Kyrgyzstan: “I thought I would die there”

“Armed people came to the school and took away our computers and furniture. I saw the school burning and I cried. I shouted at them: ‘You don’t have to do it,’ but they said that they would burn our homes and kill us,” eight-year-old Marat explains, as he mimes how the men aimed their guns.

Thirteen-year-old Mustafa looks down at the ground and plays with the mat he is sitting on as he tells me what happened to him when the violence erupted. “I heard shots in the neighbour’s house. I hid with my family in the basement. I thought I would have to stay there forever; that I would die there.”

Marat, Mustafa and up to 200 other people are now seeking refuge in a school in Osh where they only have running water for an hour a day and have to sleep in the corridors because the classrooms have been locked by the authorities.

Some 400,000 people have been affected by the ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan, including 150,000 children many of whom show signs of emotional distress.

Mums living in the school tell me that some children have not spoken for days, some are experiencing distressing nightmares and others burst into tears when they recall the traumatic events they have witnessed. Feruza, who is an ethnic Uzbek, is one of them.

“I have friends who are Kyrgyz. I haven’t seen them since. I don’t know what will happen to our friendship,” she says. “It didn’t matter to me that they are Kyrgyz. We always do our homework together. I don’t know if I will see them again.”

While we are chatting a young boy hits his head on a window that is propped open in a vain attempt to get some air into the stifling room.

With the loud ricochet, heads turn and moments later there is an almost collective sigh of relief. It may not have sounded much like a gunshot to me, but then I haven’t lived through what these families have over the past few weeks.

Two days later I visit the school again. As I sit and chat to Feruza and her friends and they plait my hair and giggle at my attempt to write my name in Russian, I realise it is the first time I have seen them smile.

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