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Turkmenistan: President Shows No Sign Of Welcoming Refugee Kinsmen

Ethnic Turkmen refugees in Pakistan are part of a wave of migration that spans generations. The Turkmen were first forced to flee from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and then from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. Now, trapped in refugee camps in northern Pakistan, they say they have a home to return to: independent Turkmenistan. But Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has refused to help them repatriate. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel traveled recently to camps in Pakistan to look at the refugees' situation.

Prague, 26 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For half of the several kilometers' distance between the main road and the mud-walled village known as Babu camp, a small water pipe runs alongside the dirt track.

Then, the pipe suddenly stops -- as if there were not enough money for it to continue. The rest of the way, the water flows along a ditch, slowing as much of it is lost to the ground. By the time it reaches the village, it has become a thin steam which just meets the needs of the 50,000 people who live there.

The people in Babu, near the city of Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, are all ethnic Turkmen who fled Afghanistan after the 27 April 1978, communist revolution in Kabul and, later, the 1979 Soviet invasion. Now, more than two decades later, they are still refugees and say they are left entirely to their own devices to survive.

The land they live on is courtesy of the Pakistani government and years ago they received some international assistance to build their homes. But they pay for their water supply as well as for the few electric lines which reach the village. And though the village is surrounded by farmland, none of the refugees can afford to rent fields to grow crops.

To survive the refugees weave carpets. Not just the women as is the Turkmen tradition but men and often children too. They work on consignment for Pakistani wholesalers who provide the patterns and pay from 2,000 to 3,000 rupees (or from $33 to $50) per square meter. The money comes half in advance -- to buy wool from the same wholesaler -- and half on completion. By working each day from early in the morning until late in the evening, one person can usually produce a square meter in a month.

In the eyes of many, that makes Babu a giant sweatshop -- a view shared by UN officials in Islamabad and the villagers themselves.

But the villagers say that without outside assistance to create other jobs, they are forced to keep weaving around the clock. And they take pride in the fact that, though they cannot escape their subsistence lifestyle, they have at least been able to sustain their community.

One sign of that success is the village's sole school. It is a madrassah (religious school) which provides free education to many of the local children and even some from surrounding areas.

The school's director, Mullah Seyid Khan, says some 300 elementary pupils, both boys and girls, study here. They learn to write and to recite the Koran. Another 80 older boys pursue more advanced religious studies.

Seyid Khan says the village's families provide donations which enable the school to buy teaching materials. And he says families also support the teachers and several dozen boarding students by inviting them to their homes for meals. Seyid Khan:

"The camp residents invite the teachers and (the boarding) students to their homes twice a day for lunch and dinner. We don't receive any money from any sources outside of the camp. We survive with religious donations from the camp residents and this is enough for books and school materials."

The Turkmen in this and other camps say they are better off than most of their more than a million fellow Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan. Whereas many refugees have little hope but to seek occasional work as day laborers, the Turkmen have been able to use their carpet-weaving skills -- which go back to their people's nomadic roots -- to provide for themselves through some highly uncertain times.

The ethnic Turkmen in Pakistan are now in a generations-old migration which first saw hundreds of thousands flee from the Soviet Union into Afghanistan after the Bolshevik Revolution. Those who fled were seeking refuge after fighting unsuccessfully for independence from Moscow during the Russian civil war, only to become the targets of a fierce crackdown after the Reds' victory.

Generations later many of the same Turkmen families again fled from Moscow's reach, this time after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They escaped to Pakistan, which backed the Islamic mujaheddin resistance which ousted the Soviet troops 10 years later.

Since the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, most of the seven million people who fled at its height to Pakistan, Iran, and other countries have returned. But some 2.5 million remain in neighboring countries, discouraged from going back by continuing factional fighting. In recent months, that fighting has combined with a prolonged drought to internally displace some half a million people inside Afghanistan and send 200,000 more into Pakistan, despite Islamabad's refusal to accept any additional Afghan refugees.

Today, the Turkmen refugees in Pakistan say they would return to Afghanistan if there were a lasting peace there. And many say they are equally ready to return to Turkmenistan, which became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union 10 years ago.

Mullah Seyid Khan says the people in Babu camp consider Turkmenistan their homeland and have made contacts with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen), to learn if they can return. Seyid Khan:

"Thanks be to God, our fatherland is free now and we are proud and happy Turkmenistan is independent. And we wish night and day to go to our fatherland. Now we live in a foreign country like a cup without a saucer. Thanks be to God, in Pakistan we have the opportunity to study and have a school and to live here. But if Turkmenbashi decided to bring all the Turkmen who left long ago back home again, we are ready to go. We are ready to work for our fatherland."

But so far, the Turkmen president has done little to indicate he wants his kin in Pakistan to return, despite some early encouragement to them to do so.

When Turkmenistan became independent, Niyazov made several speeches stressing Turkmenistan as the homeland of all Turkmen both inside and outside the country. There are an estimated 4 million people in Turkmenistan and again that many ethnic Turkmen in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Speaking in 1992 with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service shortly after the country's independence, Niyazov encouraged all Turkmen to contribute to building their country.

"We will give land to our brothers living in Iran and Afghanistan. In the next one or two months we are opening the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Pakistan. Once it is opened we will gather through our embassy all of the people to be moved from there and we will bring them here on a legal basis. Among our countrymen (there) are those who very well understand the mechanisms of the market economy. In Turkmenistan, for many years, we were not able to set up a market economy, we did not have private property. Now, we invite our Turkmen countrymen to Turkmenistan to build a new society. They should come."

Yet since then, Niyazov has shown little enthusiasm for repatriation. Six months ago, the Turkmen president said he does not want to interfere with refugees in other countries, ending any hopes that Ashgabat might undertake programs to shelter them.

Mohammad Nazar, the head of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, says Niyazov is unlikely to accept Turkmen refugees for two reasons.

One is the possibility that refugees who twice fled the Soviet system, first in Central Asia and then in Afghanistan, will not adapt well to Niyazov's own system of highly centralized rule. He says:

"The Turkmen who have been very long outside of the country have gotten a taste of freedom. They have fought against Stalin, against communism, and gotten a taste of the market economy. So, they might not be happy with Turkmenbashi's Soviet-style rule."

Niyazov has maintained a strict control over all aspects of Turkmenistan's political and economic life by creating a personality cult around his own leadership. The Turkmen president, whose parliament has made him ruler for life, said two months ago that he would not step down before 2010.

Nazar says the second reason Niyazov hesitates to receive Turkmen refugees is that many are from a different kinship group then his own Teke tribe. Many of those in Afghanistan and Pakistan are from the Arsari tribe, while those in Iran are mostly from the Yamut.

Nazar says that means readmitting millions of new Turkmen into the country now could risk changing Turkmenistan's tribal balance. And that, like anything else that might diminish Niyazov's power base, is not something the Turkmen president seems ready to do.