Second day in Andijon. We meet a larger group of UN staff from different agencies; everyone has their t-shirts on – UNHCR, WFP, UNFP, OCHA – alphabet soup. We’re supposed to assist in a qualitative assessment. We’ve been allowed to enter camps and talk to refugees. Though I’m not completely okay with the survey model, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to have individual conversations. First we went to the border crossing at Yor Kishlok. The place was completely deserted. The border guards told us they closed the border on June 10 and never reopened it. My eyes followed the border crossing as it became a fence and split a village in half. These borders were designated by men sitting in offices in a country far from here by who knows what means; they obviously didn’t take into consideration the population that live here.
We went to a camp that wasn’t far from the border – again loads of military and road blocks control what little traffic is moving about, mostly white land cruisers. As we entered the camp, an Uzbek television crew followed us. I approached one of the UN officials on my team and asked why he was being allowed to record our interviews as these could be highly personal, tragic, and even contentious. She tells me it’s not our choice to make. A bad feeling starts to rumble inside me.
We’re introduced to the woman managing the camp, and begin to enter the area where the tents are set up. We are immediately approached by two women who want to tell us what was happening in Osh. Three more women join, some children, then even more women. Soon my translator and I are surrounded by over a dozen women, two or three talking at the same time. My translator desperately tries to keep up with the women who are outraged at their situation and pleading with me – the foreigner – to help them. They recount terrible stories of traumatic events experienced. I’m stunned for minutes, frozen in place, and then I see the camera man. I give him a look and wave my hand in front of my face, ‘Don’t do this,’ I try to pantomime. My translator is using a monotone voice to repeat what these women are saying, but she’s hearing it first hand, with all the emotion, anger and frustration in recounting the horror that they experienced on the other side of the border. Somehow I managed a sentence or two, “We are praying for you,” I begin, with my right hand on my heart, “but we are here to make sure your needs are met within this camp.” I am flooded with a barrage of reassurances that they are fine, that the Uzbek government has been taking good care of them, that they have everything they need, but it’s their husbands and brothers on the other side who need help. They wanted me to give them assurance that they can return to a peaceful country, where they will be safe. A guarantee. I suppose this is the fundamental human need – safety.
It was impossible for us to do any kind of assessment, and somehow we managed to break away from the circle that was rapidly enclosing us. We walked the perimeter of the camp; it was originally a summer camp for children and was very well maintained, in perfect condition. There are fewer people here than in the camps we visited yesterday. My translator is a bit traumatized and I know there’s no chance of getting any real information so we head for the car. We’re stopped by the woman managing the camp who wants to know why we are leaving so soon. I tell her that we have to summarize our information, but she’s holding a blue spiral bound booklet and wants to show us. There are digital images that have been compiled – four pictures on a page, and pages and pages of them. They’re awful. Dead bodies, some burned. I pull my translator away, she didn’t sign up for this. The camp manager tries to explain to me the atrocities of these photos. She seems almost numb.
We sit in the car and wait for the rest of the team. A huge entourage of 7 or 8 SUV’s drives by, circles, then lines up and parks at the entrance of the camp. The first car has an American flag. The rumbling feeling inside sinks and takes my stomach with it. I want to know who is visiting. There are heaps of media everywhere too. Thirty minutes later, a crowd emerges from the camp and I see a very tall man surrounded by people as he strides along. I can tell he’s the important one because he doesn’t have any notepads, phones or Blackberries. I assume the American ambassador is here, but it seems like a lot of attention for just the ambassador. It must be somebody bigger. He’s followed by a crowd of people, many with cameras. After they’ve all walked by, the SUV’s start their engines and slowly follow. I assume the important person is walking to get a photo-op, those of us working in the field are trying to limit our time in the hot sun. Three CNN guys return and stop to ask me about MSF, and tell me that the VIP is Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake. I wonder if the women in the camp asked him for the same guarantee they asked me. I wish I could say something to the Assistant Secretary. He drives by with his motorcade and I hold up the peace sign. I don’t even know if he saw me.