are saying they were on television because the government is using them; they will appear on television again many times, [and] the government will continue to use them. [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov is very skillful at this kind of thing."
Human rights groups and UN officials have expressed concern over the returnees' plight. But it is clear that the ultimate decision is the refugees', and outsiders can only hope for the best.
"About this particular case, I can't comment," said Maureen Greenwood-Basken, who is with Amnesty International in the United States. "But I certainly would hope that all the refugees are being awarded full protection within the Unites States as refugees, and that I would hope that there would be no element of coercion for them to return to their country of origin."