On the night of March 26 in the village of Nichke-Say in Kyrgyzstan, a fast-moving wall of rubble and ice swooshed down into a cluster of homes, crushing everything in its path.
One building buried in the landslide was home to six people — a young couple and their four small children, the youngest of whom was just two years old. All were later confirmed killed by the landslide. Witnesses said the flowing debris towered up to 15 meters in height and spanned 120 meters in width.
Officials said the two adults killed in the incident – Gulayym Sulaimanova and her 27-year-old husband Omurzak Egemkulov – had been living in their Nichke-Say home for seven years prior to the tragedy. They chose the spot because it was where the old house belonging to Egemkulov’s father once stood.
In 1996, emergency services representatives pleaded with the older Egemkulov to leave the area, warning that it was in what they termed a high-risk “red zone” for landslides.
So the shepherd might remain in a place from which he could easily reach his flock, the government lent him some money and provided him with construction materials. He took up the offer of help and built a new house on the other side of the river, in a safer location.
But when Omurzak started his own family, he decided he no longer wanted to live with his father, and so in 2010 he returned to the ill-fated plot.
The akim for the Uzgen district, Olzhobai Osmonaliyev, told EurasiaNet.org in an interview that village representatives had repeatedly asked the young man to move his family away. “All the time we went and warned them that there could be a landslide. But they just didn’t want to leave, because they had the jailoo (pasture land) just nearby. It was more convenient for them to raise their cattle and do farming there,” he said.
Following the tragedy, rescuers relocated 56 households from the area, moving them into temporary shelters.
The government has promised to find a safer location for the villagers to live, but it is not known how soon that will happen.
Nichke-Say is a far from unique case. According to official estimates, there are almost 5,000 households in Kyrgyzstan situated in similarly high-risk areas. Around 2,400 of them have received some kind of loan from the government to embark on a move to a safer place, but many have put off relocating.
The head of crisis management at the Emergency Situations Ministry, Muhammed Svarov, admitted that this is a “very complicated” matter.
“Usually we give loans, and people build themselves new homes. But later, when the family expands, the children decide that they want to break away and they move back to the place that they had previously left,” he said.
Svarov added that the government is simply unable to pay out loans to people taking up residence in previously evacuated homes. The government does give out plots of land for new homes, but without the money to actually put up the buildings, this can only go so far.
Up to 2016, the government has on average set aside around 450 million som ($6.5 million at the current exchange rate) every year for its relocation program.
But last year, Kyrgyzstan brought in new rules on mandatory household insurance. Villagers in rural areas must under the law pay 600 som annually to receive compensation in the event of a calamity.
But this too has raised problems.
In 2016, in the village of Almaluu-Bulak, in the Jalal-Abad region, a landslide claimed the life of a 15-year-old and buried six homes. It took half a year before the victims of the incident were able to move into replacement homes. “Nobody has had time to deal with us. We have had to live without electricity. I don’t even know where my children are going to go to school,” one stricken resident, Ainagul Koshaliyeva, complained at the time.
District akim Arstanbek Asanov said that the state insurance company declined to write policies for owners whose homes were in high-risk zones for landslides. “All the families that live here got loans back in 1994. Their parents moved away and the children who were around five-six years old at the time, are now starting to come back to settle in these homes with their own families,” Asanov said.
And when these homes are hit, nobody is going to provide them any compensation, since assistance money was already paid out and insurance will not be given.
There are still around 70 people living in Almaluu-Bulak’s red zone. There is still talk about finding them new places to live, but no final decisions have been taken.
Asanov said he is still beating a path to fellow villagers in high-risk areas to somehow get them onto some kind of insurance package. But he says another big impediment is that there is no penalty in place for those who decide not to make the investment.
“The cost of the insurance is not big — about 600 som ($8.50) per year — but people refuse to pay even for that, and how are you going to force them?” Asanov said.
Some villagers in high-risk areas refuse to leave their homes, Asanov said. Thus, while the government looks for relocation sites, his office is filing forced eviction applications with the courts.
Svarov, of the Emergency Services Ministry, said that in order to minimize the loss of human lives in landslides, authorities need to procure special equipment. But the money to obtain the desired machinery is not available at present. “To monitor landslides, you need special meters, but this is an expensive pastime. So for the time being, the best thing is to draw up the danger zones on a map and work on explaining things to the people,” he said.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.