‘I’VE never seen anything so terrible. Everyone was shot, even small children and women holding babies.’ Farhod, a 30-year old handicraft worker, recollects the bloody crackdown on protestors in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Andijon on 13 and 14 May this year. The protests – unusual under the brutal regime of Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov – were sparked by the imprisonment of 23 local businessmen. Soon the protests began to draw in those dissatisfied by poverty and corruption and the numbers began to swell. Farhod joined the demonstration to voice grievances about poor standards of living. He was trapped in the square as troops opened fire without warning. Hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were killed. Around 500 survivors fled over the border into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
The arrival of these refugees presented a dilemma for Kyrgyzstan’s Government. On the one hand, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – citing the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees – telephoned the Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to urge him not to forcibly return those who fled. International organizations and Western governments have also pressured Kyrgyzstan to grant them refugee status. As the heavily indebted Kyrgyz government has obtained foreign aid by trading on its image as a reformist ‘island of democracy’, it can ill afford to bite the hands that feed it.
On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan has come under enormous pressure from its powerful neighbour, Uzbekistan, to send them back. Uzbek officials bussed the refugees’ relatives over the border to the makeshift camp where they stay, threatening them with severe retaliation if they failed to persuade their errant sons and daughters to return ‘voluntarily’.
Behind the scenes, Uzbek officials are said to have informally threatened to terminate essential gas supplies provided to Kyrgyzstan. More chillingly, there have even been warnings that Kyrgyzstan faces destabilization unless they comply. This intimidation cannot be lightly dismissed, as powerful covert Uzbek security forces are known to operate in the territory of their weaker neighbour and regularly abduct individuals.
The Kyrgyz government must be congratulated for refusing to give in to this pressure. In a dramatic and encouraging development, 439 of these refugees have been airlifted to safety in Romania from their makeshift camp in southern Kyrgyzstan. However, a further 15 – all on Uzbekistan’s ‘most wanted’ list – now face deportation to their homeland and the strong possibility of torture and death.
If Islam Karimov hopes that their blood will solve his problems, he is likely to be disappointed. Since the Andijon massacres, political opponents, human rights activists, journalists and the employees of international organizations have been harassed, detained, arrested and tortured. With increasing numbers fleeing for their lives, international pressure is likely to grow. Only a regime change in Uzbekistan will resolve the issue once and for all.Simon Churchyard