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Uzbekistan: Refugees Want To Return Only If Regime Changes

Suzaq refugee camp There are more than 400 Uzbeks in the Suzaq refugee camp near the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad. They fled last May after hundreds of civilians reportedly were killed in clashes with government troops in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon.

Jalal-Abad, 21 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It's not easy getting to the Suzaq camp, even though it's only about 12 kilometers from downtown Jalal-Abad.

The first problem is obtaining official permission to visit. The other problem is getting to the site itself. Half of the road is paved, and taxis run smoothly over it. But the other half is unpaved. And the ride is rough.

Located among the hills, the camp's rows of gray tents are visible at the entrance, where guards stand watch as Kyrgyz migration officials check documents.

Once in, the first tents house the men. They are inside, sitting or lying on mattresses. All look on curiously and greet their visitor.

Seated on benches under a roof near the tents is a group of women and young girls, doing embroidery with golden threads -- a typical Uzbek product and famous among foreigners and locals. They say they recently made an embroidered flag of Kyrgyzstan and sent it to the president, asking him not to send them back to Uzbekistan.

The women say they are worried about fate of 29 refugees who were recently taken from Suzaq to a detention center in the nearby city of Osh.

Uzbek authorities have been pressuring the Kyrgyz government to send the 29 men back, insisting they are criminals and terrorists.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and other international groups have called on Bishkek not to extradite the men, saying that it would violate international agreements that Kyrgyzstan has signed.

Refugees in Suzaq say they want to be sent together to the same country, just as long as it is not Uzbekistan.

"We were not acquainted before," one woman says about her friend. "But we escaped bullets together, we supported each other in hardship, we helped each other when we were in shock. We became like a single family. Some of us have no parents here, others left children behind. That's why we ask to be sent to a same country. This is our only request.

Most refugees tell RFE/RL that they would prefer to go back home -- but "only if the regime changes," as this 17-year-old girl says: "We will return if the regime changes and the president steps down. Otherwise, I am staying here with these people. Since [Islam] Karimov became president, life got harder. It's better to live in hardship [outside Uzbekistan]. I am going to stay here and bear all hardship but I want life to get better [crying] and want to go back to Uzbekistan, to Andijon some day."

The women tell stories of how they lived before coming here, what they were doing when the dramatic events of 13 May unfolded in Andijon -- and whom they left behind.

They speak articulate Uzbek, and most are also fluent in Russian; some speak other foreign languages. Several are former teachers. All wear either headscarves or the hijab, a Muslim headscarf. Some say they started covering their head in the camp, where it is difficult to keep their hair in good condition as they shower only once a week.

They also say they do not pray. Nor do the men pray together, as Muslim traditions require. Some do it individually.

Women say they also created a system of management in the camp.

The 29 year-old Noila is head of the tent for eight women. Her team is in charge of sorting out buckwheat for today's lunch. Women in the tent say men cook for the whole camp and women help them prepare ingredients.

"In order to make life easier, we organized it better. We elected a head of each tent and also commission members among women. Commission members, for example, receive humanitarian aid and distribute among others equally. I am a head of eight women. One of my tasks is to find out everyone's needs and tell it to commission members who, in turn, pass it on to the 'outside world,'" Noila said.

They say they have less work now than they had at home, but they do not seem bored or idle. There are also several children, including a seven-month-old sleeping in a cradle.

Their spirit also seems high. They all believe their cause is the right one, as 41-year old Maharamkhon says.

"If God is willing, we'll go back home when things will get better there. Because we are not guilty, we just wanted to demand our rights for the first time in 15 years [since Uzbekistan became independent]. We went to demonstrate because we thought democracy started [in Uzbekistan]. We were not worried when we went there, because we knew that in Kyrgyzstan no one had shot anybody. We wanted a better life, that's why we decided to tell [authorities] about our problems and our pain," Maharamkhon said.

After the first round of conversation and interviews, they start asking questions -- mostly about Uzbek politics.

Many ask if the U.S. government is going to pressure Uzbek authorities to conduct an independent investigation into the events in Andijon. The Uzbek government says 187 people were killed, many of them police, but witnesses and human rights groups say as many as 750 people were killed when Uzbek troops fired on peaceful protesters.

On the way back, several groups, including little children, sit in the shade of trees along the road to the camp.

They are relatives who came from Andijon to see their loved ones.