Journalists from Uzbekistan settle in Sweden and even organize protest actions
Sitting at a street cafe, we sip a weak beer (some local brand) and watch pretty blondes cycling by.
"Sweden is a country of cyclists," Kudrat Babadjanov said.
Babadjanov has been in Sweden since February when he and several other Uzbek journalists were granted political asylum in this country. The nationwide campaign against independent media outlets that followed the massacre in Andijan resulted in a journalistic exodus from Uzbekistan. Bureaus of RL/RFE, BBC, and office of IWPR - foreign media outlets employing a great deal of local correspondents - were closed in Uzbekistan. Lots of correspondents who had spoken up on what was happening in the country left Uzbekistan for fear of arrest or reprisals.
"Hirelings like notorious Galima Buharbayeva made their reports from the den of gunmen," pro-government newspaper Pravda Vostoka wrote in May 2005. "How much longer are we expected to tolerate these provocations? We have a saying in Uzbekistan "Pichok sujakka tegdi" [The knife cuts to the very bone - Ferghana.Ru]. This can't be allowed to go on, and this whole bunch of journalists should be sent to some other country. Let them look for "war and peace" over there. We should also show on TV channels photos of the journalists who wouldn't even balk at using the people's woes and blood to promote their interests..."
It became clear to Uzbek correspondents of IWPR that these were not empty threats. Tulkin Karayev was arrested on charges of hooliganism and thrown behind the bars for ten days. He was eventually released and detained again two days later. The journalist spent five hours in a police station only to have his papers confiscated from him. Knowing all too well that another arrest might end in imprisonment for years, Karayev left the country altogether.
IWPR correspondent and Uznews.net editor Babajanov was told in no uncertain terms that he should leave the country or stay on and face the music. Alerted by the reprisals taking place all over Uzbekistan, Babajanov moved to Kyrgyzstan.
Other Uzbek journalists also escaped and ended up in this Central Asian country. Granted the status of refugees, they eventually made it to the third countries - Great Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden. Five Uzbek journalists ended up in Sweden - Matljuba Azamatova, Karayev, Yusuf Rasulov, Babajanov, and Zokirjon Ibragimov.
Attending a seminar for journalists in Sweden not long ago, this correspondent met with his Uzbek colleagues.
As it turned out, all of them are quite all right. From the standpoint of an ordinary citizen of Uzbekistan, Sweden is truly a Promised Land...
"We belong there, in Uzbekistan," Karayev explained.
There is more to life than material well-being. They find life in Sweden boring. These men find problems of their native country interesting but that is not something they can discuss with the Swedes, particularly since they do not speak the Swedish language. They long for communications and the feeling that they are doing something worthwhile. Free journalism in Uzbekistan is something dangerous and thrilling. These men are like deep-water fish brought to the surface. No pressure, no struggle they are used to - and life becomes boring...
The men remain journalists even in the comfortable Sweden. They publish the newspaper Erk [Freedom] in the Russian and Uzbek languages, they post articles in Internet, and arrange sporadic protest actions. One of these actions dedicated to the first anniversary of Andijan took place in the town of Kalmar where this correspondent was attending the seminar at the moment.
The Swedes were mostly interested in sexy models. Whenever they glanced at the Uzbeks, it was more with surprise rather than interest. It did not prevent the Uzbeks from phoning someone from Ozodlik with a report that the protest action was successfully under way.
"Where is it - Uzbekistan?" someone asked.
"Uzbekistan is a country bordering on Afghanistan," this correspondent explained.
It took the girl a moment or two to digest the information.
"Oh, I know! Uzbekistan - Ben Laden," she finally said with a smile.
Several young Uzbeks from Andijan were sighted nearby. (They were from the group of 400 or so fugitives that made it to Kyrgyzstan, were given asylum there, and thus fomented an Uzbek-Kyrgyz conflict.) They kept their distance from Karayev, Rasulov, and Babajanov and disappeared when informed that my colleague and me were going back to Uzbekistan right after the seminar.
BBC correspondent Azamatova also came to Kalmar and also kept her distance. Azamatova is fairly skeptical of Erk and its leader Muhammad Salikh. She lives in Stockholm. She was initially given an apartment in some small township too but turned up in the capital of Sweden a couple of months later. Grants from the government enable her and her children to live without thinking of their daily bread.
Not so adults who find beginning from scratch immeasurably more difficult. Particularly since their mentality - so different from Swedish - is fairly set in the moulds of ingrained values, priorities, and prejudices.
IWPR correspondent Ibragimov turned up when our stay in Sweden was approaching its end. He was also granted political asylum in Sweden. Ironically, Ibragimov had attended a similar seminar for journalists in Kalmar several years ago and decided to come over and see his tutors now. According to Ibragimov, there are about 30 fugitives from Andijan in Kalmar. They are quite tight-lipped as a rule.
It may be added that our colleagues and fugitives from Andijan are not the first Uzbeks who found political asylum in Sweden. Former correspondent of INTERFAX Abdurashid Sharipov came here more a decade ago. Some unidentified criminals all but killed him in Tashkent when he wrote a piece on suppression of student riots in the capital of Uzbekistan in 1992.