Men, women and children from Too Moyun village in Osh province, southern Kyrgyzstan, sweat in the baking summer heat to complete the walls of a school in time for the new term in the autumn. They are building the school because the village, along with hundreds of others in the volatile region, suffers from accidents of history, geography and politics - most of its meagre resources now lie in the neighbouring state of Uzbekistan, just across a barbed wire fence, but for the villagers, a world away.
"We need somewhere for our children to go to school. Since the border went up they have had to travel too far to get to a school on the Kyrgyz side," Haticha Jumbaeva told IRIN as she took a break from heaving roof timbers onto the school building site. The villagers grow wheat and cotton to survive. Many have relatives a stone's throw away, but visiting them often requires a visa - they are over the border in Uzbekistan. Much of the population views these new restrictions with hostility and has felt the disruption in traditional patterns of commerce and society acutely.
HISTORY OF TENSION
The 300 km Ferghana Valley, a single structure geographically, operated as a relatively unfractured political and economic unit until 1991. But since independence that year, the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have partitioned the area with border lines that form a tangled knot, indecipherable on a map and implausible in practice.
Many of the current difficulties can be traced directly back to a difficult Soviet legacy. Moscow established administrative borders of its Central Asian republics in the mid-1920s, which followed neither natural geographic boundaries nor strict ethnic lines. Soviet planners often avoided drawing more homogeneous or compact republics for fear they would fuel ethnic separatism. Further, given the highly centralised nature of Soviet planning, economic and transport links were designed to cross republic borders freely. Goods flowed largely unimpeded across these internal borders, and people would notice little more than a plaque or a small police outpost as they moved between republics.
Today, at least 50 places along the border are contested between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and, despite warmer relations, some between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Islands of territory, designated part of one country, have been completely surrounded by another, forming enclaves that are completely impractical tributes to the national pride of the three nations intertwined
in the valley. These enclaves are the legacy of a time when republics were permitted to secure the long-term lease of territory from other republics. Border demarcations that were once of little significance are now affecting the lives of ordinary people in dramatic ways.
The main road linking the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh with the provincial town of Batken, 200 km to the southwest, passes straight through a bubble of Uzbek territory. Dishevelled Uzbek conscript border guards demand passports and transit visas from Kyrgyz citizens and foreigners alike. An hour later, having crossed the enclave, the traveller is confronted by more border
guards crossing back into Kyrgyzstan. Such restrictions have a major impact on the social and economic life of the valley.
"The borders here [around the Uzbek enclave] are just a waste of time. You see how they stop every car, check all the documents. What a disruption, and for what?" the deputy governor of Batken province, Tokto Ilimbezova, told IRIN as she waited in the heat for a border guard to return her passport as she returned from a regional meeting in Osh. Uzbekistan has strengthened or closed many of its border crossings with its neighbours after terror attacks in the capital Tashkent and the city of Bukhara earlier this year were blamed on foreign religious extremists.
According to "Calming the Ferghana Valley", a report sponsored by the Centre for Preventive Action, "prevention of violent conflict over the long haul requires more than the right policies by governments. It also requires measures to make those governments accountable, to make information about brewing tensions that could lead to trouble available, and to enable citizens to take responsibility for managing their own affairs under the rule of law."
The construction of the Too Moyun school is part of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) initiative to reduce conflict and promote tolerance and development among the people of the Ferghana Valley. "The programme provides support to local projects like the school, but also works to improve conflict resolution skills among local authorities and has an early warning capacity - to try and prevent conflict from breaking out," Olga Grebennikova, UNDP's public affairs officer in Kyrgyzstan, said.
The Ferghana region is one of the poorest in Central Asia, although the fertile land of the valley has the potential to fuel economic growth if agricultural reform and foreign investment are forthcoming. The collapse of state-owned farms and industrial establishments has contributed to widespread unemployment. Drug and human trafficking, intravenous drug use and seasonal labour migration are all contributing to destabilise this vulnerable region. Support for radical Islamic groups is growing.
In July 1999, Islamic militants from Tajikistan infiltrated the remote province of Batken and later seized five mountain villages, taking a team of Japanese geologists hostage. The militants wanted to force the release of 50,000 Muslims held in Uzbek prisons and to reopen thousands of mosques and religious training institutions. Reacting to this threat, the Uzbek air force bombed the mountains above the provincial town of Batken. It was just one in a series of clashes in the Ferghana Valley since the three nations became independent.
DISPUTES OVER SCARCE RESOURCES
These days, conflict tends to be a result of the deterioration of social infrastructure that has deprived many people of access to affordable education, adequate health care and basic services such as potable water and irrigation systems for agriculture. Three out of four villages in Osh and Batken provinces lack access to drinking water and typhoid is on the rise.
"We had a fight with people on the Uzbek side [of the border] over water. I spent a week in hospital after being hit on the head with a spade," one villager said. Rivers and streams that have traditionally irrigated the lands snake down the valley, now passing into different countries as many as 20 times. The region has always been short of water but the new borders have set community against community, family against family. "Many of the disputes are over water, for irrigating crops as well as drinking, so helping to identify and retain water supply systems for these border villages is critical," Usem Shainazarov, a regional UNDP preventive development officer, said.
At another border village, Askhar, not far from Too Moyun, the community are trying to accomplish just this. "We need to divert water from the river Nyman, then we would have our own supply for most of the year," Iskender Narmatov, head of the NGO responsible for the water initiative, said. "There's the small problem of US $6,000 to buy the materials, but the villagers will provide all the labour for free."
A number of grass roots NGOs like Iskender's in each of the countries are working to monitor government activities, share information and promote civic involvement. However, they face difficult working conditions. Even more than their counterparts in northern Kyrgyzstan, NGOs in the Osh region suffer from a lack of community involvement, difficulty in accessing information and extreme dependence on scarce foreign funding. Furthermore, the challenges of daily life leave little time for NGO work.
Alongside UNDP, other international organisations such as USAID, the World Bank and DFID have recognised to boost local capacity by working through local NGOs. "Our governments are not taking the initiative, so we as the people affected have to move towards resolving the border and economic problems," Abdirahim Burkutov, head of a Batken NGO working on building links between border communities, said.
Regional analyst and author Ahmed Rashid told IRIN that the major issue in the Ferghana Valley which the bordering countries needed to address was the establishment was a more flexible cross-border regime to facilitate the movement of people. "This can be only done through community level initiatives," he stressed.
Rashid added that the Ferghana Valley remained a pocket of "enormous instability" in the region, the stabilisation and development of which was linked to the need to improve conditions in countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), "Negotiations over border demarcation in the valley have been charged with tension and have stalled over scores of disputed points. While talks continue with a broad understanding that border issues must be settled, there is little likelihood of a final breakthrough any time soon".
UNDP is trying to show the way by ensuring offices in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan cooperate as far as possible. "The future has to be in cross-border cooperation. UNDP is making this a reality between many Kyrgyz and Tajik villages on the common border. It's an important start," Anna Mateeva, a UNDP regional peace and development adviser, said.