Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2010

Adjusting to Swedish life after the Andijan massacre

Five years ago, soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan, killing hundreds. Terrorists, said the government. Peaceful protesters, said human rights groups. The BBC's Monica Whitlock was expelled - but she met up again recently with one group of survivors, this time in Sweden.

Uzbek women and children at the demonstration
Uzbek women and children at the Andijan demonstration

"This place," says Bahram, shouting somewhat, "is amazing! You can't imagine! The schools, the hospitals! The way they live! And nothing's done by hand! Even the baking! Even cleaning the street! They have these little carts... you just press a button. The police! They smile at you and say 'Hey!'"

It was good to see him again. We last met in Andijan on a hot afternoon in May, 2005, as the demonstration reached its height.

Bahram had been desperately worried that things were about to implode.

The next day, the troops moved in. His son was shot dead.

Bahram disappeared - a cake-shop owner, a grandfather, hiding and moving from house to house, country to country - until the United Nations found him.

And now here we were on the Baltic coast. Frozen ships in a bay of ice. Quiet streets. Glittering shops. Prints of warm boots in the snow.

It is another world - a looking glass through which the Uzbeks see themselves and their country.

So even as Sweden amazes and delights Bahram, it breaks his heart. "If we had just a fragment of this development in Uzbekistan," he says. "If I could take just a tiny part of this when I go home..."

Tapped phones

Bahram, and all the Andijanis, are sure they will go home - one day. Until then, they try to stay in touch as best they can.

They gaze into computer screens to catch a glimpse through Skype of families they've left behind.

Bahram, left and Shamshuddin, right - Uzbek refugees in Sweden
For some survivors, the clock stopped that day in May... but Bahram and Shamshuddin have found some meaning in their transformation.

Back home, relatives upload shaky photos of weddings and children they've never seen.

Piercing sunshine, blue skies, yellow dust - it's home but behind glass. A reflection.

They can't chat on the phone, only "Hello and how are you?". Uzbek phones are, of course, tapped.

Somehow this slight, virtual contact only underlines how very far away the Andijanis are.

Bahram parcels out his days in tiny, manageable steps that keep him from tipping into despair. Breakfast. Prayers. Language lessons through the internet. Watering the plants on every window sill. Lunch - cooked by Andijani women and brought over hot. Prayers. Television time - and another day is done, another notch on the long measure of days that have already become years.

He has not acquired nor desired any possessions in this rich land. No distractions. He spends this measured time, instead, thinking, peering deeply into the looking glass.

"Here in Sweden there are laws," he says. "And even the government obeys them! There was a minister who did not pay his TV licence - and he lost his job. Can you imagine? And the way they treat people! We saw a prison and do you know, in the canteen, the prisoners take a tray and chose the food they want. Different salads, meats, yogurt… everything. Fresh! In prison! Oh my lord above!"

Lucky escape

Back home, Bahram spent six years accused, like thousands of people in Uzbekistan, of conspiring against the state.

He was beaten daily and his legs frozen with ice water. The Swedish doctors have now fixed his legs.

The younger Andijanis, too, reflect deeply on the extraordinary shift in their lives: "We have learnt so much by being here," says Shamshuddin.

Five years ago, aged 29, he lay among the dead and dying in the square at Andijan. By luck alone, he escaped.

He walked through the night out of Uzbekistan and into Kyrgyzstan. And there was the outside world: the foreign press, cameras, the United Nations.

Andijan refugees
Shamshuddin was among this group of refugees

He went to a Red Cross camp and became a news item - an image, a refugee.

"Only a day," he says. "On 13 May I had hopes, a family, my wife, three children, a house, a car, a business. By 14 May? Nothing. Not even a passport. I even wore another man's clothes, in another man's country. Just a day, and I was… somebody else."

Poised to leave

Shamshuddin has kept his mind together with the most extraordinary resolve during his five lonely years in Sweden.

He's learnt Swedish, worked hard, bought a car, set up a business and plans to open a cafe in Stockholm. And just before we arrived - the greatest news. His wife and family arrived in Sweden to join him, including the son he'd only seen as a new baby, now six years old.

They're already dressed in the bright, cosy clothes of Swedish children, swinging back-packs on their way to school.

For some survivors, the clock stopped on that day in May. Only the pain of separation is real. Others, like Bahram and Shamshuddin, have managed to find some meaning in their transformation.

Yet all the Uzbeks we met living along the frozen Baltic coast all have the air of people poised to leave again.

Arriving with nothing, they could sweep their lives into suitcases in half an hour, happily leaving behind this fancy new country - if it was safe to go home.

They are people still on a journey, still on their way through the looking glass.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Uzbekistan
14 Dec 11 |  Country profiles
How the Andijan killings unfolded
17 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Life in secretive Uzbekistan
27 Dec 09 |  Asia-Pacific


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