Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grim Life Awaits Deported Uzbeks

Forcibly resettled mountain villagers say they face a bleak future on the steppes.
By Pulat Gadoev

A year since the government deported several hundred mountain villagers to the steppes, the resettled families complain they were cheated of promised financial compensation, have no prospect of ever finding work and now face hostility from their new neighbours.


The government removed the villagers to ensure they did not forge ties with rebels of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, as happened in another mountainous region in the south two years ago.


The 92 families, numbering around 500, were moved to two villages built for them in the Kasby and Usman-Yusupov areas of the Kashkadarya oblast. But they say the government never worked out what they should do with their new lives on the steppes.


"We have no work and no money to start our own farms," said Odil Arslanov, a former teacher who is now an elder in one of the new settlements. "Virtually all the male settlers are now unemployed and 40 per cent of children get no education because their families are too poor."


The families say they left wide-open spaces for cramped quarters. They have been rehoused in four-room, unfurnished houses on 0.6 to 0.8 hectare plots. But some did not even get that, which explains why most homes contain several families. Each accommodates an average of 10 people. The women say the roofs leak in the rain and the new gas and electricity supply often fails.


One of the biggest grievances concerns money. The villagers say the authorities promised to value their old property and give them the equivalent in cash. The government admits it offered each resettled family about 650,000 sums (600 US dollars). But the settlers say they have not seen any money. "We weren't given a single kopeck; we were brought here and abandoned on the bare earth, as the houses hadn't even been built," said Atlas Salokhiddinova.


The inhabitants of Tashkurgon and Chopik villages were moved to Kashkadarya last autumn, one year after the authorities discovered that the IMU had forged a working relationship with locals in the Uzun and Sariasiyo areas of the southern Surkhandarya oblast, buying their food and even marrying their womenfolk.


After the armed forces moved in and routed the IMU, the local people were deported to the Sherabad steppe region of Surkhandarya, more than 120 km away, and about 70 were jailed for collaborating with the rebels.


Officials in neighbouring Kashkadarya oblast appear to have concluded that the rebels might gain a foothold in their mountains too if the inhabitants were not also deported, even though the villages in question lay more than 80 km from the scene of the earlier conflict in Surkhandarya.


"The officials came to Chopik one day with soldiers and police and trucks to take our things," recalled Akhmad Zarkulov. "They told us to move that day. People who asked why were told it wasn't their business. Many were simply told 'If you want to live, be quiet'."


On the day they moved from Chopik, Odil Arslanov said his family was able to take only the most necessary things, as there was no time to pack and they were only given one vehicle. When Arslanov asked the commander, Colonel Makhmud Bekmuradov, for another vehicle, his request was refused. He was told there were not enough trucks and was advised to leave his belongings behind and lock the door. Arslanov took the colonel at his word and left for the steppe with his family.


Two days later he returned to Tashkurgan to pick up his possessions. When he reached his house he could barely recognise it. The doors and windows had been removed and nothing remained inside. When he went to the headquarters to complain, he saw his bed and table there, along with his pots, bowls and spoons.


Behind the headquarters two soldiers were cooking food in Arslanov's pot. They had also appropriated dozens of his sacks of potatoes, wheat and barley and cans of paint. When he complained, the commander reassured him that he would receive new things in the new village.


The khokim, or governor, of the Kasby region, Khalil Saatov, insists the villagers have received a great deal from the authorities. He says each new house is worth 16 million sums. "They should thank God and live peacefully, as many people in our region do not have houses like this," he said. Asked why the mountain residents were deported in the first place, he answered, "What business is it of yours? These are our internal affairs."


Yadgar Turlibekov, of the Kashkadarya oblast human rights organisation, says the new homes may be better than other houses in the region, but even a cursory look at the interior suggests they are not worth 16 million sums.


"The houses aren't the issue, the issue is that these people did not ask for anything to be done to them, and because of the move they lost the most important things - their work, their income, and their lifestyle," he said. "They are not used to living in the steppe. They wanted to remain in the mountains. Now they are being punished for possible future collaboration with rebels."


Although many want to return home, they are resigned to their fate, recalling the massive forced migrations of entire peoples in the Soviet era. "Help us to return to our homes in the mountains, we don't like it here. I assure you no rebels will come to us," one woman told journalists.


But there is no official talk of a return. The authorities say a military training camp has been built on the site, and have not allowed people to go back even to visit the graves of their relatives. "Is this humane?" asked one of the villagers.


Pulat Gadoev is an independent journalist and Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan