Monday, April 26, 2010

Disabled people in Kyrgyzstan seize villa to develop aid programs

From EurasiaNet. In the picture, Baktybek Bekmatov and Salamat Turdubekov rest within the walled villa, where several disabled people have established a community providing support, a warm meal and a place to sleep for those in need.

Not too long ago the vaulted, shiny red roofs were the object of both envy and scorn. It is widely believed that they belonged to Maxim Bakiyev, the wealthy son of Kyrgyzstan’s recently ousted leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. An angry mob ransacked the home on April 7, looting the property before setting part of it ablaze. But now, two weeks later, the house is the scene of a grassroots experiment in social justice.

As the provisional government tries to foster stability following the early April upheaval that brought down the Bakiyev administration, Maxim’s compound, once the subject of folkloric tales of decadence, has become home to a group of disabled squatters. They harbor aspirations of turning the property into a shelter and work center. A spray-painted sign across the makeshift gate reads, "Disabled Against Marauding."

A handful of civil society organizations, including the Kyrgyz Republic Society of Disabled Persons and the Union of Young Disabled of Chui Oblast, seized control of the property the morning after the president fled. Maxim was out of the country when the unrest erupted and has not returned. He is now wanted in Kyrgyzstan for suspected money laundering and fraud.

In Kyrgyzstan, individuals with disabilities often struggle to find work. Monthly pensions of roughly $15 leave many unable to keep pace with the increase in the cost of living. "If we get this land, we want to create not just a shelter for the disabled, but a place of work for the handicapped who struggle to find jobs," said Muratbek Saparbekov from the Union of Young Disabled. Saparbekov lost his legs in an electrical accident and now assists handicapped children to find education and employment.

"A life unemployed and homeless left us with no future. We went to Kurmanbek Bakiyev but the government ignored us. They always promised things, but we never got anything. After trying for five years, we took what is ours," said Amantur Ilikbekov, a wheelchair-bound man from Sokuluk, a village outside Bishkek.

Over 200 members of the disabled community in Bishkek have gathered to assist with securing and cleaning up the property, removing the smashed vodka bottles and other refuse left by looters. The occupants of the house have collected a list of 362 individuals who would benefit from the transfer of the property and its conversion into a work center and shelter.

Since they took control of the property, on any given day 20 to 30 handicapped individuals call it home. Within one garage, eight beds for the disabled homeless line the walls. In another area, a makeshift kitchen stocked with donated foodstuff serves warm meals including soups and rice.

On a recent, sunny day, as curious onlookers walked in and out to catch a glimpse of the ousted president’s son’s house, volunteers in wheelchairs collected signatures on a petition seeking the transfer of property rights. So far, more than 1,500 individuals have signed the petition.

"I don’t mind if they take Maxim’s property. The money he took from the country could have been spent on helping these people," a supporter calling himself Alexei told

Despite widespread community support, the occupation is illegal under Kyrgyz law. And amid the ongoing lawlessness, some question the seizure. Across the street, one bystander, requesting anonymity, said; "I never supported Bakiyev, but he legally bought this home over 10 years ago. No matter who they are, if the government gives them the property, it is breaking Kyrgyz law."

Because of property disputes resulting from the power vacuum following Bakiyev’s exodus, on April 12 the interim government placed a moratorium on the transfer of private property until June 1. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The decree was aimed at stopping looters and squatters from using the current instability to claim property. But it has also called the future of Maxim’s house and the disabled center into question. Until they receive permission from the government, the disabled can only hope the property will be transferred to them.

"This house has come under the power of the people. If we unite, our future lives as disabled citizens will be easier. Together, time is on our side," said volunteer Daniyar Aidaraliev, who is crutch-bound because of a childhood battle with polio.

As they wait, the clotheslines stretching across the perfectly manicured lawn indicate that these new occupants do not intend to leave the property anytime soon.