Osh, Kyrgyzstan Gulasal Vakhitdzhanova gazes sadly at the charred remains of an ancient mulberry tree in what used to be her courtyard. All that is left of the family’s belongings is a mangled bed frame.
Vakhitdzhanova is one of tens of thousands of Uzbeks who have been pushed out of refugee camps in Uzbekistan, where they fled after ethnic riots, to return to southern Kyrgyzstan. This week, a steady stream of Uzbek women and children trailed back into Kyrgyzstan through the border village of Suratash, carrying worn raffia bags full of possessions and sometimes food.
But an estimated 1,800 houses, like Vakhitdzhanova’s, have been destroyed by arson attacks in the main city of Osh alone. That leaves the returning Uzbeks in limbo, homeless and terrified of renewed violence.
For now, Vakhitdzhanova and her extended family have taken shelter at the packed home of relatives in Suratash, about 10 miles from Osh.
“Of course, we are afraid, but what else can we do?” says Vakhitdzhanova. “We have nowhere to live, we will have to stay here until our home has been rebuilt.”
Clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan starting two weeks ago are believed to have left possibly thousands dead and 400,000 displaced. Of those, tens of thousands of Uzbeks fled for their lives to Uzbekistan. Others found refuge at ethnic Uzbek villages that survived the rampages, or stayed in schools, kindergartens and even open fields.
The Kyrgyz government now says 74,000 refugees have come back from Uzbekistan, claiming their return as proof of its success in restoring security to the area. Only about 800 refugees, mainly the sick or wounded, have stayed in Uzbekistan, a Western aid worker told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But human rights group Amnesty International has criticized Uzbekistan for forcing refugees to leave the country, and says Kyrgyzstan is being too hasty in urging its citizens to return. The interim Kyrgyz government, which came to power in a bloody uprising almost three months ago, wants to gather as many people as possible to take part in a referendum Sunday to approve a new constitution and legitimize its rule.
The U.N. has appealed for $71 million in emergency assistance funds, in part to rebuild homes before the winter sets in. But reconstruction cannot start until Kyrgyz authorities convince Uzbeks that they will be safe.