OSH, (IRIN): In downtown Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, heaps of rubble lie in the streets, just outside the charred walls of destroyed homes. The debris makes the streets so narrow in some places that trucks cannot deliver the construction materials provided by international aid organizations for a now urgent rebuilding effort.
“We won’t be able to spend winter in the tent,” said Yashinbek Yuldashev, 53, pointing to a white tarpaulin strung up amid ruins that, until mid-June, had been a single-storey 11-room home to him and 14 of his relatives. “The older people – yes, but the little ones – no.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a 3 September report that 1,889 compounds were damaged or destroyed in the June 2010 events. Of these 1,445 were in and around Osh, while 444 were in Jalalabad town and the surrounding area. (The Jalalabad figure has since been revised up to 454.) Of all the compounds surveyed, 90 percent were so severely damaged that they will need to be fully reconstructed.
However, efforts to provide shelter for more than 10,000 people left homeless since then did not get into full gear until this month. By 24 September, 1,034 foundations had been laid, 58 new homes had roofs, and three were nearing completion.
The international cluster of humanitarian agencies tackling the task, coordinated by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), is racing against time to meet a 1 November target date for its Emergency Transitional Shelter Project.
And though the group has managed to clear some formidable hurdles – a major funding shortfall, a heated battle over house design, foot-dragging by local authorities and even a timber shortage resulting from the forest fires in Russia – a slew of ongoing problems has raised the likelihood that some of the displaced, particularly in Osh, might have to spend the winter with relatives or friends.
Modifying original plans
To make up for the delays and speed up construction, the shelter cluster has shored up contingency plans. The new homes meant to get people through the winter will mainly have two rooms and be considerably smaller than the originally envisioned 50 sq m – 28 sq m for families of seven or fewer, and, in Jalalabad, 42 sq m for those of eight or more.
Furthermore, because the brick transitional shelters take 5-6 weeks to complete, a competing panel design that takes only two weeks may be an option for those families who choose it. Finally, a “winterization” project will provide a safety net for those displaced people who end up staying with host families, helping them with expenses like coal, ovens, energy costs, beds and blankets.
Fortunately, the slowest stages of shelter construction are the early ones – clearing debris and laying foundations, which need up to five days to set; afterwards, the process moves much more quickly, aid workers say.
“I have no other choice but to be optimistic and to target 1 November,” Johann Siffointe, UNHCR’s outgoing emergency team leader in Osh, told IRIN. “There are so many challenges ahead, so many parameters we don’t control. There are too many excuses that we could make.”
Of all the setbacks afflicting the shelter project, the most high-profile problems have been in the city of Osh, capital of the province with the same name, which bore the brunt of June’s violence. Here, the severely damaged homes (classified as Categories 3 and 4) number 650.
By 24 September, 367 foundations had been laid in the city and 21 transitional shelters were being fitted with walls. Rubble removal, which had been an obligation of the municipal authorities, was progressing through the efforts of aid agencies.
The primary impediment had been a contentious redevelopment plan long in the works by the city mayor’s office, which did not give full consent for construction on the territory of destroyed residential compounds until 28 August. The plan has generated harsh criticism from rights advocates, as it involved razing the very neighbourhoods that were torched in June, populated mostly by ethnic Uzbeks, and thus stirring speculation about the municipal authorities’ complicity in the violence.
Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov and his office have denied such allegations and explain the plan as a way to grow the city vertically and to overcome its checkerboard pattern of ethnic segregation.
“We would have mixed everybody up – Kyrgyz, Uzbeks – so [their] children would have grown up together,” deputy mayor Taalai Sabirov told IRIN.
While those who lost their homes are relieved that transitional shelter is going up on the sites of the destroyed buildings, Sabirov said the city’s master plan had been shelved but not rejected outright.
Lack of documents and manpower
Another challenge in meeting the 1 November deadline for transitional shelter is a dearth of proper documentation and labour among the intended beneficiaries.
About 40 percent of affected households reported that their property documents had been destroyed as a result of June’s violence, when, as one aid official put it, “flight was quick and destruction total”. But the decades-long residency of many generations in one home, plus a mix of bureaucratic red tape and a lax approach to rules, makes the true number as high as double that.
“A lot of people didn’t have their property documents in order before,” said Noel Calhoun, who spent three months as the UNHCR’s senior protection officer in Osh. “Now we have layers of complication.”
International aid groups have teamed up with city officials and a local NGO to help people restore personal identification documents and, separately, property documents, and to ensure that newly issued paperwork complies with legal requirements.
However about one-tenth of the homeless families, considered the most vulnerable, may not be able to build their transitional shelters – papers or no papers – even with the US$800 subsidy provided for labour by the aid programme.
Others point out that action was being taken: “In order to assist vulnerable individuals a mechanism has been established, matching households who lack manpower with unemployed local workers. This is a win-win situation for everyone”, said Torbjorn Bjorvatn, UNHCR public information officer in Osh.
Karamat, 67, an ethnic Uzbek woman, could in theory benefit from this mechanism. Her son was arrested in July, on charges of theft that have since been supplemented with arson, and her three other sons are in Russia; her two daughters-in-law have both moved away, and her daughter and grandchildren are in Uzbekistan. She did not know she is entitled to 7,000 bricks, 100 bags of cement, metal sheets, sand, timber and 26 other “elements” for construction of a transitional shelter.
“I don’t go to the old house,” she said. “Not enough time. I haven’t done the paperwork. Priority number one is to get my son out.”