“I remember the sound of gunfire and people shouting, ‘run away!’” says 11-year-old Aisha, a girl living in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. “In my school, none of my classmates or friends talk about it. They don’t want to remember.”
In June 2010, as bands of furious young men attacked ethnic neighborhoods in this former Soviet nation, parents hid their children in cellars while sharpshooting and fire destroyed their houses. Many families fled their towns for days. When they returned, they spent months living with relatives or in tents. One family with three children lived in a stable.
Little as they want to remember, no one can forget what happened. Shell-shocked and overwhelmed, children are particularly vulnerable. “Our youngest daughter is ten. She saw it happen with her own eyes, the burning and the shooting. Now she takes a stick, pretends it’s a gun, and says, ‘Bam bam bam!’” Zura, a mother of three, points at the wall to demonstrate. “Anyone who comes to our home, even her grandmother, she tries to shoot. I tell her it’s not right to do that, but she does.”
The crisis changed life long-term for many children. With schools burned and play areas now dangerous, normal routines disappeared. A woman named Nilufar Obidova has an 8-year-old daughter. The girl’s school burned down, so the daughter now stays with relatives to go to another school. “We visit her every two weeks,” says her mother.
When the violence destroyed businesses, families took a financial hit that is impacting their children’s education. “My grandson is five years old. We’d been planning to have him go to kindergarten,” says Matluba Zakirova, 49, in Osh. Her family ran a home-based bakery, but their tandeer—a domed oven—was destroyed by the mobs, and they can no longer earn money by baking. “The kindergarten plan was ruined. It costs 700 soms ($15) a month.”
Parents are fearful whenever children aren’t inside. “A year ago, when my children went out, I felt they’d be OK,” says Sohiba Mamatova. “Now I call them every 10 minutes. My 16-year-old son just goes to school and comes back.”
“What I miss most is my bicycle. It was burned,” says a ten-year-old boy named Islam. “Our school was burned, too.” In his classes now, thankfully, the relationship between children from opposing ethnic groups is good.
As parents tried to rebuild their families’ lives, Catholic Relief Services set to work building two-room core shelters that would get people through the winter. The core shelters form the basis of a home to which families will later be able to add rooms as weather and resources permit. CRS also helped victims pay for repairs to partially-burned houses. Aiding families on both sides of the ethnic divide, CRS made sure not to inflame tensions further.
By December 2010, hundreds of people had a roof over their heads again. Along with providing shelter, the homes provide a sense of normalcy and stability in a situation that is still far from normal. No longer in tents, children have a home to go to—even the littlest ones.
“We felt hopeless. I had a little boy, a pregnant wife,” says 26-year-old Kamolidin. “Then, it was like magic—suddenly CRS appeared.” Now rocking his new daughter’s cradle in their new house, Kamolidin is relieved and grateful that his family is not spending the winter in a tent. “If this hadn’t happened, I don’t know how we would have lived.”
The CRS homes also mean that extended families, who usually live together, can be reunited after violence separated them. “Two months ago my relative had twin boys,” says Mafuza Kushakova, watching a pair of cradles being carried into her snug two-room CRS shelter. “The babies stayed with their grandmother for a while. Today the babies have moved here to the house to live, because it is warm. Thank you.”
The success of the core shelter program was due largely to the help of three Kyrgyzstani partner organizations: Development and Cooperation in Central Asia, NGO Support Coordination Center of JalalAbad, and Public Foundation Mountain Societies Development Support Program. Generous funding and technical support from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and Caritas International partners made it possible to reach even the communities that had been overlooked in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
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