The six Ubbiniyazovs live in Nukus, a city in the Karakalpak Autonomous Region in the largely desert region of western Uzbekistan. Nukus is located not far from the ancient Silk Route city of Khiva, but in the region the Ubbiniyazovs live, it was not the past but the future that local authorities were thinking of when they implemented an urban renewal program that included demolitions of buildings.
Last June, the wrecking crews arrived at a block of two-story flats on Karakalpakistan Street, built in the 1950s. The 135-square meter, five-room flat of the Ubbiniyazov family was demolished.
Head of the family, Murat Ubbiniyazov, claimed city authorities counted the two flats as being one, and initially offered him 80 million som (less than $30,000 at the black market rate).
Ubbiniyazov countered that amount would not even begin to cover the cost of a new flat that would accommodate six people and refused the money. He chose to take his family and live on the street while he appealed to the local court and sent letters to the president and prime minister begging for help.
By August, Surat Ikramov of the Initiative Group of Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan had alerted some media outlets, including RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, about the plight of the Ubbiniyazov family.
Ozodlik posted photographs showing the family’s beds on the sidewalk near a city street and laundry hanging on lines strung between trees. One photo showed some members of the family holding up signs that read in Russia “55 Days on the street. Give us two flats,” and “The law provides for compensation for a five-room home. Give us two flats.” One young member of the family held up a sign reading, “I’m an invalid since childhood, there’s no place for me to live, the government took away my home,” while his smaller relative held up a similar sign noting, “I am nine years old and have no place to live.”
The case of the Ubbiniyazovs appeared to be hopeless. The courts ignored them as did local officials and top officials in Tashkent. The family attempted to stage a picket outside the hokim’s (mayor) building but police told them they were wasting their time, the officials were not even in the building, and chased the Ubbiniyazovs away.
It looked even more hopeless in November when the residents of Number 75 Pushkin Street in Nukus were thrown out. According to Fergana.ru, these residents were evicted on November 10 by authorities who “sent a group of policemen…using threats and force to oblige residents to vacate the dwelling.” The residents claimed those with two-room flats, a bit more than 60 square meters, were offered 23 million som (about $8,500) and those with three-room flats 30 million som (about $11,000).
These residents also sent telegrams to the president appealing for his intervention, without success. But 13 of them announced a hunger strike.
At the start of December, the Ubbiniyazov family also announced they were going on a hunger strike. An independent website Uznews.net quoted Murat Ubbiniyazov saying, “If we don’t die of hunger, we’ll die from the cold anyway.”
The family’s fortunes changed shortly after that when a video of Murat standing in the middle of his street “home” during a snowfall appeared on several websites.
In mid-December, officials from the mayor’s office came to the “tents” of the Ubbiniyazov family and offered them 175 million som (about $79,500 at official rate, about $65,000 at the black market rate). “We said ‘yes,’ then we opened a bank account and they quickly deposited the money,” Murat said.
His mother had died during their time on the streets and a son was born (named Surat after the rights campaigner who first helped the family), but Murat and his family were able to set out immediately to find a new place to live, one with a roof over it.
The happy ending of the Ubbiniyazov family is not typical of these situations, not only in Uzbekistan but also throughout Central Asia.
Urban renewal projects in Central Asian cities have seen the evictions of thousands of people, nearly all of whom were offered compensation that was not close to enough to allow them to live in homes like those that were destroyed. There are still the 30 people from Pushkin Street in Nukus, for example.
As rigid as Uzbekistan’s system is, certainly as concerns the political opposition, in the more than 22 years the country has existed there have been moments when small groups were able to successfully protest against hikes in the price of food, or utilities, or, as in the case of the Ubbiniyazovs, housing predicaments.
There are not many such examples. In the six years I wrote the Freedom House report on Uzbekistan for “Nations In Transition,” I only came across a few.
Perhaps that is why it seemed important to note the Ubbiniyazovs’ victory. It shows there is still hope.
-- Bruce Pannier (Alisher Sidikov and Oktamek Karimov of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service helped in preparing this report.)