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It was an important visit as relations between the two states have been difficult in the past. This had inevitably affected communities along the border, with locals facing tight travel restrictions. For instance, Uzbeks and Turkmen living on one side can visit relatives on the other only once a month, for three days at a time.
When I found out that one of the events surrounding Karimov’s visit was a Turkmen-Uzbek “festival of friendship” in the northern Turkmen region of Dashoguz that adjoins Uzbekistan, I decided to go there and see the situation for myself.
My trip to Turkmenistan was not easy. I had to deal with lengthy questioning by Turkmen customs officers and suspicion from police. Under such circumstances, I did not dare to keep notes, trying instead to memorise what people told me. I also had to take photographs in secret.
The Turkmen regions of Dashoguz and Lebap are home to a significant population of ethnic Uzbeks. It is estimated that Uzbeks account for 9.2 per cent of Turkmenistan’s total population of five million. Meanwhile, over 150,000 ethnic Turkmen live in border regions of Uzbekistan including Khorezm, Surkhandarya and Karakalpakstan. The late president Saparmurat Niazov of Turkmenistan regarded the Uzbek community with some suspicion, especially after a failed assassination attempt in 2002, in which he accused Tashkent of complicity. This was followed by moves against local Uzbeks that included the removal of their representatives from senior positions and the closure of all Uzbek-language schools. In 2008, many ethnic Uzbeks living in border areas were deported, families were divided and some were refused passports.
Working in Uzbekistan, I know how difficult it is to be a journalist in an authoritarian country which does not tolerate any criticism and is not supportive of a free media.
But my Turkmen trip gave a taste of how the atmosphere of mutual mistrust at the top political level trickles down to ordinary people and a foreign reporter is treated almost like a spy. When I was passing through customs on the Turkmen side, my bags were checked just as the luggage of other people crossing the border. But equipped with a notebook and a camera, I must have stood out and was therefore sent for additional checks. I was held up there for more than an hour while a customs officer checked my mobile, camera and laptop. For reasons that he did not explain to me, the officer said did not like some photos on my camera and I had to promise I would delete them.
Even after I successfully crossed the border, the task of gathering information was not an easy one. I talked to members of the Uzbek minority who were very friendly but fearful. The person who I stayed with was very polite but, whatever questions I asked him, he kept saying that everything was good. He finally agreed to talk directly but not before he sent out his son to check whether there were any strangers outside his house. “You won’t be able to understand us,” this elderly Uzbek said, adding that in Turkmenistan they are banned from expressing their own culture.
“Any protest is prevented by various means,” he said, noting that the state policy was aimed at assimilating Uzbeks. He also added that in implementing this policy, the authorities rely on law enforcement bodies consisting of Turkmens only.
There were not many people who decided to open up to me like my host. Another Uzbek said that it was normal for people to fear speaking out. “Over the last 15 years people learned to be fearful as their grandmothers and grandfathers used to do during the Stalinist [era],” he told me.
One Turkmen woman who I managed to talk to kept telling me about how great Turkmen culture was. When I asked how about Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, she replied, “They have already become or will become Turkmen anyway.” Taking pictures was another challenge. Uzbeks who accompanied me asked me to hide my camera. When I defied their requests and took a picture of a group of Uzbeks in the centre of Dashoguz, a man came out of a nearby administrative building and demanded that I put away my camera.
At another place, policemen stared at us when I managed to briefly take some photos. My driver asked me to stop, adding, “They must have taken us for visitors from another region in Turkmenistan, otherwise they would have chased us.”
Once, while introducing me to a local entrepreneur, an Uzbek accompanying me, let it slip that I was a journalist from Uzbekistan. The businessman immediately refused to talk, insisting that he would have to first get permission from the authorities.
As we exited his office, we could hear him already making the call. It was at this point that I decided that it was time to leave Turkmenistan. At the checkpoint on the way back, I was met by a group of custom officers and taken to an office where I was questioned for two hours. The local Uzbek who accompanied me was also taken for questioning into a different room. Having inspected my notebook, they let me go. But I was held up once more at the border crossing where the guards took an interest in my laptop and camera. After that a plain-clothes officer arrived and questioned me for another two hours.
I was relieved when I finally crossed back into Uzbekistan. Now, at least part of my job had been done, and what was left was to collect information back home, among Uzbek Turkmens. This had its own challenges, but at least I was not suspected of being a foreign spy. Rashid Usmamov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Uzbekistan.
By Rashid Usmanov - News Briefing Central Asia http://iwpr.net/report-news/