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

Uzbek Airbase Protests

Travel restrictions and land disputes have led to growing tensions among Kahanabad airbase residents.
By Ulugbek Khaidarov

Residents living near a southern Uzbek airbase occupied by coalition forces are protesting over restrictions that have been imposed on them.


As a result of American and Uzbek security measures, the village of Khanabad, adjacent to the airbase of the same name, is now an all but impregnable fortress surrounded by barbed wire and, most recently, a high concrete wall that's cut contact with the outside world still further.


Unemployment is so high in Uzbekistan that many residents are grateful for the economic benefits the base provides. One Uzbek pilot estimates that around 700 local people now make a living building, maintaining and cleaning the base - earning good rates of pay by local standards.


But the numerous checkpoints around the village are proving one of the major sources of tension, with locals claiming that Uzbek soldiers staffing them are abusing their powers to extort money from people.


United States-led forces took control of the base in the Kashkadarie region more than a year ago, as part of the post-September 11 assault on neighbouring Afghanistan.


But while this new strategic alliance is being seen to benefit the governments of both countries, discontent is growing among Khandabad's 5,000 residents.


A recent case of two 15-year-old girls not being allowed back into the village after a day at work in the fields - because they could not produce passports - has caused widespread indignation.


As passports are not issued to Uzbek citizens until they reach the age of 16, the incident has so enraged local women that a protest meeting against the village's entry and exit restrictions is now being planned.


Villager Khimatulla Ishonboev told IWPR that everyone living near the base had to carry their passports with them at all times, " Whenever we enter and leave, we have to show our documents to the soldiers, and if we want to invite guests we have to give the checkpoints a list of names beforehand. We're sick of it."


This has led to problems in emergencies with villagers that saying close relatives, who have not been able to acquire visiting permits in time, on occasions missing funerals of their loved ones.


A quicker way to solve things - for those willing and able to reach into their pockets - involves resorting to bribery, which allegedly provides Uzbek soldiers with quite a profitable sideline.


Many have complained bitterly that the practice of demanding money and presents from visitors has now been extended to locals as well.


One resident, who would give his name only as Akhmed, told IWPR that he is currently building a house but has not been allowed to bring in several bags of cement bought for the purpose unless he pays a bribe.


"I couldn't take them to Khanabad. First the soldiers examined them for a long time and then [they] asked me to give them some money or buy them cigarettes. Why do I have to pay every time I want to enter my own home?" he said.


Local farmers also complain that they are losing out after the Americans took over a new plot of land, which contains the area's main irrigation canal.


The head of the Makhallin [neighbourhood] committee, Otaulla Ziyatov, told IWPR that the canal has since been filled with earth. "We were promised compensation for the loss but so far nothing has been done," he said. "If new provision is not made soon, the winter grains and other crops may suffer."


Other farmers lost whole planted fields when the US forces expanded the base. While they did receive some compensation, many have complained that it was not enough.


"The most annoying thing is that I spent almost a year dealing with bureaucracy so that I could register this land for farming," said Khidirali Ergashev. "I had big plans for it, I invested a huge amount of money but after two years they took it away from me and only paid me a part of the money I spent."


When the US Central Command chief General Tommy Franks visited Tashkent recently, he denied that the area under use was to be further expanded at the expense of villagers.


Yadgar Turlibekov, head of the Kashkadarie Society for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, has been critical of the authorities for not doing enough to protect locals. "This is a mass violation of people's rights and it should not be allowed regardless of any political and military alliances," he said.


Turlibekov told IWPR that he raised these issues in a recent meeting between human rights activists and Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, who promised to look into the matter.


Ulugbek Khaidarov and Kamol Khalmuradov are independent journalists in Uzbekistan.


More IWPR's Global Voices