Exodus of the People of Karakalpakstan

10 posts

Niccolo and Donkey

Prospect Magazine

Jack Shenker and Jason Larkin

November 17, 2010

The Aral sea has shrunk to 10 per cent of its original size

Ziyo hunts by day and flies by night, with a polished Winchester shotgun tucked under one arm and a cigarette between his lips. The van he drives can fit up to ten people, 12 at a push, and for the past 15 years it’s nearly always been full for the border run. Under the cover of darkness, Ziyo wends his human cargo past empty houses, which are isolated at first but then tumble together into hamlets, all weather-cowed and crumbling stone. No one talks. The desert watchtowers which mark the beginning of Kazakhstan are 13 hours’ drive away and there is little to do but stare out of the window as the salty landscape rolls on by in the gloom. Ziyo will return but most of his passengers will not. Tonight, as on so many other nights in this obscure corner of the world, a homeland is being emptied of its people.

No one knows exactly how many people have left Karakalpakstan. Few in the west have even heard of the nation, once declared by the writer AA Gill to be “the worst place in the world.” A former Soviet republic which is officially part of Uzbekistan, it is nestled deep within the bizarre confluence of ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of central Asia (below). Official figures put the exodus at over 50,000 people in the last decade from a population of 1.5m, but this figure doesn’t include those who, like Ziyo’s passengers, have been smuggled out.

Yet while the numbers are disputed, the reasons for emigration are clear. Karakalpakstan is home to the largest man-made ecological disaster of the 20th century—one so severe that it has devastated the economy, health and community fabric of an entire society for generations to come. Karakalpaks have witnessed the awesome and terrible sight of one of the world’s biggest inland bodies of water—the Aral sea—disappearing into thin air. Locals simply know it as the Aral Ten’iz : a sea that fled its shores.

On its way to the border, Ziyo’s van will pass a prim, neatly-trimmed square in the capital, Nukus. There two flags flutter in the wind; one of Karakalpakstan and the other of Uzbekistan, custodian of the semi-autonomous republic since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The writing above the door of the nearby parliament is in Uzbek first and Karakalpak second, telling passersby everything they need to know about the balance of power in this uneasy coupling of nations.

The story is hardly unique. Crises of identity and ethnic divisions have plagued central Asia throughout its history, often culminating in bloodshed. This summer, violence in Kyrgyzstan left several thousand people dead and some 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks displaced. Aftershocks from the crisis reached Karakalpakstan: many ethnic Uzbeks with Kyrgyz passports were barred from entering neighbouring Kazakhstan, and there were violent incidents on the border.

Rising ethnic nationalism is not unique, but its impact on Karakalpakstan is compounded by its other existential threat, that of environmental catastrophe. In this overlooked slice of distant, desiccated farmland, two of the most critical challenges of the 21st century—ecological change and resurgent nationalism—have become irrevocably enmeshed.


An Uzbek Propaganda Sign