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The Aral Sea Disaster: Told By People Of Karakalpakstan, Yet Facing A Denial

“The water that serveth all that country is drawn by ditches out of the River Oxus, into the great destruction of the said river, for which it cause it falleth not into the Caspian Sea as it hath done in times past, and in short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water, when the river of Oxus shall fail.”

Anthony Jenkinson, 1558

Sometimes I think that people of Uzbekistan with a 28 million population know less about one of the greatest catastrophe in their own country than people worldwide. One of the reasons of it is the governmental propaganda of the successes in the policies towards its citizens. Another one is that the tragedy is being considered as not only the one of Uzbekistan but also of Kazakhstan, neighboring country rich of oil, and, considered as a main responsible side.

I found out about the Aral Sea ecological disaster when I became a freshman in my undergraduate studies. We had an introduction of our class and my then-future fellows introduced themselves. As myself, majority of students were from the capital city of Tashkent. The distribution among provinces represented the wealth and accessibility of the education in the most prestigious university of Uzbekistan: Tashkent, ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were in top three in representation. All of them were telling their mostly enthusiastic live stories and what inspired them to study at the University. Except for one 17 year old guy who looked much older for us: skin on his face was flabby; he had a permanent cough and was breathing very hard; he was so thin and tall that for the rest of our five year education he had been called a “Skeleton”; the manner of speaking was slow but the way of thinking was critical and, as I understood later, more realistic than ours.

The words he used to introduce himself were “Unlike many of you I’m a child of an ecological disaster. Fortunately for me I’m here, in Tashkent, given an opportunity to study and benefit to the development of my country.” First idea about him was that he was a child of war, as I am a child of war, running away from the scourges of ethnic cleansings. I thought he was a refugee and felt sorry for him; and found him as lucky as me to come to a safer Uzbekistan to build a new life. His words about benefitting “to the development of my country” were considered by me as our common goal.

Both of my thoughts were a mistake. As it came out he was from Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic, a north-western part of Uzbekistan, constituting almost 36% of the whole country (160,000 square km) with a population of more than 1,5 million people (which is less than 6% of the whole population of Uzbekistan). The tragedy of his motherland was and nowadays is the ongoing shrinking of the Aral Sea. Its surface area drastically changed for over the last 50 years. His health condition illustrated the level of the diseases spread because the sea began to dry up and left behind salts, other minerals and toxins in the soil. Thousands of children didn’t see the adultery; hundreds of men and women have been suffered such diseases as cancer, respiratory problems, etc. the situation remains until today.

People of Karakalpakstan are so desperate that they don’t call anything else a home but the land of Karakalpaks. That was his message: to help his people fight huge difficulties they face because of the actions done by the policy-makers in order to develop agricultural sector of then-Uzbek SSR and nature’s irrevocability processes.

During my undergrad I wrote few papers on the Aral Sea problem, some of them were considered as a threat to the “national security” of Uzbekistan and I had been called and questioned by my dean who explained to me that my “thoughts about Aral Sea are contradicting with the reality and efforts taken by our democratic government.” To mention, one of my papers was graded with an ‘F’; my coursemate who ‘opened our eyes’ on that problem also had a conversation with Dean, who later was assigned as a Vice-rector on cultural and spiritual affairs (responsible for the brainwashing of students).

University official’s position was to convince the coursemate that ordinary people like him from Karakalpakstan have full access to whatever other citizen of Uzbekistan have, including education in the most prestigious universities like ours. In the end he was called a dramatizer and not a lucky survivor. That’s how the propaganda machine works in my country.

Evaporation of the Aral Sea (2000 – 2011). Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

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12 Comments »

  • guest_ca says:

    touching story! and shocking visual content,,,,

    Reply

  • Schwartz says:

    A beautiful post for a decidely un-beautiful topic. Whatever became of your Karakalpak classmate?

    Reply

    Mansurhon Reply:

    @Schwartz, After going to the U.S. as an exchange student for a year, he ended up quitting our uni and stayed in the U.S., doing researches in one of the American higher education establishments. This would have been a significant loss for Uzbekistan had it cared and invested in the development of science and society. But nah, this is Uzbekistan where Karimov & co are sure: anyone who challenges the regime must leave the country or die. He decided to leave.

    Reply

  • bigbro says:

    i’m from Xodjeyli and can recognize myself in this story. but i studied in Europe and would suggest any Karakalpak who wants a bright future full of opportunities to study abroad and don’t believe this fameless lies!

    Reply

  • kafir says:

    I don’t wanna underestimate Uzbekistan’s position but Kazakhstan is also one of the countries supposedly in charge of what’s going on with the Aral Sea. Again, Uzbekistan and its former and current leaders are totally ruiners of the environment, I just say that Kazakhstan must at least pretend like doing something….

    Reply

    Kanat Reply:

    They are actually doing much more than Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan saved small Aral from drying up. They build up a dam that helped to increase water level considerably.

    Reply

  • Sarah says:

    Juda yaxshi post, Mansurhon. Important and informative for all.

    Reply

  • Neal says:

    @Mansurhon, this is a great story! I am super glad your friend could leave Uzbekistan for good and find himself in the United States! Good luck to both of you!!!

    Reply

  • Xosiyat says:

    @kafir & Kanat: it is more complicated than just arguing about two leaders’ responsibility. The fact that IAK and NAN are sort of not enemies as IAK and Rahmon, it makes it a less clash otherwise it could become such a useful thing to use against each other all the time on international arena you have no idea. Especially considering propagandas of the two political regimes.

    Reply

  • Polatbek says:

    Dear Mansurhon, it was so sad reading your story. With pain in my heart I can confirm that this is the reality of todays Karakalpakstan.. I thank you for this story b’cause it tells the world hom much we people of Karakalpakstan suffer b’cause of this disaster. If your friend reads this I wish him good luck in America and to not forget his motherland Karakalpakstan and it’s people!!

    Reply

  • Polatbek says:

    We should unite! Karakalpaks of the world unite and help eaxch other!!

    Reply

  • Magnus B. says:

    Sending my sympathy to the people of Karakalpakstan and hoping that the disaster of the dying sea will not bring more problems to locals. I wonder if there’s any real governmental support of Karakalpakstan people coming from Tashkent? How does the government support those who have spent their lives in dangerous areas such as Aral Sea basin? Thanks for your answers in advance!

    Reply

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