For decades, the Qurbonov family were known as the stewards of an idyllic gorge in Uzbekistan’s Chatkal Mountains, planting thousands of trees in the area surrounding their homestead on the banks of the Shovvozsoy River.
“The work they’ve done to preserve nature is truly heroic,” a veterans-affairs official told a local newspaper in 2014. “Do you see the endless trees -- poplar, walnut, spruce? Qurbonov’s sons plant 1,000-1,500 such trees every year! They nurture, they water, they guard every one of these trees!”
The family patriarch, Boymoq Qurbonov, died in 2000 at the age of 88. But his widow, Turdigul, and their 10 sons continued planting and tending to trees in the area near a UNESCO-protected section of the Western Tian-Shen transnational mountain range.
But in June 2017, Turdigul submitted a formal complaint to the Uzbek parliament and President Shavkat Mirziyoev over what she described as officials’ wanton disregard for the rich biological diversity of the area.
The construction of a new dam and roads, along with other development in the area, “are leading to the extinction of naturally growing spruce and cherry, birch, mulberry, and water willows that have lived for thousands of years,” Turdigul, who was 93 at the time, wrote in her appeal.
Local officials and the management of the national railways company, Turdigul added, were attempting to force them off their land.
“We have been the guardians of this area all our lives. If we do not do our service and labor here, these lands are on the verge of ruin,” she wrote.
Her pleading would prove to be in vain: within seven weeks, the Qurbonovs’ home and outbuildings had been razed to make way for a new development: a mountain resort and adjacent reservoir whose purpose and financing remains shrouded in secrecy.
A new investigation by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service has found that the resort was built in 2017-18 for use by Mirziyoev. Multiple sources familiar with the project estimated its total cost -- including the nearby reservoir -- at several hundred million dollars.
Turdigul Qurbonov’s complaint in 2017 highlights the human cost of the development, which villagers downriver also say disrupted their water supply.
But it also offers one of the few contemporaneous accounts by local residents about the early stages of the construction of the resort, which is not included on the official list of Mirziyoev’s residences, and the reservoir, about which the Uzbek government has provided no information to the public.
The complaint also corroborates details about the development that sources would disclose to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service nearly four years after Turdigul submitted it to officials.
The homestead the Qurbonov family built up over the decades was situated on the banks of the Shovvozsoy River on the southern tip of what is now the 43,000-hectare Ugam-Chatkal State Biosphere Reserve.
“Until recently, there were single-family homes of shepherds in that area. When we were teenagers we used to walk to those hills to pick rhubarb,” a former shepherd who worked in the area told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
He said the Qurbonov family’s patriarch, Boymoq, “took care of every inch of this area for more than 70 years,” planting thousands of poplar, apple, and pear trees while turning the place into a “hidden paradise.”
The family’s Eden, however, was in peril by early 2017, when plans for the future resort on the site began moving forward.
A key figure in the development, multiple sources told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, was Ochilboy Ramatov, Mirziyoev’s current first deputy prime minister and, at the time, the head of state-run Uzbekistan Railways.
In a May 2018 decree, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov handed control of the newly created Ugam-Chatkal State Biosphere Reserve to the company and tasked Ramatov with personally overseeing it. But sources claimed that several years earlier Ramatov had already erected a hunting lodge on the site that would later become the resort built for Mirziyoev.
Turdigul’s complaint offers contemporaneous corroboration to the claims of Ramatov’s affinity for hunting in the area.
Ramatov and two associates, she wrote, were “hunting wild animals at any time and causing great damage to the natural world.”
“Who gave them such a right?” she wrote.
Ramatov did not respond to a request for comment. RFE/RL was told by a source that one of the associates mentioned in Turdigul’s complaint, Izzat Toshboev, has indeed served as a local forest inspector. The second Ramatov associate mentioned in Turdigul’s complaint is a man named Ravshan Fayzullaev. A man by that name serves as a department chief at Uzbekistan Railways, the website of the company’s Tashkent branch shows. Neither he nor Toshboyev could be reached for comment.
It wasn’t just the hunting that was disturbing the animals, Turdigul wrote in her complaint.
“Ongoing construction work and other extreme activities are causing wildlife to become disturbed and restless, especially during the breeding season,” she wrote.
She urged Mirziyoev -- who, according to one builder who worked on the site, visited the resort during the construction phase -- to “stop the destruction of planted and naturally growing trees” and to protect the local wildlife from noise caused by “construction equipment.”
“Why don’t our leaders go out and see the reality on the ground for themselves,” she wrote.
Mirziyoev’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Turdigul’s complaint.
Turdigul also complained that the “activities” of Uzbekistan Railways in the area were provoking protests from local residents during the construction of the Shovvozsoy resort.
The company “put up roadblocks and does not let us through,” she wrote.
She said her family was being forced off its property based on a February 25, 2017, decision by the Tashkent regional administration, which allegedly cited eminent domain in seizing the land. Reporters were unable to find a public record of this decision, and the Tashkent regional administration did not respond to a request for comment.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service was unable to confirm the amount or type of compensation the Uzbek government provided to the Qurbonov family in exchange for the takeover of their property.
A representative for the family declined to be interviewed for this report.
Human Rights Watch has urged Mirziyoev’s government to “ensure that homeowners, residents, and business owners who have been forcibly evicted get fair and adequate compensation for the loss of their property and costs incurred due to the forced evictions.”
On June 20, 2017 -- less than three weeks after Turdigul’s complaint -- the Uzbek government’s main institute for transportation research and design agreed to prepare a working project for the Ramatov-led Uzbekistan Railways, according to corporate records of the designer, state-controlled Boshtransloyiha. The project is described in the document as “the construction of a recreation area on the territory of the Shovvozsoy forestland” -- the area where the Qurbonov family spent decades tending to the local ecology.
That same day, according to several local sources, the Qurbonov family was evicted from their homestead.
While the area is now inaccessible to the general public due to roadblocks and security personnel, reporters were able to geolocate the family’s property with the help of local sources who know the family.
Their homestead featured a main house, additional abodes for family members, and barns for their animals.
The buildings are visible on satellite images from August 2016, standing amid a sylvan oasis at the confluence of the Sarisuyunsoy and Chotisoy mountain streams and the Shovvozsoy River.
By July 22, 2017 -- a month after sources said the Qurbonovs were evicted -- what was once the family’s property had been cleared of all of the buildings.
A year later, it lay at the bottom of the reservoir.