By Laura Sheahen, Catholic Relief Services Communications Officer (CRS is a Caritas member and been mandated by Caritas to lead on the Kyrgyzstan crisis)
“They shot bullets through the windows and kicked at the door,” says Ulkhozho Tillyaev, a 52-year-old man living in the city of Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan. “Then they threw bottles filled with gasoline and lit our house on fire.”
Ulkhozho, his wife, and three children survived the rampage, but their house was completely burned. Sitting on a blanket in their yard surrounded by charred belongings, his wife Mairom says her hands still shake remembering the night angry mobs burned dozens of homes in her neighborhood.
In two southern cities of this former Soviet country, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes in the space of a few days. Some fled to the border of the country or stayed with host families far away from the violence. Others barricaded themselves inside their city neighborhoods, blocking the roads with felled trees or piles of rocks. Now they sleep on porches, in half-burned rooms, or anywhere not covered by broken glass and ashes.
“My ten-year-old son is afraid to go out,” says Mairom. “He thinks the police will grab him.”
Though some describe the violence as ethnic conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, many victims are quick to say that their neighbors in the city did not take part. Some Kyrgyz townspeople kept vigil to protect their Uzbek neighbors, standing guard all night on certain streets. One Kyrgyz family took in the grown son of an Uzbek neighbor and promised to watch the Uzbek family’s cow.
But the townspeople couldn’t stop the worst of the violence.
“We climbed up on the roof and escaped to another house via the roofs,” says Marguba Kamabarova, a 32-year-old woman. The roofs of many houses in these neighborhoods are connected to each other; this both spread the fire but often enabled people to escape first. Once Marguba and her two children were safe, the family had “nowhere to go,” she says.
Not far from Marguba’s burned home, four families live in two rooms and the courtyard of a building that was under construction during the violence, and thus not targeted. “We sleep dressed and with our bags packed in case we have to run,” says a woman in her sixties, sitting outside on a bedstead where a sparse meal of potatoes has been spread.
Caritas teams are visiting the affected families and working with local partners–including Jesuit priests–to help them.
Shelter will be key. Although it is warm in Kyrgyzstan now, many newly homeless families fear the winter cold, which comes as early as September.
“I’m disabled, I don’t work. We live on my wife’s father’s pension,” says Ulkhozho. “Our life was hard before. Now everything we had is gone.”