Native Uzbeks living in Iran gathered yesterday to stage protests outside a number of European embassies in the capital Tehran. Their demand -- to be granted political asylum in the West. Iran's Uzbek refugees typically fled their country in the 1990s, following a state crackdown on religious Muslims. Now, they are unable to return home, prevented by Uzbek authorities who accuse them of being members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist organization. But the refugees deny the claims, and speak only about the hardship of life in exile in Iran.
Prague, 18 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty-five-year-old Mastura and her 42-year-old husband, Bobur, are natives of the Uzbek city of Namangan, in the Ferghana Valley.
In the past decade, they have lived in four different countries -- Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Of their five children, the three youngest were born outside of Uzbekistan, into a family with no official status, no work, and no way to return home to a country where they had been labeled as terrorists.
Bobur left Uzbekistan for Tajikistan during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war between the Tajik government and Islamic opposition. He says he fled Uzbekistan because of the authorities' persecution of Muslims.
Soon, Mastura decided to take their two children and follow him, after she was harassed for teaching Islam in Namangan.
Bobur admits to joining a group of militants in Tajikistan, but denies he ever received military training or participated in any operations. "Married men lived in villages. I knew cooking and worked as a cook. I told them I could cook and they gave me a job. It was the best job there," he told RFE/RL. "I never participated in operations. They didn't send married men, only mujarrats. Bachelors are called 'mujarrats.'"
Several months later, Bobur met Juma Namangani -- one of the IMU leaders, who was based in northern Afghanistan at the time -- when he came to Tajikistan to recruit new fighters.
"I didn't see Tahir [Yuldosh, the other IMU leader], because he was in Afghanistan," bobur said. "But Juma Namangani visited [Tajikistan] a couple of times and gave speeches. In his speech, he said, 'We will live in Uzbekistan after we liberate it.' He didn't speak much. He just knew what to say. So, I saw him twice. Then we went to Afghanistan where we were taken to the base."
The IMU was included in the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations in 2000 after they raided southern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in summer 1999 and 2000.
Bobur and his family lived in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, and then in the capital Kabul. But despite their involvement with the IMU, he said once again he did not participate in military operations. He said he used to repair vehicles at the IMU base until the U.S.-led antiterror coalition started bombing terrorist bases in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. Namangani was reportedly killed in the operations in late 2001. Yuldosh's whereabouts have not been known for some time.
Bobur and his family managed to escape the bombings.
"When the bombing started, we got in the car. We drove for a day, then walked for another day and reached the Pakistani border," bobur said. "The border guards thought we were Afghan refugees. We didn't say we were Uzbeks [from Uzbekistan]. We said we were Uzbeks from Afghanistan. They let us in."
After living in the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Peshawar for four years, Mastura and Bobur moved to Iran this spring.
Alisher Saipov, an independent journalist from the Kyrgyz city of Osh, recently visited Iran and met with Uzbeks there. He told RFE/RL that there are some 90 Uzbeks from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan living in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan, and several more in Mashhad and Tehran.
"They are very poor and desperate, their economic conditions are hard," Saipov said. "Their houses are old and falling apart. Some of them have to beg for a living. Those with some skills and experience work as house painters, carpenters, or do other kind of work. Every man has three or four children. The women are housewives. The children don't go to school."
Hotam is a 34-year-old native of Andijon, the site of a bloody government crackdown in mid-May. He has lived in Zahedan for four years. Hotam says he was persecuted in Andijon for his religious activity. A devout Muslim, he attended mosque and also conducted business in connection with the mosque. In 1997, he left Uzbekistan for Tajikistan. Two years later, he said, he was forced to move on to Afghanistan.
"They forcibly transferred all of us, the old and the young, women and men [from Tajikistan to Afghanistan], and kept us in a special camp," Hotam said. "They didn't let us go outside. We were not allowed to talk to anyone. The camp had a barbed-wire fence and was guarded by armed Taliban warriors."
Hotam also denies having had any involvement in military operations. He escaped the U.S.-led bombing campaign and fled to Pakistan, and then Iran.
Iran's Uzbek refugees traveled to Tehran, where yesterday they staged protests outside the Dutch, Italian, and German embassies. Protesters said they decided to seek asylum in the West after the Andijon violence in May led to hundreds of deaths and was strongly condemned by Western governments. Hundreds of Uzbeks were granted asylum in the West after fleeing Andijon and entering Kyrgyzstan.
"We've been here in Iran for 3 1/2 years," one male protester said. "The reason we haven't contacted the Iranian government is that the world didn't know about the nature of the regime in Uzbekistan and [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov until recently. But after 13 May [and the violence in Andijon], it became clear who Karimov is. Then, we decided to go to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. But our case hasn't been solved yet, so we came to the Dutch Embassy."
The protesters said it was mainly for the sake of their children that they sought political asylum in the West. With no official status, Mastura's children are unable to attend school or have medical insurance.
"My children have the hardest life," she said. "I teach them what I know myself. But they can't receive a proper education. We don't have documents, so we can't send our kids to school. My eldest son is 13. My daughter is 9. It is a school age, but they have never been to school."
UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville told RFE/RL from Geneva that the refugee agency's office in Zahedan has begun to consider the Uzbeks' case.
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