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Kyrgyz Villagers Scorn Landslide Threat

People in the south of the republic are refusing to leave for safer areas despite latest landslide deaths.
By Alla Pyatibratova

Scene at Budalyk before recent landslide
(Photo provided by Kyrgyz emergencies ministry)

Villagers in the landslide-prone south of Kyrgyzstan are still ignoring government pleas and financial incentives to move to a safer area, in spite of this week's tragedy which killed 33 people and injured 11 others.

The village of Budalyk, which was devastated by a landslide on April 26, had previously been surveyed by the ecology and emergencies ministry. Official Sheimanali Uspaev told IWPR, "The local government should have reacted to our warnings and done something about it."

The Budalyk tragedy was the latest in more than 30 such landslides to affect the region since the beginning of 2004. Several lives have been lost, including five school children killed earlier this month in Karasogot, Osh region.

At the end of March, a huge avalanche in Saribulak blocked a road, cutting off five settlements and destroying half a kilometre of power lines. A similar incident in 2003 led to the evacuation of 50 families from the same area.

However, many local people continue to live in dangerous areas despite government warnings and offers of financial assistance to move somewhere safer.

Baktigul Mirzaeva has spent the past six years trying to convince her elderly parents to move. "They don't want to leave their village because it is close to their pastures, and they say they can't live somewhere else, among strangers who have different customs."

Instead, when spring arrives - and with it the threat of landslides- Mirzaeva's parents utter the same mantra over and over again, "Let it pass us by".

But many villagers who took their chances, have paid a high price. In 1999, residents of Kara-Tarik took out a loan to allow them to move, but delayed in doing so. A landslide in April 2003 destroyed 13 houses, killing 38 people.

Financial help is available to those who agree to be evacuated. Loans of around 4,650 US dollars can be applied for, but there are often delays in payment.

Jirgalbek Ukashev, head of the civil defence force in the Osh region, said, "Last year 653 families signed up for a loan, but only 373 received them and the rest are still waiting. People are worried they are going to be left penniless.

"It is easy to sympathise with these people [who do not want to move]. Some of them have recently built new homes which they do not want to take down."

Ecology and emergencies ministry official Emil Akmatov told IWPR that his department found working with the villagers "very difficult", as many secretly returned to their homes or point blank refused to move.

To counter this possibility, Ukashev said that three detachments of the civil defence force are currently working in the Uzgen, Alai and Karakulja districts. They are forcibly evacuating anyone they meet, then destroying the villagers' empty houses to prevent them returning.

"There are some people who build news homes at the government's expense but continue to live in their old ones despite our warnings to leave the danger area," said Ukashev.

Mirza Kalabaev, who lives in the village of Kiloojun, is one of those who refuse to leave. "My home is not in danger although spring landslides are quite common in our area," he said.

"They advised us to leave ages ago, but I'm not moving my life to a new place. Our ancestors lived here, and I intend to spend the rest of my life on my home ground. What's more, my family has just finished building a new house."

His brother, Akmat, who also built a new house in the village last year, agrees. "Many people from our village are moving closer to Osh and the Chuy valley where it is safer. Now only the elderly remain in the village - the young ones have either gone to the city or to Russia to find work.

"But I will remain here. For me, leaving Kiloojhun would be like leaving Kyrgyzstan."

Alla Pyatibratova is an independent journalist in Osh. Aida Kasimalieva is a trainee with IWPR in Bishkek.

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