Some returning Uzbek refugees say they were pressured into returning quickly to Kyrgyzstan so that they would be eligible to participate in the country’s constitutional referendum
An estimated 80,000 ethnic Uzbeks fled southern Kyrgyzstan during the June 10-14 unrest. Over the past few weeks, however, almost all the refugees returned. As of June 28, 78,675 refugees had gone back to Kyrgyzstan, according to a 24.kg news agency report citing Kyrgyz officials. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Some 300 returnees are staying near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in VLKSM – a village named after a Soviet-era collective farm – in makeshift camps, or with relatives. In VLKSM, Ranohon Abdugafurova, a resident of Mady, a small town east of Osh, asserted that she felt coerced by Uzbek authorities to leave her refugee camp.
“[Uzbek officials] told us that we had to leave because [Interim President] Roza Otunbayeva assured [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov that it was safe for us to return,” Abdugafurova said. She added that Uzbek officials told refugees it was important for them to participate in the referendum.
“We were told that Kyrgyzstan was our country and that we had to participate in the referendum,” Abdugafurova said. The referendum approved a new constitution and confirmed Otunbayeva as provisional president. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Dilbarhon Karimova -- a resident of the Majrimtal District of Osh whose house was destroyed during the unrest -- told EurasiaNet.org that Uzbek authorities made refugees feel unwelcome in Uzbekistan. “Frankly speaking, I did not want to come back because my house was burnt down and my relatives are missing. But [on June 24] I was told that they [Uzbek officials] would use force, if we did not leave within 24 hours,” she said.
“They told us that the Kyrgyz government wanted us back to take part in the referendum. But I think they got tired of taking care of us. After all, we are refugees,” Karimova added.
Other refugees chose to return voluntarily, mainly out of concern about what would happen to the property they had left behind. “We heard that some Kyrgyz people are taking over our houses in Osh in our absence,” one returnee – guarding the fire-ravaged shell of his house in Osh – said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re not going to let this happen,” he added.
Many returning refugees are facing daunting challenges as they try to rebuild their lives. According to some estimates, more than 1,800 houses were either destroyed or damaged during the unrest.
During her June 22 appearance in the Uzbek-majority town of Aravan, provisional President Roza Otunbayeva announced the creation of a special government directorate tasked with rebuilding Osh and Jalal-abad. The provisional government instructed the Osh mayor’s office to collect applications from residents seeking compensation for property damage.
The issue of government assistance to refugees has divided central and local officials, government sources in Osh told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity. Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov is unpopular with Uzbeks, many of whom believe he could do more than he is to promote reconciliation.
Myrzakmatov is reportedly calling for redeveloping destroyed city districts, replacing single-family homes with massive apartment complexes that would house both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in what previously were Uzbek neighborhoods. It is unclear if Otunbayeva supports this plan. Speaking to local journalists in Osh on June 27, the president said the government would build new residential areas for needy residents and that future neighborhoods should be ethnically mixed. She did not specify where these apartments would be built, however.
Some Uzbeks categorically oppose the mayor’s redevelopment vision. “I am not going to leave my house even if it was destroyed. My ancestors lived here and I am going to die here,” one ethnic Uzbek resident of Osh said upon hearing of Myrzakmatov’s plans.