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

Uzbekistan: Russian Cemetery Devastated

Fergana authorities fail to halt plunder of Russian Orthodox cemetery
By Matlyuba Azamatova

Vandals have destroyed a Russian Orthodox cemetery in the Uzbek town of Margilan while the authorities stand by and do nothing, locals say.


Local resident Numotjon Hashimov told IWPR that pillaging of the cemetery, which has occurred on a small scale for years, intensified six months ago when the watchman quit his job.


Almost all of its 5,000 graves have been damaged and the ground is scattered with bits of marble, crosses, broken gravestones from which the photographs of the dead have been torn and even human bones. The destruction is so severe that it has made walking through the area difficult.


“The cemetery… looks like a bomb hit it,” said Margilan resident Temur Yuldashev, shaking his head.


Locals say little has been done to limit the damage or to punish those responsible, with the authorities blaming a lack of funds to protect the site and a lack of information from the public to pursue the perpetrators.


Some Russian residents have resorted to reburying the remains of their relatives themselves.


The Christian cemetery in Margilan, a city in the Fergana Valley region, was established in the 1920s as a resting place for Russians who had arrived there as part of the Tsarist army, and for later Soviet settlers.


“Many people are buried there who made a great contribution to building Margilan and to its development – railway workers, doctors, engineers, the intelligentsia,” local resident Tamara Grigorieva told IWPR.


Five years ago unknown thieves began to take metal fences and crosses away from the graves, to be sold as scrap metal or used as building materials.


But Hashimov, an Uzbek who has been working as a shepherd for the past 50 years and drives his herd past the site every day, says things have got much worse since the watchman left. He told IWPR that he is outraged.


“It’s not surprising – there is no watchman and so anyone can do what they want. Teenagers still walk around the cemetery with crowbars. They break everything in their way, and no one cares,” he said.


“Recently they have started destroying the marble and granite monuments to take the metal pedestals from under them. Metal doors are then made to order out of the pedestals,” said a former employee of Margilan’s tractor repair factory, Sergei Fyodorovich. “These monsters break crosses for fun, chop down trees and mock the photos of the dead.”


Russians living in Margilan, most of whom have family and friends buried in the cemetery, are devastated by what has happened.


“My parents are buried at this cemetery but I can’t go there any more,” said Olga Kamaeva, a teacher in a local school. “Something terrible is happening there and my heart breaks when I see these broken gravestones.”


Describing the last time she had gone to the cemetery and failed to find her mother’s grave, Kamaeva broke down crying.


Local resident Olga Sabanina told IWPR that earlier this year a group of Russians who had been Uzbek citizens before moving back to Russia visited Margilan to pay their respects to relatives buried there, but were unable to find the graves.


IWPR spoke to Anatoly Saveliev, who also lived in Uzbekistan before returning to Russia, and was now visiting Margilan. He could not control himself when he saw the ruined cemetery.


“I decided that something needed to be done immediately,” he said. “I filmed the cemetery on my video camera and will send the recording to the Russia media, because I don’t think Uzbek journalists will report this topic.”


Kamaeva said she has complained to the police and her local neighbourhood committee several times but without success. “Wherever we turn to, there is no answer,” she said.


A group of Russians who wrote a collective letter to the mayor of Margilan also failed to bring about any concrete response to the problem.


Fyodorovich said he and many others have seen metal stolen from the cemetery on sale at the city market, but the authorities haven’t taken the initiative to track down the vandals through the people who sell their plunder.


“There is not a single known case of a vandal being arrested for desecrating the cemetery,” said deputy director of the Margilan civil services bureau Aziz Dadakhanov. “The police are doing nothing.”


When IWPR approached the deputy head of the local police department Ruzimat Abdullaev, he said they have not received any formal complaints about vandalism on the cemetery. “If we had written complaints we would have acted upon them,” he said.


He also said one person has in fact earlier this year been arrested and punished in relation to the vandalism.


The head of the Margilan municipal economy department, Saidjalol Akhrorov, said the local authorities want to protect the cemetery from vandals but do not have the resources to do so. A new fence around the cemetery would cost between 5,000 and 6,000 dollars US dollars, and such money just isn’t available.


Akhrorov said it was local authorities who provided the funds in 2003 to tidy up the graveyard, supply it with electricity and build a house for the watchman.


But local residents say the effort went to waste after the watchman left, refusing to continue working on the meagre wage provided, and the house was looted and destroyed.


Many Russians living in the area have given up waiting for help from the authorities and have taken it upon themselves to return the excavated remains of their relatives to the ground.


Tatyana Bogdanova reburied her four relatives at a newer cemetery nearby.


“I spent over 100 dollars on this. I had no other choice, everything was destroyed. The dead are being mocked,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “Reburial is just like burying your relatives all over again.”


When asked by IWPR about the situation regarding the cemetery the deputy mayor of the Fergana region, Ganijon Rustamov, said he was investigating the situation and would then report back to the Fergana Slavic Centre and the senior priest of the local Christian church with his findings.


“We are taking the necessary measures,” he said. “The humiliation of Russians in Uzbekistan, just like the representatives of any other nationalities, is unacceptable – it is not allowed by current legislation.”


Hearing this response, Russians in Margilan shook their heads sceptically. They have already been humiliated and insulted, they say, and it is now too late to save the cemetery.


Matlyuba Azamatova is a correspondent for IWPR in the Fergana region.