Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Uzbekistan: A Fatal Frontier
|The widow and two daughters of Talgat Dosymov, killed in the clash.|
Tensions between an Uzbek community hemmed in by restrictive border controls and the soldiers who patrol the frontier came to a head this week in a confrontation which left one dead.
It was the second death on the border with Kazakstan in the last two months. The first, involving a Kazak citizen shot dead after an altercation with Uzbek border guards, led to the sacking of the government official in charge of the frontier force in June.
The latest trouble began late on July 19 when border guards stationed at Gisht Kuprik – the main routes from the capital Tashkent into Kazakstan - set off in pursuit of a motorcyclist whom they suspected of crossing illegally from the Kazak side with smuggled goods.
The rider drove into the Uzbek village of Sarke, half a kilometre away from the frontier. When the soldiers caught up with him, an angry crowd gathered and they called back to base for reinforcements. Around 30 more frontier troops arrived in a military vehicle.
A representative of the local border guards unit, who asked to remain anonymous, said the soldiers were forced to call for help because their safety was endangered by Sarke residents who he said were trying to help the alleged smuggler.
The unit first fired warning shots into the air, but when this did not calm the crowd, they were forced to shoot to injure, he said.
Villager Talgat Dosymov, a 35-year-old father of two young daughters, was hit in the head by a bullet and died on the spot. Two young men were also hit, and rushed to hospital in the capital Tashkent with serious injuries.
After the incident, a border guard died when he crashed the confiscated motorcycle.
“My son just saw that a crowd had gathered, with soldiers in vehicles. He went towards them and was immediately shot,” Talgat Dosymov’s father Begasin said, barely holding back the tears.
Begasin Dosymov said his son was an army officer who taught military training courses at the village school. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Are those men really soldiers, if they shoot at their own people?” he asked during Talgat’s funeral.
The injured men said they too were innocent victims who had not been involved in the crowd scene.
“I was returning from my uncle’s house,” said Safargali Begaliev, speaking from a hospital bed. “I saw that a crowd had gathered, and there was shooting, and then I felt that I had been hit. When I came into the light, I saw that I was bleeding.”
Bahrom Alimov says that he was driving his cattle home from pasture when he was shot.
“The soldiers fired in all directions in a panic - I don’t know how they hit me,” said Alimov, wrapped in bandages.
Local residents hid from the apparently random gunfire. “It was so terrifying – there are seven children in our home, and we hid them in one room,” said a woman in a nearby house. “Life is frightening, and this is not the first time that soldiers have shot at unarmed people.”
The military prosecutor for Tashkent region, Umid Mirzaev, has ordered a criminal investigation, but he has so far refused to divulge any information about whether any soldiers will face charges.
The border between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan used to be open, but crossing has become much more difficult since January 2003 when Tashkent started imposing tougher restrictions. This was partly a result of Uzbek leaders’ wish to demarcate and formalise their external borders.
But perhaps more important was a hike in customs duties which made goods very expensive at home and sent Uzbeks rushing in their thousands to buy at much lower prices just over the border in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan.
To curb the influx of cheap goods and the outflow of cash, Uzbek border guards enforce customs regulations strictly, and anyone trying to bring in more than three pairs of jeans, for example, is treated as a smuggler.
Sarke residents say that people who want to bring in goods simply nip across the border in areas off the beaten track – increasingly dangerous as the Uzbek guards extend their patrols – or try to pay off customs officers.
Incidents are frequent on the Uzbek side, while the military patrolling the Kazak sector rarely resort to their weapons.
Similar problems exist along Uzbekistan’s eastern border with Kyrgyzstan. The death of a Kyrgyz national during a confrontation between Uzbek border forces and a crowd from Kyrgyzstan demanding greater freedom of movement produced an angry diplomatic exchange between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on July 18-19, with each blaming the other for the incident.
The Uzbek soldiers manning the Gisht Kuprik border checkpoint recognise they have an image problem but say they are just doing what they are told.
“In Kazakstan goods are much cheaper, and people in Uzbekistan don’t make much money so they want to buy goods in the neighbouring country, but the border guards stop them,” said IWPR’s informant in the border guards unit. “They are starting to hate us, but it wasn’t us that closed the border - we are carrying out orders.”
The border guard said that hostility on the ground is so great that the troops have had to protect their vehicles with a steel mesh over the windscreen because of the danger of stones thrown by locals.
But Talgat’s father said the latest confrontation between civilians and military was a very uneven match, “They have weapons, they have guns, but we are unarmed, and the soldiers who shot at my son knew this.”
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