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Central Asia Medical Workers Struggle To Escape Yemen Violence

Scores of Central Asian doctors remain stuck in Yemen as evacuations have been hampered by the conflict raging in the country. (file photo)

Hundreds of medical workers from Central Asia have been caught up in the soaring violence in Yemen, where they remain stranded despite rescue efforts.

Russian planes have ferried scores of Russian nationals as well as nurses, doctors, and medics from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan out of Yemen in recent days. But scores remain stuck in Yemen with their families, with evacuations by air and sea hampered by the raging conflict.

With Yemen being plunged into chaos since Huthi rebel fighters overran large swaths of the country, the Central Asian republics have been urging their citizens to leave.

Fierce fighting has been raging between the Iranian-backed Shi'ite rebels and pro-government forces backed by Saudi Arabia-led air strikes.

The medical workers who have been left stranded, or have opted to stay, face the threat of being killed by daily air strikes, bombings, and gunbattles around the country.

"In every hospital here there are three or four Uzbeks," said Akbar, a doctor from Uzbekistan who has been working in Yemen for the past four years.

"Some of us went to the airport and stayed there for four days, but we weren't able to board a flight out of Yemen," he told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "We were told a flight on April 6 was the last one, but we don't know if that's true."

The specific number of Uzbek nationals in Yemen is unknown. Estimates vary from several hundred to around 3,000.

The daughter of an Uzbek doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, said her mother was stranded in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which has been the scene of dozens of air strikes in recent weeks.

"My mother told me that she could not leave because the plane could not land as the airport was under attack," she told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "She asked me not to be worried. Our local TV channels are keeping silent on the issue."

Many Central Asian doctors and nurses working in Yemen have gone there under contracts obtained through Russian companies.

Some Uzbek medical workers have been reluctant to evacuate because many of them traveled illegally to Yemen, via Russia, without government authorization, a crime that can land them in jail for up to 12 years.

'Extremely Bad' Situation

Besides fear of prosecution, other Central Asian medical workers have opted to stay despite the dangers, because losing their jobs would spell financial ruin.

The average monthly wage for a doctor in the Central Asia republics is roughly $100. But in Yemen, doctors can earn a minimum $600 a month, with some getting perks like free accommodation. Many send money to their families back home.

Other workers are resolute in weathering the violence and continuing their work.

One of them is Nurbek Israilov, a Kyrgyz national who works as a doctor in the town of Sayyam, about 700 kilometers away from the southern port city of Aden, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting.

Israilov said he will not leave Yemen despite the risks.

"This is an internal conflict with locals fighting each other," he said. "Doctors are not involved in that. I personally know about 20 Kyrgyz doctors working in Yemen and we are mainly in the [volatile] south."

Others, however, are desperate to leave.

"The Tajik Embassy in Qatar told us to go to neighboring Oman," said Hadiya Dodojonova, a Tajik doctor who has worked in Yemen for the past decade. "But Saudi Arabia didn't allow us to go. We went to Mahrah Province [on the border with Oman] by bus. "

She is among 30 Tajik doctors and their families who have fled the violence to the relative safety of Mahrah. The Tajik Embassy in Qatar estimates that there were around 200 Tajik medical workers in Yemen before the current fighting started. About 100 have been evacuated to Russia, from where some have returned to Tajikistan.

Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry said recently that its embassy in Qatar is trying to relocate Tajik citizens in Yemen to safer areas before returning them home with the help of Russian authorities and companies.

"The humanitarian situation here is extremely bad," said Dodojonova. "We don't have enough fuel or drinking water."

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz services
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.