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

Local Communities Uprooted

Evacuated villagers meet hostile reception in regional capital as clashes continue with guerrillas in southern Uzbekistan.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbek authorities moved swiftly to evacuate inhabitants from three villages most closely affected by the recent clashes with guerrillas in the Surkhandarin region of southern Uzbekistan.


The villages in the Sariasio district are extremely isolated. It takes three days to reach the nearest regional centre, the town of Sariasio.


Most inhabitants were moved to a fourth village further from the fighting, but some were airlifted to Sariasio, site of the Uzbek military headquarters, the official agency Akhborot reported.


Those evacuees taken to Sariasio were kept at the military headquarters. For several days they slept on floors at night and spent the days sitting around waiting to hear what was to become of them. The villagers are ethnic Tajiks and very tanned from the mountain sun. Dressed in brightly coloured robes, they are a strange sight for provincial Sariasio.


The Sariasio townsfolk have hardly been welcoming to the new arrivals. One resident warned journalists not to talk to the villagers. "They're dirty people," she said. A cook from a café near the military headquarters accused the villagers of collaborating with the guerrillas. Some gossips even claim villagers have married their daughters off to rebel fighters.


But not everyone is hostile. One woman said it was wrong to condemn the villagers.


"You can understand the inhabitants of these villages, they're very simple and hospitable people, anyone who comes there way will be invited in, even if he's got a submachine gun hanging round his neck. What's more, in the mountains there's no work, and if they had the chance to sell something, then of course they wouldn't refuse," said Zumrat Kurbanova.


Living high in the mountains, virtually cut of from the outside world, the villagers are used to harsh conditions and have learned to tolerate uninvited armed visitors. Given the indigenous peoples are almost the only source of food in the area, the guerrillas also understand good relations with the villagers are imperative.


An officer from the Uzbek defence ministry based in Sariasio said the military authorities had questioned some of those airlifted to the town.


The officer said fighting began after the villagers reported the presence of guerrillas in the mountains. He said the authorities were now trying to establish why their presence was not reported earlier, whether local people had helped the guerrillas, and how long the fighters had been in the area.


Another source in the military headquarters, however, claims the guerrillas have been in the area since at least November last year. Villagers in the Sariasio area complained to the regional centre about the presence of armed strangers at that time, the source said, but no one took any action.


Takhir Yuldash, a prominent leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, (IMU), told BBC radio the guerrillas were from his organisation and had been in Uzbekistan for several months.


Unconfirmed reports claim the guerrillas took six shepherds hostage in July. Although the captives were later released unharmed, the incident prompted the villagers to report the guerrillas' presence to the authorities once more. This time Tashkent took heed and launched a military operation against the group.


"I've been held here by the KGB [sic.] for several days already and a few times I've been called in and asked if I'd seen any fighters and if I helped them," said Khudoinazar Babaev, an elderly man from the village of Kishtut, using the name for the old Soviet State Security Committee to describe the present-day Uzbek National Security Service.


Another elderly man sitting near by added, "Even if we gave them some bread, is that such a big deal?"


Another elderly man said he had been evacuated against his will. He complained he was not being fed in Sariasio and said, "I'm going to tell [Uzbekistan] President [Islam] Karimov everything."


Sadullo Asadov, a local Sariasio official, said the authorities did not suspect the villagers of collaboration. "But we have the right to ask them if they've seen the fighters or not," he added. Another local official said there was no question of charges being brought against the villagers for aiding the guerrillas.


Humanitarian aid, mostly flour, has started to get through to evacuees in Sariasio and to the 1,000 others still at the village just outside the conflict zone.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR Project Director in Uzbekistan