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

Uzbekistan: Disease Hits Resettled People

Poverty and illness are demoralising a group of ethnic Tajiks displaced from their mountain homes three years ago.
By Tulkin Karaev

Mountain dwellers resettled in the semi-desert flatlands of the southern Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan are now dying from malnutrition and disease, local residents claim.

Abdurahman Ishankulov, an ethnic Tajik inhabitant of the Zarbdor resettlement area, told IWPR that his people were suffering from disease, poverty and despair. “Four people died here on August 11 this year alone,” he said.

According to Ishankulov, the death rate in Zarbdor had risen markedly since the beginning of the year, with around 14 people passing away every month.

Around 6,000 ethnic Tajiks from the mountainous Sariasiyo and Uzun districts were relocated to the Zarbdor area of Sherabad – more than 120 km from their homes – three years ago, when Uzbek government forces launched a military operation to wipe out militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

According to Kholida Shoimova, the head of the local department of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU, in Surkhandarya, almost three years of poverty, unemployment and difficulty in adapting to new harsher environment are to blame for the rising death rate amongst the resettled Tajiks.

“They are dying from a lack of food and medicine. Almost all residents suffer from illnesses caused by malnutrition and poverty, such as anaemia and tuberculosis,” she said.

The soldiers who carried out the resettlement did not allow people to take anything from their homes. They left everything they had – clothes, furniture and animals - and in exchange received only a barren, salty piece of land. The majority were forced to live in the open air for the first months, until houses were built for them.

Having resettled the mountain people, the authorities promised to give every family 700,000 sums (700 US dollars) in compensation – but this is yet to be paid out.

The houses provided have begun to decay after only three years, with many collapsing altogether. Meanwhile, monitors from the International Society for Human Rights, ISHR, report that water and gas pipes have still not been installed despite a number of assurances from the authorities.

Such problems have been exacerbated by the settlers’ inability to provide for themselves or their families. ISHR worker Zokirjon Gaipov said that the settlers are mainly forced to do odd jobs, which they walk for around seven km every day to find, as there is no public transport in the area.

“We have seen how these settlers walk to find work in neighbouring districts, take any kind of job for a pittance. All they think about is how to survive another day,” said Gaipov.

So far the authorities have brushed such concerns away. “People die everywhere,” said Abdurahim Juraev, deputy head of Sherabad district. “They don’t necessarily die from disease or hunger.”

Juraev insisted that local authorities have provided all the necessary living conditions for the settlers, citing the construction of 34 farms and a school. “What else do they need?” he asked.

“They just want to use any excuse to return to their mountains. They don’t want to work and they just want to be fed - but things can’t go on like this forever,” he warned.

The latest deaths occurred during a visit by a local commission of the Uzbek health ministry, in response to publicity about the plight of the settlers.

Local resident Odinabibi Solieva told IWPR that death strikes regardless of age, and that grinding poverty is the main cause. “People begin to fall ill because of poor nutrition, and then they cannot find the money for treatment,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Doctors in the area say that sick people often leave it too late to ask for help, arriving at clinics when they are “at death’s door”. This reticence is allowing diseases such as tuberculosis to spread among the settlers, according to medical staff at the Sherabad district health centre.

The residents’ health is also being damaged by their drinking water, which is gathered from local springs and is far too salty.

“Look at my arms,” one woman said, showing off a bright red rash to passers-by. “This is because of the water, and yet we have to drink this and give it to our children.”

Meanwhile, residents report that after a number of articles on the region had appeared on the internet, officers from the regional security department had begun to issue threats.

Ishankulov told IWPR that he was told he would be taken to court for spreading false information unless he stopped talking to the press, “They said that I would be punished for saying that 12-14 people were dying every month.

“I wish it was untrue, but it isn’t. We need urgent assistance and threats aren’t going to help.”

Tulkin Karaev is an IWPR correspondent in Karshi.