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New Start Can't Crowd Out Andijon Refugees' Painful Memories

An Andijon refugee founded the Aziz Best Baker in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.
An Andijon refugee founded the Aziz Best Baker in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Thirty-eight-year-old Ahmadjon Mahmudov pulls out his smart phone and, pausing to contemplate the painfully dire chances of a reunion, flashes an image on the touch pad.

"My children," the former grocery-store owner from Kokand, in Central Asia's restive Fergana Valley, says proudly. "I have four of them."

The oldest was 12 when Mahmudov managed to flee Uzbekistan during springtime unrest and a vicious crackdown in 2005, eventually becoming one of 30 Andijon refugees taken in by Canada.

He explains that he's since tried to bring his children to his new home, but says Uzbek authorities won't let them leave the country.

"Now they are six years older -- the eldest son attends an academic lyceum, the second goes to a medical high school, and the two younger ones go to secondary school."

Ahmadjon recalls how he found himself in the crowd of thousands on Andijon's Babur Square on May 13, 2005, and he hints at why Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration might have regarded him as a risky figure amid what it was quick to describe as an Islamist-led insurrection.

"Twenty-three businessmen had been arrested and put on trial in Andijon," Mahmudov says. "I had business relations with one of them."

"Uzbek melons" on sale at a refugee-owned business in Arizona.

In addition to being supplied dairy products by that man's firm, he says the two became friendly. "We were friends and often shared our views about life," Mahmudov says. "Now, we are devout Muslims, but we never adhered to any extremist ideas -- we only tried to adhere to what Islam tells us in order to find peace of mind.

"I was aware that before what happened, for several days, the families of those in court rallied peacefully in front of the court building. But after I heard that the small demonstration grew big on May 13 and people gathered on the square to express their grievances, I decided I had to be there. And there the massacre began and, trying to survive, we fled to Kyrgyzstan, and now I am in Canada."

An authoritative death toll after security forces opened fire on the demonstrators has proven elusive, with estimates ranging from the government's official tally of 187 to eyewitness and activists' reports claiming casualties many times higher.

Working At It

Mahmudov wasn't alone in his rush for the exit. When those dizzying events upended life in eastern Uzbekistan six years ago this week, thousands of Uzbeks scrambled for the border to escape the brutal clampdown that was sure to follow.

In the end, only a few hundred made it out as Uzbek authorities tried to track down the presumed culprits and neighboring states tried to prevent a potentially destabilizing exodus.

As a result, there are now more than 500 people from in and around Andijon scattered from Europe and North America to Australia trying to rebuild their lives far from home and loved ones.

If there were fears that an influx of hapless refugees from one of the poorest and most volatile pockets of Central Asia would prove a burden on their adopted Western homes, these enterprising Uzbeks are working hard to dispel them.

Aziz Best Baker. Uzbek Master. Andijoni Melons in Arizona. Inter-Sanoat Shoe. Saint John Taxi. Those are just a few of the businesses that have been launched by Andijon refugees currently living in Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Out Of Sight, Not Out Of Mind

Even far from his family, Mahmudov appears to be adapting to life in Saint John, in New Brunswick, where he helped found a 24-hour taxi service that now has 15 vehicles.

"With several friends here, we set up this company and named it Saint John, after the city, and it was accepted by people very well -- because very few private businesses carry the city's name here," Mahmudov says.

He adds that he's found the path to success is not so complicated: "We saw the model of what relations between businesspeople and the state should be. All the conveniences are created for doing business, as long as you pay your taxes."

An exterior view of the Aziz Best Baker shop in Saint John, New Bruswick

Thirty-five-year-old Akromjon Soliyev is another native of Andijon who fled in May 2005, and now he lives in Halifax, Canada. He set up his own construction company two years ago.

"I had to go to courses and, about two years ago with a few friends, we opened a company and called it Uzbek Master," Soliyev says. "A few local people work here along with us, and one of our purposes was to show our gratitude to locals, and they are also glad to work with us. One of our local workers has asked if he could bring his son. Of course, why not? I think this is quite flattering for us."

Soliyev had worked as a foreman for an Uzbek construction company. The owner of that firm was among the 23 businessmen whose trial sparked the initial violence. Clients included "distinguished people of Andijon, including the governor himself" and other local officials, according to Soliyev.

While many of the Andijon refugees were eager for their families to follow them, Soliyev has never tried to get his wife and two children to join him in Canada. Instead, he says, "I pray every day to reunite with them in Uzbekistan."

"My elder daughter was 6 years old and my son only six months old when I left," he says. "God willing, rather than bringing them here, I really hope to return to Uzbekistan."

He says he's thankful that he's gained "big experience" and "learned a lot" in Canada but is quick to add: "I hope and pray to return to Uzbekistan and share this experience and bring good to Uzbek people and reunite with my dear family."

Not a morning has gone by in the past six years, he says, that he hasn't "prayed to God, asking to help me return home."

"Every evening," he says, "I go to bed with the thought that tomorrow morning I will pray again and ask to return home."
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    Khurmat Babadjanov

    Khurmat Babadjanov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

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    Farruh Yusupov

    Farruh Yusupov is the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Before joining the Turkmen Service in 2016, he was an editor in the Uzbek Service and led its journalistic investigations, including a series of reports on corruption involving family members of President Islam Karimov. Farruh also produced radio programs, including Health, The Other Side Of The Coin, and OzodNavigator. He worked for USAID-funded projects in Central Asia before joining RFE/RL in 2004.​

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