Thousands of Kyrgyz citizens displaced as violence persists

Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing unrest has claimed more than 250 lives and led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in the country, with many seeking shelter in makeshift camps on the Uzbek border.

The refugees currently holed up in camps in neighboring Uzbekistan say they are too scared to return to their homes. They want a guarantee of safety from both the United Nations and the Kyrgyz government before going back.

Twelve days ago Zukhra Kachanova's life changed forever. She was at home with her son Aibek and his pregnant wife in the city of Osh. When they heard shots on the street, they ran out to see what was happening. They got separated, and 23-year-old Aibek was killed.

“I couldn't even help my son when he got shot. Everyone started running, and so did I. The next day my brother went to get my son's body, along with others. They could have survived if someone helped them. But they simply bled to death,” she said.

Zukhra is now at Uzbekistan’s Oltynboshok refugee camp, along with more than a thousand other refugees from Osh. The camp was set up overnight, when tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks ran for their lives from southern Kyrgyzstan following ethnic clashes.

It has been almost two weeks since the mass exodus from Osh, but emotions at the camp are still running high.

“They ran out of tears. We tried to calm them down as much as we could, and today's the first day when they have been more or less ok. They see now there's still hope left,” says camp administrator Nigora Yakubova.

All the same, it is hard to find peace of mind, knowing that their family and friends are still in Kyrgyzstan, while the refugees on the other side of the border do not know what is happening to them.

As a result, despite the continuing unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, many refugees are already heading back. Some 12,000 people have returned to Kyrgyzstan. Customs officials say these are official figures, but in reality the number of those who have crossed the border may be bigger. Zukhra says she is reluctant to return, fearing for her life – but she fears even more for her family, who stayed behind in Osh:

“I would go back, my relatives are there. My pregnant daughter is there. They say they have nothing to eat, because no aid is reaching them.”

At the same time, thousands are still willing to flee Kyrgyzstan and are waiting for permission to go to Uzbekistan. Although many women have been allowed to do so, men have been prevented from entering Uzbekistan “to avoid unrest.”

Sanitary conditions in the improvised camp on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border have already led to cases of dysentery. Worse still is that there is only one doctor for 12,000 people there.

Camp administrators in Uzbekistan are going out of their way to make sure Uzbek refugees feel at home in these camps. However, the refugees say their real home is in Kyrgyzstan, and the only thought that preoccupies them these days is to return – even if it might cost them their lives.