Uzbeks complain of police harrassment, missing aid after returning home to Kyrgyzstan

By Simon Shuster, AP
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Uzbeks plead for help after return to Kyrgyzstan

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — A simple plea is scrawled in meter-high (three-foot) letters across the charred remains of homes torched in violence against ethnic Uzbeks: SOS.

But, Uzbeks who have returned to ruined neighborhoods after a promise of help from the Kyrgyz government say officials tricked them and are ignoring their calls for help — and worse.

Men in uniform have been detaining and beating Uzbek men, some fatally, eight of the returnees told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“Just last night they took four more of our men and we haven’t seen them since,” said Shavkatilla Mamatov, 45, outside the burnt-out husk of his brick hut on Alisher Navoi Street, where every residence had been torched.

Aigul Ryskulova, the Kyrgyz presidential coordinator for refugees, told the AP that arrests were being made in Uzbek neighborhoods as police investigated the causes of this month’s violence, but she had no information about beatings or deaths.

Starting on the night of June 10, rampages by majority Kyrgyz mobs killed hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan, reducing entire Uzbek neighborhoods to ruins and displacing as many as 400,000 of them, a quarter of whom fled across the border to Uzbekistan.

On Wednesday, visiting officials from the U.S. and U.N. said that the humanitarian crisis in this impoverished Central Asian state has entered a new phase, as 75,000 Uzbeks have come back from refugee camps in Uzbekistan, according to Kyrgyz data collected at the border.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, called on the international community to help Kyrgyzstan “make peace and harmony between its communities,” adding that this would be the most difficult part of the relief effort.

But there is still a major risk of violence erupting again and even spreading across the region, he said.

“Uzbeks fleeing to Uzbekistan and telling their stories could pose a threat of revenge attacks against the Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan,” Guterres told reporters. “One of the reasons why it is so important to pacify this crisis is to avoid that this becomes a new Balkans.”

U.N. officials say the immediate threat of food and water shortages has largely abated, and emphasis has shifted to providing shelter to thousands of families before the arrival of winter. Six trucks of tents and other aid from Uzbek refugee camps, which have now all been dismantled, crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan Wednesday.

In the Kara-Suu district of Osh, tents provided by the UNHCR have been pitched up within the gutted remains of Uzbek houses, allowing families to live on the sites of their former homes and begin the reconstruction effort.

The Uzbeks interviewed Wednesday said they had not been forced out of refugee camps in Uzbekistan, as Amnesty International alleged in a report on June 24.

But they said Kyrgyz officials who toured the Uzbek camps had promised them the same security and comfort if they returned, including three meals a day, healthcare and temporary shelter. None of this has been delivered, they said, and the border back into Uzbekistan is closed.

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which came to power in a bloody uprising in April, held a referendum Sunday to legitimize its rule and was eager to have Uzbeks return from refugee camps to participate in the vote.

Those who did are now huddled outside their destroyed homes, and say the government was not distributing international aid meant for them.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Eric Schwartz raised the issue with senior Kyrgyz officials during Wednesday’s visit, urging them to provide “fair and equal distribution of assistance.”

Kyrgyz officials countered with their own warning to international aid agencies to distribute aid to Kyrgyz as well, some of whose homes were also burned during the clashes that left much of Osh, the country’s second-largest city, in ruins.

“The wounds are still very fresh and far from healing, so if you give help only to one side, then the other side could see it as unjust,” said Ryskulova, the Kyrgyz aid coordinator.

The exchange underscored the complaints of the Uzbek community that Kyrgyz authorities were funneling assistance away from the places where it is needed most, a charge that has fueled distrust among the Uzbeks toward the Kyrgyz government.

In the mixed Kyrgyz and Uzbek neighborhood of Furkat, Kyrgyz men stood outside their burned-out homes Wednesday, but police prevented an AP reporter from interviewing them, citing security concerns.

The official death toll from the violence that tore apart Osh and the nearby city of Jalal-Abad currently stands at 294, although Kyrgyzstan’s interim President Roza Otunbayeva has said as many as 2,000 people died in the rioting.

Otunbayeva’s government came to power in April after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in mass protests in the capital, Bishkek. It got a boost from Sunday’s referendum on a new constitution that legitimized its grip on power and paved the way for holding parliamentary elections in October.

The government had accused Bakiyev’s supporters of instigating the violence to delay the referendum, a charge that Bakiyev, in self-imposed exile in Belarus, has denied.

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