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Turkmenistan: Border Tensions Rise

The killing of a teenage Uzbek boy has heightened tensions along the border with Uzbekistan.
By Kudrat Babadjanov

Makhmud Urinov, a 14-year-old Uzbek cowherd from Dapmachi, a village in Turkmenistan, last month became the latest victim of the clampdown on illegal border crossings between the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.


Urinov was tending his herd on January 19 close to the frontier when angry villagers attacked border guards, protesting at the earlier rough treatment of an Uzbek boy who had been arrested carrying contraband petrol from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.


According to the villagers, Turkmen guards from border post No. 2080 beat and kicked the Uzbek boy before tying him up and setting a guard dog on him. The boy, and an elderly man who tried to intervene, claim the guards were drunk.


When the boy escaped he rallied villagers from both sides of the border who descended on the guard post. Stones were thrown at the soldiers who opened fire with Kalashnikov rifles. Urinov, who took no part in the protest, was hit in the head and died instantly. Thirteen spent cartridges were found at the spot.


The villagers claim the guards, led by Captain Batyr Ataev, fled the scene.


For three years a visa regime has been in place along the border. Travel to and fro costs six US dollars per trip - well above the means of the local inhabitants who earn on average only three dollars per month. Drivers also have to provide a map detailing their proposed route.


The local inhabitants have found adjusting to the new system difficult. Friends and relatives are cut off from one another by what the locals see as an artificial frontier. The sometimes brutal and corrupt behaviour of the border guards has only added to the sense of outrage.


This latest tragedy has heightened tension across the region. Furious locals in Dapmachi, which has a predominantly ethnic Uzbek population, tore down all the Turkmenistan flags in the village and police were forced to flee when an emotional crowd gathered to pay their respects to the dead boy.


The situation is potentially volatile. Around 700,000 of the region's 1.2 million inhabitants are ethnic Uzbeks.


Urinov's father Kobyl is a labourer, who, like his neighbours, struggles to make ends meet. He has taken the loss of his youngest son badly, but calmly. The Turkmen authorities have compensated the family for Makhmud's death - the Urinovs received a bag of cement, some bricks and a bag of flour and vegetable oil for the funeral.


Following Urinov's death, local TV in Khorezm, Uzbekistan, announced that Uzbek border patrols were to drop the six US dollar charge. The TV station said the move had been taken to calm tensions in the area. No official confirmation followed, but many locals nevertheless took advantage of the short-lived moratorium to cross the border for free.


The costs and inconvenience of the visa regime has led to a burgeoning traffic in illegal border crossings. Petrol and many other goods are cheaper in Turkmenistan than Uzbekistan and many frontier villagers rely on contraband trade for their livelihoods. The profit margins are small, however, and not enough to afford the crossing fee.


Sturdy lads earn a living by carrying people who don't want to get their feet wet across a small river, which separates the two countries. The price charged is not high, but varies depending on the weight of the client and the amount of baggage being carried.


"What else can we do? We have to live somehow," said a young man as he carried a fairly hefty woman across the river on his shoulders. The woman, meanwhile, grappled with two heavy canisters of Turkmen petrol.


Kudrat Babadjanov is an IWPR contributor in Uzbekistan


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