At the height of the recent border standoff between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a crew of journalists from Bishkek-based news website Kloop.kg made the arduous trek to the remote location to find out more. Kloop reporter Khloya Geine’s account, reproduced with permission here, describes a three-day trip that concluded on March 25 and offers a rare ground-level perspective on developments:
The drive from the southern Kyrgyzstan city of Osh to Ala-Buka takes about six hours. The mountainous road hugs the border and there are few road signs to show what country you are in at any given time. The last 40 kilometers of our drive were completed in dimming light.
Suddenly, in the road ahead, we spotted concrete blocks illuminated by spotlights barring the way. Several people were standing sentry. It was a Kyrgyz checkpoint, so we drove past without coming to a full stop. Military officers in light blue outfits peered through the car windows and swiftly waved us onward.
A short distance later, we reached an Uzbek checkpoint manned by around 10 soldiers. Unlike their Kyrgyz counterparts, these troops had more weapons and wore helmets and yellow-green flak jackets that blended more easily into the local landscape.
“Passport,” one soldier barked through my window.
Our driver queried the demand.
“You’re going through the territory of Uzbekistan,” the soldier answered.
Under the severe gaze of the armed soldier, I scrambled hopelessly to find my documents at the bottom of my backpack. But then the soldier smiled indulgently as he watched me rooting through my overflowing bag and finally let us through.
This was the first Uzbek checkpoint people have seen around here. In the past, Uzbekistan never put its troops on these roads. It was here that they parked the armored personnel carriers that spooked not just local residents, but the rest of Kyrgyzstan too.
The locality of Chalasart in the southern Jalal-Abad region is one of many sections of border that were not properly demarcated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev said earlier this month that there are more than 50 such unresolved areas.
This latest episode began unfolding on March 18, when Uzbek troops arrived with armored personnel carriers and occupied an unmarked section of a road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka. That deployment followed Kyrgyzstan’s refusal to allow an Uzbek delegation to visit the Kasan-Sai reservoir, whose water is used to irrigate fields in Uzbekistan.
Kasan-Sai has long been a source of contention between the two countries. Uzbekistan believes it should own the reservoir because it was built with money from the Soviet-era Uzbek SSR. Kyrgyzstan says the reservoir is several kilometers inside its territory, and that this gives it ownership rights.
In the morning, we made our way to our main destination — the Kasan-Sai reservoir. Kyrgyz locals call the reservoir Orto-Tokoi, after a nearby village of the same name.
One the road from Ala-Buka, we came across a checkpoint manned by two Kyrgyz police officers. They advised us to be careful and gave us their contacts in the event of an emergency.
The road leading up to the reservoir runs along fences of homes in the village of Urta-Tukai, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Kosonsoy district of Uzbekistan’s Namangan region. The village is home to the Uzbek technicians who maintain the dam. A few dozen families live there.
There is no direct road from the Uzbek town of Kosonsoy to the reservoir itself. So to reach the reservoir, Uzbek cars must first pass through Kyrgyz border crossings and then wend their way through Kyrgyz territory.
There used to be a wheat-growing collective farm around the premises of the reservoir. On higher ground, Kyrgyz herders would take their cattle for pasture.
At the reservoir, we met a herder, Ermamat Temiraliev, as he was leading his animals to graze. Temiraliev was born and lives in Orto-Tokoy.
“They [Uzbekistan] think that this is their land, but that isn’t right. This is our land. We can’t graze [the animals] near their village [Urta-Tukai] or near the dam. If we go anywhere near there, they could start shooting and take our cattle,” Temiraliev said.
The dam forming the reservoir is under Uzbek guard. Locals say the men are soldiers. Our guide asked us not to get too close to the water’s edge.
“There are snipers on the dam,” he said.
We saw neither snipers nor soldiers guarding the dam.
But our sudden appearance did rouse the curiosity of local Uzbek residents. Some, armed with guns, walked in our direction. Our guide called the police, who turned up within a matter of minutes.
The ensuing confused exchange between the police and the Uzbeks was held over a ditch several meters wide.
“This is Uzbekistan’s land,” an Uzbek worker shouted across the moat.
“Eh?” answered one policeman, confused.
“This is Uzbekistan’s land,” the worker repeated.
“This is Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan! Have you looked at the map?”
“We know. That’s why we came.”
“Now come here. Here!”
“This is Uzbek land!”
“What land? You come here!”
“Beyond the ditch, that’s yours,” shouted another voice.
“No, there is no such land. Everything here is Kyrgyzstan’s land,” the police said, bringing the conversation to an end as he called his superior over the radio.
Soviet bureaucrats began their mission to outline the national borders in Central Asia in 1924. But people in Kyrgyzstan complain that the specialists from Moscow were either unwilling or unable to fully consider the interests of nomadic communities living in these areas.
“At a certain time of the year, from fall to spring, the Kyrgyz would constitute a majority of the population in certain places, but in the spring they would head off to the jailoo (summer highland camps for pasture). Representatives of settled populations, like Uzbeks and Tajiks, would come to these places and rent Kyrgyz lands and use them to make a profit. But the border commission worked in the summertime and they failed to consider this detail. And so the question was decided against the interests of the Kyrgyz,” said Sydyk Smadiyarov, dean of the history faculty at Osh State University.
We headed to the Kyrgyz village of Orto-Tokoi, around one kilometer away from the reservoir. About a dozen men in traditional Kyrgyz felt kalpak hats were gathered around one house paying their final respects to a recently deceased neighbor.
“We cannot understand [the situation with the reservoir]. Presidents and members of parliament should settle this. I have lived here since birth. And this has been going on since before we were born,” said one local resident, Karimzhan Niyazaliev.
