Life in Limbo: Inside Bishkek's Illegal ‘New-Builds’
A Eurasianet partner post from The Guardian
Hundreds of thousands fled their villages for novostroika slums on the edge of the Kyrgyz capital when the collapse of the Soviet Union killed collective farming. Twenty five years on, the government has reluctantly connected some to water and electricity – but few have sewerage systems or schools.
It is a sharp descent from Kurbangul Kyrgyzbayeva’s ramshackle home into the narrow pit where she grows corn, tomatoes and chives. Crooked steel bars and smashed bricks line the shallow, hand-hewn mud steps.
When Kyrgyzbayeva bought the plot on which she lives, on the northern edge of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, there was little there other than a mound of earth and piles of building site refuse in a disused quarry.
It was 2007, two years after illegal squatters had claimed the surrounding area, now a neighbourhood called Ak-Zhar.
Kyrgyzbayeva immediately set to work on her own, building a home of clay and hay for herself and three children. For a couple of years, the family lived between bare walls under a tarpaulin.
“I was sick all the time. I kept catching cold,” Kyrgyzbayeva says. “And when that happened, the children would fall sick next.”
Such are the stories of how the capital of this struggling ex-Soviet central Asian republic has ballooned in size over the past two decades.
The fall of the Soviet Union spelled freedom for some, but in the rural areas of economically fragile nations like Kyrgyzstan, that moment is remembered as a time when buying even basic staples became an unaffordable luxury.
In the months and years after independence, countless thousands fled their villages, where the collective farming system had collapsed, for any kind of life in the city. Many in Kyrgyzbayeva’s Ak-Zhar neighbourhood came from high-altitude villages in the south and east of the country.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became hard to live in the mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan. So everybody began to move to Bishkek. This is a well-populated city, comfortable, there are jobs,” says Suyunbai Murzakanov, community coordinator in Ak-Zhar.
In the past quarter of a century, almost 50 of these illegal squatter townships, now home to an estimated 250,000 people, have cropped up around Bishkek. People settled on rubbish dumps, farming land, disused brownfield sites and next to open sewers. The settlements are commonly known as novostroika – a word coined from a Russian portmanteau term meaning “new-build”.
Murzakanov was among the first contingent to move into Ak-Zhar, leaving behind a job as as a veterinary technician in a village in the southern highlands of Chong-Alay. For six years, the settlement had no running water or electricity.
“We had power generators. We would buy two, three, four canisters of fuel everyday for the generators,” Murzakanov says. “Even the water had to be brought in by truck and sold by the litre.”
There are almost 50 illegal novostroika areas around Bishkek and the attitude of the authorities has historically been ambivalent. The government is reluctant to rush into acknowledging the settlements’ formal status, but sometimes it caves in eventually and agrees to link them up to the power and water supply grid, as happened with Ak-Zhar in 2011. Extending the sewerage system to this large new urban population is beyond Kyrgyzstan’s finances, however, so outdoor pit latrines are still the norm.
Even as the settlements gain a semblance of permanence, their residents persist in a state of bureaucratic limbo. Kyrgyzstan still operates the Soviet-style propiska residency permit system, which binds people to their original home locality. If and when the squatter neighbourhoods are formally absorbed into Bishkek, households become eligible for residency and can then apply for welfare support from the city government. The implications for the Bishkek budget are alarming, but officials are putting a brave face on things.
“These are our citizens, these are people of Kyrgyzstan in any event,” says Bishkek deputy mayor Erkin Isakov. “We do not have first and second-class citizens … We are trying to create equitable conditions for them.”
The education system is coming under particular pressure from this population spike. Like many novostroikas, Ak-Zhar does not have it own school, so children radiate into adjacent suburban neighbourhoods or take public buses into the city.
In the settlement of Ak-Bata, a short stroll from Ak-Zhar across a desolate stretch of scrubland, around 1,300 pupils turn up for classes in a tiny, one-storey primary school designed for 198 children. To meet the demand, the school operates on a four-shift basis, with classes run from 8am until late into the afternoon. Exhausted teachers cope as best they can with classes of 40 children in rooms so cramped that furniture has been removed to squeeze them in.
The headteacher, Nuriya Alagushova, says that when she raised her concerns with a local newspaper, she was reprimanded by her superiors in the Education Ministry. She declined to be interviewed out of concern about a repeat experience.
New residents continue to arrive. Once new-build neighbourhoods are hooked up to utilities, they instantly become more appealing, even to people living closer to the centre. Ak-Zhar had a population of 7,000 in 2011 – it is closer to 14,000 today.
“We wanted to live in nature, in the open air. In a flat, you are always inside. If you have guests to stay, there is nowhere to put them,” says Jyldyz Djoldosheva, 58, who moved to the settlement three years ago from a housing estate in Bishkek.
Almost every household in the settlement has at least a little plot of land for cultivating vegetables. Djoldosheva says she grows tomatoes, aubergines, carrots, peppers and pears.
“If anybody needs any food, I can offer them some of my own,” she said.
Keeping goats, sheep and cows – a holdover from the rural origins of the residents – is also common. It is a point of pride to have sheep of one’s own to slaughter for special events, such as weddings or funerals, when relatives visit from people’s home towns and villages.
Although many try to preserve their regional identities and ways of life in the novostroika melting pots the communities are there to stay.
As the Ak-Zhar community organiser Murzakanov explains: “If you moved us back, it would be like putting an animal in the zoo and then releasing it into the wild.”
Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with EurasiaNet.org and originally published by The Guardian. See more stories on Guardian Cities.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.