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Kyrgyzstan: Locals Want Payout from US Base

Western jet fighters flying missions to Afghanistan get flak from Kyrgyz pensioners.
By Dina Maslova

People living near the US military base in Kyrgyzstan are trying to get compensation for what they say is excessive noise and pollution caused by aircraft flying missions to Afghanistan.


The land round the airbase, 30 kilometres from the capital Bishkek, is occupied mainly by dachas, traditional Russian-style summer houses. Most of the people who live there are pensioners.


They live near Kyrgyzstan’s international airport, Manas, which the US-led coalition chose as a base because its runway is long enough for large military aircraft. US and European air forces have about 30 planes – supersonic fighters plus a few heavy transporters – at the base, which is serviced by some 1,600 military personnel.


Residents told IWPR that they had hoped the US base would be temporary and that they could stick it out. But when they realised it was not going to close down any time soon, they wanted to move away from the area.


Dachas were traditionally used as weekend homes by people who wanted a place with a garden, but many of them near Bishkek now serve as permanent residences. In addition to the pensioners, one in three of the 450 houses around Manas are inhabited by families from other parts of Kyrgyzstan, and sometimes by Kyrgyz refugees from Tajikistan. These are the only homes reasonably close to Bishkek - and the job opportunities it offers - that they can afford.


The head of the association of dacha owners, Lidia Bulavkina, says virtually everyone is prepared to move - as long as they are given compensation. All in all, the dacha residents are looking for about 400,000 US dollars in damages and moving costs.


“Let them pay us, and we’ll leave, and buy a dacha somewhere else,” said Lidia’s husband, retired scientist Boris Bulavkin. “How long can this go on? If this doesn’t happen, we are prepared to protest, and to block the road to the airbase.”


Locals sent a letter to Kyrgyz prime minister Nikolai Tanaev last year, and in return the defence ministry said there was no money available to pay out compensation. Angry residents now say they will press their claim in an international court.


“We have written several letters to the Kyrgyzstan government, to the US embassy, and appealed to the airbase headquarters, but no measures were taken,” said Lidia Kopylova.


The US military says the problems are not nearly as great as claimed. “These demands are unjustified, as a study by the Kyrgyz health ministry shows,” a spokesman for the base, US Air Force Captain Allen Herritage, told IWPR.


Local people say the western planes frequently dump fuel so as to lose weight before coming in to land. “We’ve all seen them dumping fuel,” complained Valentina Popova. “About once a week we smell aircraft fuel after a plane lands.”


Herritage said there had been a case of a Boeing KS-135 refuelling tanker being forced to dump 35 tonnes on July 8.


“We only dump fuel in emergencies,” he said. “We don’t do this just for pilot safety, but also for the villagers.Depending on the type and time of the emergency, we select a location for emergency fuel dumping. Pilots dump fuel in places where there are no people.”


The locals also complain about the noise made by thundering jet fighters, and claim this has caused structural damage to their houses.


“The planes come over our dachas very close to the ground when they come in to land, and they fly day and night,” said Maya Khairulina. “The noise they make causes everything to shake. We fall out of our beds at night.”


Anara Chekirova, a mother of four, told IWPR, “Children have become nervous, and some of them have developed a stutter. They cry and hide under the bed every time the planes fly past.”


Chekirova said even farm animals were affected by the noise - chickens laid fewer eggs and cows gave less milk. Other residents alleged that their crops had been damaged. Some said it was the fuel in the air, others suggested the noise had scared away birds, allowing insect pests to multiply unchecked.


“Vegetables rot, tomatoes turn black on the inside, strawberries make your throat itch, and grapes have stopped growing,” said Lidia Bulavkina. “The leaves on the trees look as if acid has been poured on them. We have been poisoned ourselves, and then we sell this food at the market.” IWPR’s contributor saw spoiled vines, maize and tomatoes, although it was impossible to tell what had caused the damage.


Herritage said it was unlikely that fuel in the air was a source of problems, “The fuel is dumped at a height of 4,000 metres, evaporating before it reaches the ground.”


Valentina Nekrasova, who heads the ecology department at the Kyrgyz ministry for emergencies, believes the dacha residents are exaggerating the dangers. “We have conducted an analysis of the soil and air, and everything is within the norms,” she told IWPR.


Some commentators in Kyrgyzstan think the dacha-dwellers have realised they are on to a good thing and hope to tap into the wealth they see at the air base. But it is unlikely the western military will pay compensation because of the precedent it would set. “If they give in to the dacha residents’ demands, there are many people who will complain - with or without justification,” said a local journalist who asked to remain anonymous.


While the coalition presence has injected some 50 million dollars into the Kyrgyz economy so far, most of it has gone on payments to the government and to suppliers of items like fuel. People around the base have seen little benefit except for the occasional donation to build a playground or help a school.


The sense of grievance among some locals has been heightened by car accidents involving employees of the airbase. A Kyrgyz citizen died when the vehicle he was travelling in collided with another driven by a foreign national working as an interpreter at the base on August 19. The fatal crash followed a similar accident last year which left two local women with serious injuries.


Dina Maslova is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek, Natalia Domagalskaya is an independent journalist


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