Uzbekistan: Vagrants Take Shine off Model Town

A television report lifting the lid on homelessness in a showcase Uzbek town has caused official rage and embarrassment.

Uzbekistan: Vagrants Take Shine off Model Town

A television report lifting the lid on homelessness in a showcase Uzbek town has caused official rage and embarrassment.

You see them everywhere in Uzbekistan; down-and-outs sleeping rough on the streets, foraging for a living in garbage dumps, drink-sodden creatures without homes or hope. Nobody gives them a second glance, least of all the authorities.

Until they suddenly appear on television.

The governor of the Fergana valley's Andijan region, Kobiljon Obidov, flew into a rage when he saw a graphic television report about the homeless on the streets of Andijan city last November.

This regional capital has been promoted by President Islam Karimov as a shining example of the country's blossoming business environment, so Obidov must have watched in horror as this model of excellence was exposed as a sordid slum on Margilan TV's Zamon news programme.

For daring to contradict the official picture, Obidov fired the station's director, Bakhtier Tashpulatov, and severely reprimanded senior executives. The producer of the report, Zakirjon Ibragimov, was repeatedly threatened and forced to go into hiding.

A homeless man featured in the programme, Marat Gatiyakov, was found dead in an Andijan slum soon after it was aired. The cause of his death is unclear although witnesses say he had been visited by police on a number of occasions following the broadcast.

The tale he had to tell was a sad one.

Gatiyakov, 41, told the Zamon reporter how he went to school in Andijan and worked in the building trade where he had been highly regarded by his colleagues. His service record in Afghanistan was a source of pride for his family and neighbours - especially the kids in the area. But all this changed when he hit the bottle.

Gatiyakov described how he had been living on the streets for nine years. Back in 1992, after a binge, he had been put in a drunk-tank and faced an unpleasant surprise on his release. "My wife had sold the flat and left with the kids - I don't even know where she went," he said.

Home for Gatiyakov after that was an abandoned toilet which he shared with others in the same plight. They scratched a living from Andijan rubbish dumps, collecting domestic waste, paper and bottles.

There are no official figures on the number of tramps in Andijan but Gatiyakov reckoned his group alone comprised more than 1,500 people.

"We don't know where to go for help," said down-and-out Anatoly Askarov. "And anyway, I don't see any point in it. Nobody listens to us. Nobody thinks we're people. We're just tramps."

Andijan's deputy governor, Bakhtier Ziyaev, said no social programmes have yet been developed for the homeless. Social services which do exist to help the underprivileged do not extend their help to those living on the street, as they are already overstretched meeting the needs of the unemployed.

Although official statistics do not reveal the full extent of the problem, some say that about a third of the workforce is forced to leave the region, or even the country, to find jobs.

During the Soviet era and in the first years of independence, Koreans living in the republic employed the tramps on their onion farms. Now, there are so many unemployed prepared to do anything for the most pitiful wages, the vagrants are no longer needed.

"These people never seriously think about work," said police Captain Abdupatto Tursunov. "They just live out their days without hope. Sometimes they die of diseases brought on by squalor. Many of them go blind and die from despair."

The government does very little to alleviate the problem. Rehabilitation centres and soup kitchens have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. It's easier to punish those who tell the truth on television than to deliver concrete economic help.

"Of course I'd love to have a flat, get married and live happily. But it's just a dream." These were the final words of Marat Gatiyakov on the programme which might have cost him his life.

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