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Kyrgyzstan: One Year After Spill, The Problems Remain

By Bruce Pannier and Naryn Idinov

Today, inhabitants of the remote Kyrgyz village of Barskoon are recalling the events of exactly a year ago that changed their lives. What happened then and in the 12 months since is the stuff of thriller books or movie scripts: an innocent village, a big mining company, corrupt officials, environmental disaster, cover-ups, and the eventual collision with the law.

Prague, 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kyrgyz village of Barskoon, near the Chinese border, was once a modern-day idyll. It's nestled on the south shore of Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan's largest lake and most popular tourist attraction. Behind the village, the Tien Shan mountains climb quickly to 5,000 meters.

As befits its remote location, the people of Barskoon lead simple lives. Many survive solely from growing apples. There's electricity but no running water -- only the small Barskoon River which cuts the village in two and then spills into Issyk-Kul.

There isn't much to do in Barskoon except work during the day and play chess, read or listen to the radio at night. The villagers entertain the rare visitor with stories from the days of Alexander the Great, or the time when Genghiz Khan himself visited the lake.

But life began to change a few years ago.

There's a large gold mine in the high mountains not far from the village at Kumtor. The site was discovered when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic, but as the site is located 4,000 meters above sea level, no work was done. Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991 and not long after foreign prospectors arrived in this previously forbidden land. One was Canada's Cameco Corporation, which later signed a contract with the Kyrgyz government to mine the gold.

The mine has brought undeniable benefits. The Kumtor operation accounts for more than a third of Kyrgyz exports and, along with its support industries, has been the driving force behind huge increases in industrial output in the last two years.

The operation employs mostly local citizens and pays them a higher than average wage. The Kumtor Gold Company also re-paved the highway from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to the mining site and upgraded communications systems along the way and helped fund new schools and medical centers in areas around Issyk-Kul. Barskoon certainly profited from this as it is located where the trucks from the company turn off the main road and begin their climb through the mountains to the mining site.

One year ago today, one of those trucks passed through the village and overturned, falling into the river and spilling 1.7 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide into the water. There are several versions of what happened next, but it's enough to say that in the confusion no one thought to warn the inhabitants downstream.

Word of the spill only reached the villagers five hours after the accident. It did not take long before people began to fall ill. Eventually, the entire village was evacuated to the northern shore of Issyk-Kul while clean-up operations were conducted in Barskoon.

The deaths of four people are blamed on the spill and hundreds more were admitted to hospitals. After a month, government officials pronounced the area safe and stopped providing free medical services.

Since their crops were deemed unsuitable for consumption, the Barskoon villagers were promised compensation. But that compensation was slow in coming. Aidarbek Kochkunov, the adviser to the chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament's commission on human rights, told RFE/RL by telephone this week that some villagers are still waiting.

"Some inhabitants of Barskoon received compensation in the amount of 500-1,000 som ($12.5-25). Others are promised this but have not yet received it."

The company also promised to either build a new medical center or improve the existing one and to provide medical care. Kochkunov said this promise too, has not been fully realized.

"They (the company and government) built a medical facility but only one doctor works there and there are shortages of everything, shortages of medicine. Medicine is expensive and the people of Barskoon have little chance to purchase it, therefore they can not afford to get full treatment to cure themselves."

At the beginning of May, the villagers began demonstrations outside local administration buildings. Eventually, they blocked the road leading to the mine, and more than 50 trucks from the company were backed up waiting to get through.

Villagers destroyed two of the trucks, and when the militia was called in clashes occurred. Two villagers and five policemen were later sent to the hospital. Police later arrested 34 villagers, but those who remained free captured three local officials and held them for ransom.

Later, government officials said one of the local officials taken hostage by the Barskoon villagers was responsible for embezzling a good portion of the promised compensation.

That discovery only angered the people more. Now, they're demanding that the government and the company find the missing money and hand it over.

Demonstrations are planned today along the road by the town of Balykchy, which commands access to roads on both the north and south shores of Issyk-Kul. According to Kochkunov, this act may get the villagers attention, but it will not prompt the government to help.

"Every day we receive letters written by the people of Barskoon and other villages in the area, collective letters. We have these letters on the table and send some of them on to President Askar Akaev, the government and the company so they will take measures. But as long as meetings and picketing continue, the government will not take any action."

One year on, Barskoon has yet to return to normal. Villagers seem determined to continue protesting, while it seems increasingly clear the Kyrgyz government is either incapable or unwilling to pay the compensation the villagers are demanding. In this sense, at least, the spill has not yet been cleaned up.