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Uzbekistan: Refugees Face Uncertain Future In Camp

  • Bruce Pannier

The other side of the coin in any military conflict is the specter of refugees, the innocent people who get caught in the crossfire. The situation in Central Asia this summer and autumn, where government soldiers are clashing with Islamic militants, is no different. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier visits two refugee camps in Uzbekistan, the country where much of the fighting has taken place. He reports the mood is glum, as residents ponder when -- and if -- they'll return home.

Uzun, Uzbekistan; 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two men, each more than 70 years old, walk to the middle of a small grass square, look each other in the eye and lunge toward one another. The battle, called "kurash," is slow and at times comical as these two "aksokol," or white beards, try to throw each other to the ground.

Welcome to the refugee camp in Uzun, eastern Uzbekistan. The main event this Wednesday night is just beginning -- and more events are on the card tonight.

But for the more than 500 people evacuated recently to the camp from homes in the mountains near the border with Tajikistan, thoughts are focused less on the battle before them and more on the battle they left behind. Many are wondering when that battles will end and they can go home.

Most of these refugees were evacuated in the first half of August, when armed fighters from a group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, appeared in Uzbekistan's southeastern mountains. The Uzbek army has the IMU fighters surrounded and is waiting for time and hunger to drive them out of their hiding places. For the moment, the government troops have won the battle, but they are not ready yet to say it is all over.

More than 1,200 people were evacuated from the conflict zone and now live in two camps. The other camp is in Labiyo, close to the Tajik border.

Back in Uzun, the entertainment continues. The old men have surrendered the field of battle to teenage males. The next wrestling match begins and it becomes apparent just how serious kurash can be. Eyes are blackened, clothing ripped and even some blood spilled. When one wrestler breaks what few rules there are, the two referees threaten to beat him with sticks.

The crowd is temporarily riveted. The two men represent different villages and the match is easily as important to the spectators as the Olympic games themselves.

The deputy mayor of Uzun, Jura Jalilov, is among the spectators on this night. As a leading official of the town, he is responsible for the refugees. He says the people are being well cared for. They get three meals a day and have access to essential medical care.

Jalilov says most of the people here are from regions so remote that many have never seen electric lights, let alone the television sets they can watch now. And, of course, if television is not enough there are always the kurash matches, as well as karate matches and soccer.

Jalilov says the Uzbek government is constructing new homes for the refugees in the nearby Sherabad region, which he says they hope to have ready by November.

It's not clear though how eager the residents of the camp are to be relocated again. Most would rather go to their original homes, or at least build something on their own near Uzun. One woman says she's not interested in going to Sherabad:

"They decided to resettle us in Sherabad region, but we do not want this. Let them give the possibility to at least build places for ourselves in Sariasiyo (the next town from Uzun)."

She may speak for many in Uzun, and similar sentiments are visible in the other camp at Labiyo, home to about 700 displaced persons.

On Thursday morning, the scene in Labiyo is much different from that in Uzun the night before. Children are attending school but there is not much for older people to do. One aksokol offers to play on his "dutar," a two-stringed instrument. Other old men sit on either side of him and he starts to play.

Eventually, he is joined by a young man who sings to the tune from the dutar. But the song is sad. He sings about being forced to leave home with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and many people weep openly.

The sadness of the song does not stop the crowd from rewarding the musicians with applause for their efforts, but there is no joy in the air when the musicians stop.

For refugees in both camps, there is little hope they may return home any time soon. The army has put land mines throughout the valleys and ravines near their villages to stop militant incursions. The fact the Uzbek government is building new homes for the refugees seems a strong indication that some may never go back.

(Mirosrar Akhrarov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)