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Uprooted Uzbek Villagers 'Abandoned'

Uzbek villagers face a bleak future after being driven from their homes by an army offensive against Islamic militants.
By IWPR Central Asia

Surkhandarya villagers evacuated from their homes because of fighting between the army and Islamic guerrillas are suffering terrible hardships, according to human rights campaigners.


Hundreds of families were ordered away from their border villages when the Uzbek army mounted a drive against Islamic insurgents fromTajikistan last year.


The villagers, most of whom derive from Tajik stock, were subsequently abandoned and left homeless, freezing and on the brink of starvation.


The Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU, says the families need urgent humanitarian assistance.


According to HRSU records, the Uzbek military began its offensive against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, in the southern Sariasio district of Surkhandarya last August.


As fighting raged around their villages, locals were herded into helicopters and flown off to remote areas.


Talib Lakulov, Secretary General of the HRSU, said the Uzbek military burnt down the deserted villages to prevent the Islamic guerrillas from making future use of them.


HRSU officials said more than 2000 people were moved to the village of Zarbdor in the Sherbad district of Surkhandarya .


"This is an empty, desolate place, where people get water from streams," said Lakulov. " People don't have bed linen, clothes or utensils. They no longer receive hot food and only get one piece of bread a day."


On top of all this, Lakulov says, the displaced villagers claim the Uzbek authorities have arrested members of their community, accusing them of supporting the Muslim guerrillas.


He says the evacuees do not deny that during the last few years small groups of armed men from Tajikistan came to buy food from them. "But to sell food doesn't mean supporting the guerrillas," said Lakulov.


The Office of Uzbekistan's Prosecutor General denies the detention claims, but the HRSU says it has a list of 39 evacuated villagers who have been imprisoned - several of them from the same families.


It claims one detainee, Khazratul Kodirov, died after being tortured. Kodirov is said to have been arrested in Sariasio on December 11, 2000, for giving an interview to the BBC in November.


After two weeks, his body was sent to relatives. "His head was smashed, arms, fingers and legs were broken and elsewhere on his body there were at least 50 deep wounds made by a screwdriver," said the vicitim's brother Akhmadul Kodirov.


Sariasio residents have mixed feelings about the fate of the uprooted villagers.


Some condemn them for having dealings with the Islamic insurgents without notifying the authorities. Others are more charitable, suggesting that they were so isolated that they had no idea they were doing anything wrong.


The latter say these simple, illiterate people failed to recognise that the visiting Islamic fighters posed any threat - besides, their oriental tradition of hospitality would not have allowed them to spurn their guests. And even if they had become suspicious and wished to report the Islamists to the authorities, they faced a tortuous three-day walk across mountains to the nearest district centre.


According to Lakulov, the uprooted villagers had led happy, contented lives tending their cattle, horses and other domestic animals before last year's military campaign.


They were surrounded by huge plantations of walnuts and almonds. Produce was transported by horse and donkey to distant markets.


Last year's conflict destroyed their way of life, maybe for ever. When the fighting started, the villagers initially viewed the evacuation as a sign of official concern for their welfare.


Now, four months after the end of the conflict, they find themselves forgotten, freezing and on the brink of starvation.


The border conflict has cost these villagers their homes, their wealth and their ancient way of life. Today, they are left with nothing. Their need for humanitarian help is desperate. " These people have lost everything, " said Lakulov.


Bakhtior Ergashev is a journalist in Tashkent.


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