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As Uzbek refugees return to Kyrgyzstan, UNICEF airlifts aid to affected region

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1261/Estey
Workers offload a cargo plane that landed in Andijan, Uzbekistan on the morning 26 June carrying 32 metric tonnes of relief supplies for ethnic Uzbeks affected by violence in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

By Rob McBride

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, 28 June, 2010 – Mashura Mamakhanova’s thumb and index finger seem impossibly large as they caress her daughter’s tiny hand in the incubator where the newborn sleeps. Born 10 weeks premature, the baby weighs just 900 grammes, but doctors at the Perinatal Centre in Andijan, Uzbekistan had no choice but to induce her birth.

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“The doctors had already told me I was in critical condition with kidney problems and high blood pressure,” Ms. Mamakhanova, 30, said from her hospital bed, where she must still spend most of her day.

She was being treated in a clinic in the city of Osh in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan when attacks against the ethnic Uzbek community swept through the south of the country earlier this month.

Return of refugees

“Everyone from the hospital left and there was only the chief doctor protecting us,” Ms. Mamakhanova recalled. It soon became clear that she was unsafe and, despite her condition, she decided to leave. With her house burned out and no word on what had become of her husband, she headed for the border with Uzbekistan, like tens of thousands of other Uzbeks.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1267/Estey
Mashura Mamakhanova visits her baby daughter, born 10 weeks premature, in an incubator at the Perinatal Centre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, where 41 pregnant women fleeing violence in Kyrgyzstan have received treatment.

When border guards realized how critical her condition was, they sent her by ambulance to this centre in Tashkent.

Ms. Mamakhanova was one of 41 women with complications from pregnancy who were referred here as they fled from Kyrgyzstan. Around 90 percent of the 80,000 or more refugees who crossed the border two weeks ago were women and children, posing particular problems for the authorities in Uzbekistan.

UNICEF responded to the special needs of women and children who fled with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. In addition to health kits, blankets and tents, the organization provided them with soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, sanitary pads, and diapers and clothes for infants and newborns.

32 tonnes of aid

Just as extraordinary as the mass exodus of mid-June has been the sudden return of nearly all the refugees back to Kyrgyzstan in recent days. Ms. Mamakhanova and only a handful of other women, too sick to move, remain behind at the Andijan centre.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1268/Estey
Refugee Mashhura Mamakhanova, who fled her home in the Kyrgyz city of Osh while pregnant, touches the hand of her premature baby daughter at Andijan Prenatal Centre in Uzbekistan.

For the international community and relief agencies, the challenge now is getting aid to those who have returned – especially around Osh.

“Thirty percent of Osh has been destroyed or damaged,” said UNICEF Representative in Uzbekistan Jean-Michel Delmotte. “This is a very desperate situation, so I think the assistance is very needed on other side of the border, now.”

Mr. Delmotte was speaking in front of a specially chartered aircraft, which had just landed at Andijan airport, bringing 32 tonnes of relief aid from UNICEF’s global supply hub in Copenhagen. Included in the UNICEF shipment are essential health and hygiene equipment and supplies needed to sustain a displaced population of thousands of families for up to three months. In support of the effort, the US Government chartered the plane used to bring in the aid.

Fear of more violence

In the coming days, the supplies will be delivered to members of the ethnic Uzbek community, who have begun rebuilding their homes and lives in Kyrgyzstan. “They will serve people in Kyrgyzstan and they will follow the flow of return of refugees,” said Mr. Delmotte.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1266/Estey
UNICEF Representative in Uzbekistan Jean-Michel Delmotte (left) speaks with US Ambassador to Uzbekistan Richard Norland at Andijan airport as UNICEF supplies are unloaded from a plane chartered by the US Government.

Still, some fear this region could witness another refugee influx if political developments in Kyrgyzstan – including a referendum held this weekend – produce more violence.

“The stories that we heard from the refugees were horrific,” said the US Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Richard Norland, who had travelled to Andijan to witness the aid flight’s arrival. “And naturally, nobody wants that to happen again,” he added.

Need for reconciliation

As UNICEF staff in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan work with the authorities in both countries to facilitate the shipment of the aid across the border, there is a general feeling that after the turmoil and violence of recent weeks, what is needed is a period of stability.

“On the political side, there is a lot to be done on reconciliation of different ethnicities,” said Mr. Delmotte of UNICEF. 

For her part, Mashura Mamakhanova, still in the maternity unit, is uncertain about what the future holds. “I don’t know if I can ever go back to Osh,” she said tearfully.

Her immediate concern is the health of her daughter, who continues to fight all the usual challenges of premature birth. The baby does not even have a name yet. Ms. Mamakhanova wants her husband to choose it, but just where he is and what has happened to him, she acknowledged, she has no idea.




27 June 2010: UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on a relief flight arriving at Andijan airport, Uzbekistan, with aid from UNICEF's global supply hub in Copenhagen.
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