Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan: tensions persist as people start to return home

23-06-2010 Interview

Thirteen days after violence broke out in the south of Kyrgyzstan, the situation remains volatile. Thousands of residents and internally displaced people (IDPs) still need basic assistance. Pascale Meige Wagner, the ICRC's head of operations for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, explains.

  More photos on Flickr: Kyrgyzstan: lives disrupted

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/kg-e-00046    
City of Osh. Houses destroyed by the fighting.    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/kg-e-00044    
City of Osh. Sixty-year-old Zaynab, a mother of six is among the beneficiaries of ICRC food aid.    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/kg-e-00049    
City of Osh. Food products, including oil and flour, being unloaded for distribution.    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/kg-e-00043    
City of Osh. Preparations are under way for the distribution of food rations to people affected by fighting.    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/kg-e-00060    
This provincial hospital in Osh is the main referral hospital and treats all patients with serious injuries.    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/kg-e-00059    
This man is being treated at the provincial hospital in Osh city for gunshot injuries. 
Pascale Meige Wagner 
     How would you describe the current humanitarian situation in Kyrgyzstan?  

The situation is still very tense. Thirteen days after the brutal violence that resulted in hundreds of casualties and in the flight of over a hundred thousand people, the humanitarian situation remains worrying and there is still a lot to be done to cover the needs of those affected.

 How did the ICRC respond to the needs and what is your priority today?  

In the early days of the violence, our first priority was to help medical facilities to cope with the influx of hundreds of wounded people. The ICRC helped doctors deal with the crisis in five hospitals in Osh and one in Jalalabad. Together with the Kyrgyz Red Crescent, the ICRC distributed medicines and surgical kits in 20 medical centres. A few days after the violence broke out, the ICRC started distributing water to people who fled the city of Osh. Providing access to drinkable water remains a priority. Over the six last days, close to 20,000 people in villages south of Osh have continued to receive water on a daily basis. Moreover the ICRC is supporting water board authorities supplying drinking water to the inhabitants of Osh.

In order to respond to their immediate needs, the ICRC and volunteers from the Kyrgyz Red Crescent distributed food rations in the city of Osh, and in Osh province along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Over 200,000 people have so far received rations of wheat flour and oil. Kitchen and hygiene items have also been distributed to 1700 families. Last week, food was delivered to around 1,000 people being held in places of detention in Osh and Jalalabad. In addition, the ICRC is working with the Kyrgyz Red Crescent to restore contact among family members separated from one another by the recent armed violence, and advising the authorities on handling mortal remains in a way that facilitates identification. We fear that, after the violence is over, a number of families will be left without any information about what happened to their loved ones, and we know how much suffering there is when a relative goes missing.

Another top priority is to be able to cope with medical problems among the people who decide to return home.

In order to do all this, we have obviously had to expand our resources very rapidly. The ICRC now operates with around 32 staff in Bishkek and 45 in Osh. An office in Jalalabad will also open soon.

 What is preventing some internally displaced people and refugees from returning home?  

Although thousands of people have started to return home, people still fear for their safety. There have also been allegations of fresh violence. The security forces attempting to restore law and order are viewed with apprehension and suspicion, and the communities are mistrustful of each other. In addition, there has been widespread destruction of private property, and many people have no homes to return to. The behaviour of the security forces in the coming days and weeks will be a key factor in restoring a climate of trust, and we urge them to exercise their functions with all due consideration for the affected communities. The authorities, too, in order to prevent a resurgence of violence, will have to demonstrate commitment to the fight against impunity for those who have perpetrated crimes in connection with the recent turmoil.

 How do you see the situation evolving?  

We fear that tensions will not be resolved soon, and that those currently affected will need further protection and assistance until, hopefully, the situation normalizes. The level of violence has left deep wounds in the communities, and the authorities face real challenges in dealing with resentment and the ethnic divide amid voting taking place on important issues. Communities hosting people displaced by the violence face tremendous pressures, and need help. Carrying out humanitarian activities in such an environment is a very delicate matter. A number of major aid agencies are still facing difficulties deploying their operations.

The ICRC, thanks to its office in Osh, was on ground carryi ng out its activities at the height of the violence. We succeeded in meeting some of the most urgent needs, but feel that the response must now be sustained. We are in the process of delivering a one-month supply of food and renewable hygiene and baby items for up to 200,000 people, and household essentials for people without homes. If necessary, we will continue to provide food and renewable items for another three months.

As soon as possible, the aid effort will promote the early recovery of livelihoods, in order to ensure that the wave of violence does not create new long-term vulnerabilities and fuel further tensions. But this will not happen right away.

 Some say that the situations in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are not comparable. What is the ICRC doing for refugees in Uzbekistan?  

The situation in Uzbekistan is very different. There are no tensions or security problems. There, the authorities were faced with a massive influx of refugees in a very short period of time. Initially we were talking about some 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom are women and children who fled to Andijan, and to a lesser extent to the Fergana and Namangan areas, in a matter of days. Our staff on ground confirm that the authorities have handled the influx of refugees remarkably well, despite being unprepared for such numbers.

The authorities nevertheless need support to sustain their response, and the international community is mobilizing. Food, water, certain sanitary and hygiene items for women and children, and clothing are the main items needed.

The Uzbek Red Crescent, especially its branches in Andijan, Fergana and Namangan, worked together with the authorities from the very beginning to meet the refugees'needs. In addition, thanks to our emergency response capacity, the ICRC delivered three planeloads of assi stance within the first week, which covered part of the needs until other partners within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, coordinated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, could deploy.

The ICRC's activities – part of the Movement's response to this refugee crisis – are now focusing on restoring or maintaining contact between the refugees and their relatives in Kyrgyzstan, and on meeting water and sanitation needs in two camps in the Andijan area. Our 13 staff currently in Andijan work together with the Uzbek Red Crescent and coordinate their activities with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.