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Kyrgyzstan: More Refugees Flee To Camps As Fighting Spreads

Fighting between Islamic militants and the Kyrgyz military in southern Kyrgyzstan is spreading to more villages -- and driving more people to refugee camps in the nearby city of Batken. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on refugee life for the new arrivals.

Batken, 21 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The grass has been trampled down in the Batken stadium, not by a sports team, but by thousands of displaced persons camping there. A first wave of displaced villagers has dispersed, gone to stay in the homes of relatives or kind strangers. Now a second wave of hundreds of people has moved into the tents and yurts that cover the field.

They come from the village of Sai, about 60 kilometers away near the Uzbek border. The Sai villagers are fleeing renewed fighting in the mountains, where Islamic militants are clashing with the Kyrgyz military. The militants, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, are holding hostages and demanding passage to Uzbekistan. They arrived from Tajikistan nearly two months ago and have since spread out over a wide area.

The stadium is small, as Batken is a small town. But it is large enough to hold about 60 blue tents from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 20 large Kyrgyz military tents and three large yurts. These are now home to the 900 refugees who arrived on Saturday, fleeing the fighting in their village on Friday night. That battle left seven Kyrgyz soldiers and three militants dead, and forced the majority of the women, children and older people to be evacuated by bus to Batken.

On Sunday morning, the refugees were just beginning to wake and face the reality of life in the makeshift camp. The women pulled back flaps to air out the tents, their bright red, purple and yellow clothing a striking sight in the dusty field. One girl, around 8 years old, emerged from her tent and began sweeping the ground in front, doubtless her first daily task at home in her village.

Most of the children are treating the campsite as a holiday, running from tent to tent. Some of the youngest have found an inconvenient game -- loosening the tent ropes. Officials from the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations, the agency that is coordinating housing for the displaced villagers, move from tent to tent, re-tying the ropes and gently lecturing the children. To help keep the children occupied, the ministry is setting up a school and organizing volleyball and football games.

Life in the camp appears less entertaining for the many women there. In one of the larger tents, around 20 women sit, disconsolate. They say they wonder whether their men are safe. Most of the men stayed in Sai despite the fighting, to guard their homes and care for their flocks.

Bubanychbek, an official with the Emergencies Ministry, said these displaced persons will probably find relatives or friends to stay with. Like the previous wave of displaced villagers, they will leave the tents set up by humanitarian agencies and go to stay in private homes in nearby towns. But that does not mean the tents will stand empty. Fighting continues in the mountains, and more refugees are bound to come to Batken soon.