Uzbek Mines Killing Their Own

Farmers in Uzbekistan's borderlands are falling victim to mines laid by their own army

Uzbek Mines Killing Their Own

Farmers in Uzbekistan's borderlands are falling victim to mines laid by their own army

Khamid Artykov's eyes welled with tears as he started to tell the tale of Arif, the son who was torn from him in a tragic accident.

He is at pains to remember the day that his fifteen-year-old son was blown up, along with two of his cousins, by an anti-personnel mine. Three victims of Uzbek military's border security.

Mines have been laid along Uzbekistan's borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan since autumn 2000. Tashkent officials responsible for the operation say it's a defensive ploy to combat fundamentalist guerrillas, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Khamid, whose village of Vadigan lies in the Jizak region, stares sorrowfully at the Turkestan mountains, saying everyone was aware the areas was mined. He blames no one for the loss of his son. "It was Allah's will, " he said. His fatalistic attitude is not shared by his wife, though.

She believes the Uzbek authorities are to blame for his death. If they had not planted the mines, she says, her child would still be alive, "The small boards with the word 'mines' cannot be seen - they are hidden with grass." Why, she asks, should security threaten ordinary people.

Khamid then started to tell the tragic story which led to his son's death. Border guards had the Vadigan villagers sign statements that they would avoid the mountain slopes and that they would take care to look for signs alerting them to mines. But, as Khamid explained, they were talking about traditional pasture lands. After all, he said, you cannot explain a mine to a cow.

On April 24, 2001, Arif and his two cousins, Tolkin Akhmedov, 19, and Alim Aliarov, 21, went to the mountains to find a cow which had not returned from feeding. The boys never came home and the search for them began the next day.

"I did not think that they could have died, although on that day, somebody did hear a mine exploding, but I did not think this explosion had hit the boys," said Khamid. " I continued to wait for my son to return, but my younger brother came and said that he had found them about five kilometres from home. They were lying dead on the mountain slope and there was a crater from the explosion, right next to them."

Villagers were scared to even go near the bodies and waited for mine-clearers. Khamid described how all three boys' bodies were raked with shrapnel wounds.

Tashkent officials responsible for border security said that the three young men were to blame for their own deaths. After all, they said, "they knew that the area was mined. They were probably just looking for adventure."

One official even questioned the family's claim that the boys were searching for one of their cows "Who knows who these fellows were and what they went to the mountains for?" he said.

Artykov family has received no compensation, nor an official apology. In Uzbekistan, there is a tendency to underplay such events as they contradict the main purpose of laying mines, which is supposedly to protect Uzbeks.

According to Nikolai Bushman, chief of a border guards' outpost in Jizak, there has not been a single case of incursions or attacks by gunmen along his entire 388 km section of the Uzbek-Tajik border since the mine laying. However, Bushman added that there are sometimes daily casualties amongst the civilian population. Domestic and wild animals are also killed.

According to one army source, since the beginning of July, in an area of the Uzbek-Tajik border, near the Kamchik mountain pass connecting Tashkent to the Fergana valley, eighteen Uzbek troops have been involved in landmine incidents. Four of them died and fourteen were severely injured. One serviceman, who witnessed the tragedy, said that the victims' bodies had been torn to pieces.

The government of Uzbekistan has reacted with annoyance to statements from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that their citizens are occasionally killed by Uzbek mines, arguing that they are mining their own territory and that they have a right to protect their borders.

Makhmudjon Utaganov, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the State Borders of Uzbekistan, said in a recent interview with the "Popular Word" newspaper that various foreign media sources had accused Uzbekistan of acting illegally when laying mines along certain sections of its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

He charged Tajik and Kyrgyz representatives with making "groundless, statements about non-observance by Uzbekistan of international obligations, during the installation of mine fields with neighbouring countries".

For as long as Tashkent refuses to bear any responsibility for the deaths of Tajiks and Kyrgyz, there's not much hope Uzbek casualties being treated any differently. The Uzbek government may believe that it can ignore its own citizens. To officials, it seems, the death of few people is seemingly insignificant; a small accident on the road to security, stability and peace.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's country director in Uzbekistan

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