The status of thousands of Mesketian Turks living in Kyrgyzstan remains unresolved, more than half a century after being deported to the former Soviet republic by Stalin in the forties.
"Several days ago, I was very sick but I could not get treatment in hospital because I do not have citizenship, I still have the red Soviet passport. I am an invalid (disabled person). Last year I paid US $50 to lie in hospital," with tears in her eyes, Gulchehra Hazikova, a 48-year-old Meshitin-Turk, told IRIN in Novopavlovka village, near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
"After the events in Ferghana valley in 1989 [ethnic riots that led to an exodus] I moved with my family to Kabardino-Balkaria [in the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation]. I came to Kyrgyzstan in 1993, but still cannot get Kyrgyz citizenship," Faramuz Ahmedov, another Mesketian Turk from the same community, said.
Nearly 100,000 Meskhetian Turks were deported to Central Asia from their native Georgia in 1944 on Stalin's orders. Russia considered the Meskhetian Turks a problem on several fronts. As Turkish-speaking Muslims, Meskhetian Turks had strong social ties to Turkey and proved to be resistant as a group to Soviet assimilation. Roughly 15,000 people died of starvation or cold en route.
It has been suggested that Stalin saw Meskhetians as potential troublemakers, despite the fact that Meskhetians had exhibited no signs of disloyalty. On the contrary, more than half the 40,000 Meskhetian Turks in the Red Army died fighting Nazi forces.
In the 60 years since deportation, Meskhetian Turks have integrated into the region with varying degrees of success but their sense of ethnic and social identity remains strong. They continue to lobby for repatriation to Georgia. In Kyrgyzstan they are often subject to discriminatory and abusive treatment by the local authorities who may grant or may withhold residence permits.
In June 1989 tragedy struck the Meskhetian community a second time. The outbreak of ethnic violence in the Ferghana Valley area of Uzbekistan prompted them to uproot themselves again. Meskhetians were once again scattered across Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
According to Gulkiz Gasanova, executive secretary of the Turkish National Centre in Bishkek, an NGO supporting the group, there are at least 2,000 people in Kyrgyzstan are in the same situation as Gulchehra and Faramuz, rendering them effectively stateless.
The official Meshketian Turk population in Kyrgyzstan is put at more than 33,000 people but the unofficial figure is around 50,000 people. Many of them have had their ethnic and national identity erased and their passports simply state they are Azerbaijani, Georgian or Armenian.
"It is very sad that I cannot even have my native nationality," Umar Uysupov, a Meskhetian Turkish elder living in Ala-Archa, a village close to the capital, noted, as he showed IRIN his Soviet-era passport that records his nationality as Georgian. The majority of Meshketian Turks, after the events in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana valley, moved to Russia and Azerbaijan. This wave of Meshketian migration to Kyrgyzstan was from 1993-1997. But many returned to Central Asia to be with relatives, as it was difficult to secure permits to stay in Russia.
Those who stayed in Kyrgyzstan were promised that after five years they would be eligible for citizenship but most are still waiting.
"We raised this issue with the National Committee on Citizenship within the Ministry of Internal affairs and even asked former president Akaev but there were only promises. We have asked UNHCR [office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] here and now we are waiting for its response," added Gasanova.
"I went to Azerbaijan in 1989 from Fergana and lived there for six years, in an old railway carriage, it was very difficult. I could not get permission to stay there, so I moved to Kyrgyzstan in 1995 because my brother was there, and helped me. You cannot imagine, I had nothing; I left everything in my house in Ferghana. Now here I have [a] two rooms house, which we built ourselves but still do not have Kyrgyz citizenship," Hazikova told IRIN.
The group say they suffer discrimination, a lack of medical treatment and no proper jobs or education.
"I cannot work legally here because it is necessary to have [a] passport. My passport is not valid now," Ahmedov told IRIN. "I am afraid to go out, because the police stop me frequently."
Kyrgyz authorities say the problem is basically administrative. “If a person have been living in Kyrgyzstan for more than five years, he/she can apply for Kyrgyz citizenship through the local district," Erkin Arapbaev, deputy head of the passport section of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior Affairs, told IRIN.
"There are some categories of people who apply but do not have the right documents. People themselves have to gather documents, it is not our obligation,” Arapbaev said.
Many Meshketian Turks have married locally, which creates further problems. The majority are living without marriage certificates or birth certificates for their children, though in some cases bribery may help obtain the documents.
"Children who are born to parents who do not have citizenship, like many Meshketian Turks, do not have documents, so they cannot get medical treatment, they cannot go to school, so education among this group is very low," commented Gasanova.
Many are hoping the recent regime change in Bishkek will mean a change of policy towards Meshketian Turks and other former Soviet citizens such as Kurds and some Uzbeks who have no legal status in Kyrgyzstan.