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Kyrgyzstan: Coalition Planes Blamed for Local Woes

Villagers want compensation for harvest failures and health problems that they blame on foreign bombers.
By Kubat Otorbaev

Residents of the Alamedin region of Kyrgyzstan's Chui province are blaming their poor crops and worsening health on the nearby western air base, claiming planes returning from flights over Afghanistan routinely dump fuel over their fields.


Although no one has come up with a scientific explanation for the problems that have arisen at the Ganci airbase close to Manas airport, many locals want the American-led coalition force based there to compensate them.


"We don't know why the crops failed but there are rumours that the foreign bombers dump fuel when they land, which is why all the fruit and vegetables died. After living here 36 years, this is the first time I have seen such problems," said Lidia Semchenko, from the village of Leninskoe.


Nikolai Besarabov, a neighbour in the village, said, "The vines have turned black, the leaves have dried up, the tomatoes have dried up - and I don't know why. This never happened here before. Everyone says it's the American planes. How much truth there is in this, no one has found out."


"The villagers are very worried," said the local mayor, Galina Denisenko. "They are coming to the village council and urging us to look into the possibility of collecting compensation from the coalition forces."


Coalition forces, comprising 12 countries, and led by the US, arrived at Ganci in December 2001. Since then some 1,900 foreign soldiers have been stationed there alongside French Mirage fighters and American F/A-18D Hornet bombers. Every day, at least 20 planes fly on missions over Afghanistan.


Local residents insist they had no health or harvest problems before the overseas troops moved into the Manas area. They do not accept the alternative explanation that the harvest failure is linked to recent heavy rain.


"Old people like me have seen much nastier surprises from nature than heavy rain," said Anakul Tolkunbaeva, from the village of Berlik. "We are certain the harvest failed because of the planes. We are more worried than we have ever been because even healthy young people are dying for no reason."


"When people invest all their hopes in the land, a bad harvest is like death," added Saltybek Junushbaev, from the same village. "There was no need to station foreign planes here, they have caused us nothing but trouble."


Residents of the affected villages have appealed to the authorities, demanding an explanation for the harvest failure and the sudden worsening of several people's health.


Kyrgyz deputy Ishenbai Moldotashev, chair of the parliamentary health committee, said he had received a letter from the villagers on May 17 in connection with the stationing of foreign military forces at Ganci.


"Many residents have suffered heart attacks, increased palpitations, and experienced breathing difficulties that they did have before," he said. "They also complain of environmental deterioration."


This month sanitary and epidemic department inspectors confirmed noise levels there were 16 times higher than the acceptable norm. And in June a separate investigation showed chemical pollution exceeded normal levels.


As a result, Moldotashev said the authorities wanted to hold talks with the coalition forces concerning possible compensation for physical and psychological damage inflicted on residents of villages near the take-off and landing area. Not everyone is ready to blame the western forces, however.


Kyrgyz deputy Ismail Isakov said foreign bombers could not be linked to harvest failures and other problems. "I am certain the foreign pilots are much more disciplined that our own and observe all the technical norms," he said. "This information about the people's problems is probably being disseminated by anti-American politicians."


Turat Akimov, a columnist for the internet site InfoCentreBishkek, said envy of foreign pilots' big wage packets lay at the root of the demand for compensation. "People who don't get paid their tiny pensions for three or four months look for ways to get money out of anyone they can," he said. "Everyone knows the Americans are rich."


A spokesman for the western forces at Ganci airbase, Dan Bernat, said the coalition was not to blame for locals' problems. In a statement to the Bishkek newspaper Moya stolitsa - novosti, he said, "As guests in your country we observe all the required standards for flying even more strictly that we do at home.


"We don't dump a single drop of fuel. The visible traces are a purely physical phenomenon known as inversion, which occurs when a plane lands: the hot air that is released meets with the cold atmosphere and forms condensation." He went on to explain that planes only dumped fuel in emergency situations and never over inhabited areas.


The US had around 70 military bases stationed in various parts of the world, he said, most in densely populated regions, "There are no grounds to state that the presence of these bases causes harm to the local population. Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings that arise around our airbase. We ask local residents to try and show more understanding of our mission and to be more tolerant."


But The Stars & Stripes, the US military's own newspaper, has reported that tests on JP-8 fuel, which is used by all American planes at the Ganci base, have "shown short-term low concentration exposure has significant effects on the immune system". Staff are instructed to wear full protective gear, including face shields, fume hoods, aprons and gloves. Pregnant military personnel are not allowed to work with the fuel.


According to The Stars & Stripes newspaper and The Boston Globe several American army bases around the world, including those in Japan, Canada and Panama, have been found to be polluting the local environment. In January this year, the US Navy was fined more than 400,000 dollars for hazardous waste violations on the Pacific island Guam.


The US defence department has itself found at least 18 contaminated sites in and around former bases in the Philippines, while two years ago the American ambassador to South Korea apologised for the US army's dumping of formaldehyde into Seoul's sewer system.


Former assistant deputy under secretary of defence Gary Vest told the Boston Globe in 1999, "There is not a US military base in the world that doesn't have some soil or groundwater contamination. That is just a given."


Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist in Bishkek


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