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Uzbekistan/Tajikistan: Deportees Trapped in 'No-Man's Land'

Over the past month, Uzbekistan has deported at least 100 people to Tajikistan. But Tajik authorities have forbidden the deportees -- all ethnic Uzbeks with Tajik citizenship -- to enter the country. Now the group finds itself stranded in an area between the borders of the neighboring countries, living in makeshift tents and with little food. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports the incident is just the latest strain on relations between the Central Asian neighbors.

Prague, 6 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 11 March, authorities in Uzbekistan delivered 55 ethnic Uzbeks to the border with Tajikistan and ordered them to cross. A second group followed later in the month. In both instances, Tajik officials refused them entry, even though they all hold passports -- now expired -- proving they were once citizens of Tajikistan. Now the deportees, who number at least 100, are trapped in a small stretch of land between the two countries, living in makeshift tents and uncertain what will happen to them next.

Most of the deportees are ethnic Uzbeks who fled Tajikistan's civil war in 1992 and have since been living just across the border in Uzbekistan's southeastern Surhandarya province. Others came to Surhandarya as recently as 1997, when a renegade Tajik army colonel, Mahmud Khudaiberdiyev, staged a revolt against the Tajik government after the signing of a peace accord officially ending the civil war.

Last summer, the province became the scene of fighting between the Uzbek army and armed militants calling themselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. Uzbek authorities suspect the militants, who are expected to resume fighting this summer, live in Tajikistan but cross over into Uzbekistan through mountain passes -- a claim the Tajik government has denied.

To prevent the IMU from re-entering Uzbekistan, the country's security services staged an active search for militants and sympathizers among the local population. In the course of the search, they deported the two groups of ethnic Uzbeks holding expired Tajik passports.

Muradjon Shairov is a member of the Tajik security council. He told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service why his country has not allowed the deportees to enter Tajikistan:

"These people moved to Uzbekistan at the start of the 1990s and many of them never registered [with Uzbek authorities]. They have no registration or [Uzbek] passports, only Tajik passports -- Soviet-Tajik passports, to be exact."

The deportees now find themselves neither here nor there. Uzbek authorities forbade them to take any possessions with them and gave no assurance they would be compensated for the property left behind. Likewise, any property they left in Tajikistan would have been divided up during the redistribution program that followed the civil war.

The Tajik government says it is working to find a place for the deportees. But the country, plagued by the Central Asian drought and at risk of widespread famine, simply does not have the resources to cope with additional arrivals.

The Uzbek group appears to have little food. An RFE/RL correspondent who approached the deportee camp was surrounded by children begging for bread.

Tajik authorities have filed a complaint over the "inhumane treatment" with the Uzbek Embassy in Dushanbe. Uzbekistan also appears to be worried by the matter. Saimiddin Loyikov, who works for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Uzbek officials have made requests for the matter be kept quiet:

"Representatives of Uzbekistan are afraid that some journalists could reach the refugees and talk with them. They asked us not to let any journalists, especially from television, see the refugees because of the poor conditions in which they live. Many came with only the clothes on their back."

By some estimates, about 40,000 people -- mainly ethnic Uzbeks -- crossed from Tajikistan's Kurgan-Teppe region bordering Uzbekistan's Surhandarya province in the first few months after the outset of the Tajik civil war. Many of them were deported back to Tajikistan that same year, but some Tajik Uzbeks -- like the group now stranded at the border -- remained in the country until they were discovered this year. Continued security sweeps are likely to turn up even more.

A government employee with relatives in Surhandarya is tracking the situation from Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said this is only the first stage of deportations, and that the total number of people sent back to Tajikistan could eventually reach into the thousands:

"If the deportation process continues, about 20,000 people who moved from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan will find themselves in a difficult situation."

In their nearly 10 years of post-Soviet relations, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have usually managed to maintain cordial relations. But the deportation issue puts additional strain on ongoing negotiations between the two countries on border demarcation, natural gas supplies from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, and water supplies from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan. Nor will it help them deal with the continuing drought, the IMU militant group, or the narcotics trade coming out of a third neighbor, Afghanistan. In between these issues -- and the two countries' borders -- are a group of hungry Uzbeks who are citizens of Tajikistan.

(Sojida Djakhfarova and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service and Ulugbek Normatov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)