The view that the authorities are to blame for how the situation has degenerated is widely shared around these parts.
“The water comes from us, and yet they’re the owners. They don’t pay us a penny. Not to the government, not to the local council. What is our government thinking about?” said another Orto-Tokoi denizen, Akmyrza Satybaldiev.
We met Dilfura Ismailova outside the village clinic, where patients and doctors gather to exchange gossip about local events. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks alike go for treatment there.
“Everybody is worried. This is a problem between the two governments, but it is the residents that suffer. Again they are raising ethnic issues. They cannot divide up the border, and the population is stuck in the middle. Personally, I’m afraid. You can feel the tension,” Ismailova said.
The head of Ala-Buka district, Sonunbek Akparaliev, refused to speak to journalists and directed us to his assistant instead.
The assistant said he was too busy, saying he had meetings to attend.
Still, we managed to intercept Akparaliev in the corridor outside his office.
“The people upstairs [in Bishkek] told us not to give any comments [to the media],” he said hurriedly.
“Just a couple of minutes,” I pleaded.
“No, I have no time. There is no time, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Just speak as a representative of the authorities,” I said.
“We can’t. They forbid it,” he said, refusing to elaborate before running off down the stairs.
On March 22, the day before we arrived, villagers from Ala-Buka and Kerben, the two places stranded from one another by the Uzbek checkpoints, hit the streets in protest at the behavior of the Uzbek troops. Prime Minister Temir Sariev came to speak to the crowd in both villages, first in Kerben and then Ala-Buka. Like everybody else, Sariev had to pass through the Uzbek checkpoints.
After addressing the crowd in Ala-Buka, Sariev headed to the local council offices and refused to answer anybody’s questions.
“People are unhappy with this uncivil behavior. This road has been here 20 years, and now this. They set up a checkpoint and put up a sign in Uzbek saying: ‘Transit permitted to passport holders.’ That just isn’t right,” said Ala-Buka resident and rights activist Yelena Ivanova.
Finding Ivanova is not difficult. Everybody knows her in the village. She speaks Kyrgyz and Uzbek and knows everything about what goes on in the area.
“What is really annoying is that they were quiet for 25 years. Our people were quiet, and the Uzbeks were quiet. When they built this road, they were quiet too. But now 25 years have passed, and suddenly they come with demands. Over this period, children have been born, become adults and had children of their own. Neither country, neither government could sort out the border,” she said.
We returned to Osh from Ala-Buka by the same road. This time the Uzbek troops at checkpoints asked drivers and passengers to show their international passports, which are usually only used to travel abroad.
“Assalam aleikum,” the Uzbek soldier said.
“Aleikum assalam,” our driver said.
“Where are your passports?”
“Passport? What passport?”
“You know, the big passport?”
“We don’t have the big passport. We don’t need it inside Kyrgyzstan.”
“You are going through the territory of Uzbekistan now. You should have your international passports. And where are your passports?” the soldier said, turning to the passengers.
“They all have passports,” the driver said.
“I have to check all the passports,” the soldier said. “Are you the driver?”
“Why didn’t you warn the passengers that they were entering Uzbekistan?”
“I stopped, didn’t I?”
“Of course you stopped. But you should have warned them to have their passports ready in their hands.”
“Anyway, since when is this place [Uzbek territory],” the driver shot back.
And on the argument continued.
The only road from Ala-Buka to the outside world was built a decade ago. Until then, local people could only get to Kerben, Jalal-Abad and other places in the country by crossing Uzbekistan. This road still snakes through some contested territory, however.
In the afternoon, on the road between Ala-Buka and Kerben, there is a crystal-clear view of Ungar-Too Mountain, a related cause of anger. Local officials said during the recent standoff that Bishkek had informed them that the mountain should be considered Uzbekistan’s property — a view not shared in Kyrgyz villages.
At the top of the mountain is a telecommunications antenna. The people of Ala-Buka still recall with irritation how an Uzbek unit of paratroopers landed by helicopter on the mountain in 2013.
As Smadiyarov explained, the borders outlined in the 1920s should be thought of as solutions to agricultural issues that were not meant to decide the fate of the various ethnic groups.
“Back then, there was an ideology of internationalism. Under that ideology, nations were considered a temporary phenomenon. Naturally, it was thought that these national boundaries would in the not-too-distant future be erased. A new collective was to be created — a Soviet people,” he said.
So the priority for Soviet authorities was to create a workable administrative arrangement, Smadiyarov said.
“Nobody imagined then that at the end of the 20th century, the Soviet Union would collapse. This was a strictly economic issue. All such matters were decided through Moscow,” he said. “The issue just didn’t arise in Soviet time; there were no conflicts about this. All the unrest began around the time of perestroika.”
Within a week of Uzbekistan deploying its troops and military hardware at Chalasart, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service, Raimberdi Duishenbiev, and the commander of Uzbek border forces, Rustam Eminzhanov, met for talks.
As a result, on the night of March 26, Uzbek and Kyrgyz forces both pulled back their men.
Duishenbiev said in an interview that the border service would keep an eye on the disputed areas to avoid a new flare-up in tensions.
“We discussed the future of the situation on the border so as to avoid a repetition of such a situation and to uphold previous agreements,” he said. “Everything should be resolved peacefully and through diplomacy.”
On March 29, the Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, told Kloop that border talks with Uzbekistan had once again collapsed.
“Negotiations have been temporarily suspended,” Iskandarov said. “We sent [Uzbekistan] an invitation, but they have not responded. When they confirm their agreement, we will continue talks.”