Ilkhom: A Refugee Story from Kyrgyzstan

During International Medical Corps’ emergency response in the region we met Ilkhom, age 35, a refugee from the Uzbek village of Bazar-Kurgan, Kyrgyzstan.  When he greeted us outside his home his eyes were filled with sadness and despair.  The signs of extreme poverty surrounded him: his house was small and empty of furnishings, his clothes were old and worn out.

Ilkhom is an Uzbek survivor of the ethnic violence that tore apart Southern Kyrgyzstan in early June. He was the only one refugee who agreed for his story to be made public, and for his picture to be taken.   As the militants who committed the recent atrocities are still free and have yet to be brought to justice, most of the hundreds of survivors we spoke with were too scared for their lives and the lives of their loved ones to have their stories published.   But it seemed that Ilkhom did not care anymore.  He simply had lost all hope that anything good would ever happen to him again.

Ilkhom is a father of three children and works on a cotton plantation to provide for them.  He took a 10-year loan to purchase a small combine harvester.  Every four months he is required to pay back an instalment of 12,000 Kyrgyz Soms ($260). Last year he worked very hard and earned 125,000 Soms ($2,700) but after paying the high interest on the loan the family had very little money left to live on.  Even before the tragedy, Ilkhom struggled to provide basic needs for his family.  Today he faces an even more dismal situation.

As the tragedy unfolded the morning of June 13, 2010, Ilkhom heard screams and gunshots.  Rumors began spreading quickly that his own neighbors – fellow countrymen of a different ethnicity – were planning to throw ethnic Uzbeks out of their homes.  By noon, several large gangs armed with metal poles and sticks, some with AK-47 automatic rifles and fire bombs, stormed the village destroying everything along the way. They set cars and houses on fire and tortured residents – even women and children.  Many of the Uzbeks who couldn’t escape were brutally assaulted or killed.

Ilkhom took his wife and kids, and his frail mother, and jumped into an old bus that a neighbor ran for local transport and escaped to Uzbekistan with other refugees.   Ilkhom’s 73-year old father Arapiy was the only family member who remained at home.  Arapiy didn’t want to leave his home which he had built with his own hands and where he had spent his entire life.   After a few hours of hearing screams and gunshots, he could no longer ignore them and left the safety of his house to help his neighbors.   A bullet hit his stomach and he was left lying unconscious outside for many hours.  When things started to calm down, some neighbors who had the courage to remain in the village came out of hiding from the cellars.  They saw Arapiy and as soon as they were able to leave the village four days later, took him to Jalal-Abad hospital.   Arapiy died the next morning.

The attackers not only killed Ilkhom’s father, they also took everything that was in his house – clothing that Ilkhom’s wife collected as a dowry for their daughter, food that families in Kyrgyzstan often buy in bulk and store.  They badly damaged his combine harvester and a small car that he used to get to work.    Ilkhom still feels lucky that his house remains standing as many houses were burned to the ground – with people inside.

But Ilkhom has nothing left to live on. “At least the wheat is left”, he says, “and we can still make bread. All the shops are destroyed or closed, markets also, and we don’t have any money anyway”.  Although the harvest promises to be plentiful this year, he is afraid to work in the field.   He doesn’t know if the gangs might return to kill him as he’s working or to attack his family while he is away.

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