Beginning again, again
by Lutaa Badamkhand
of the Kazakh population in Mongolia are traditionally nomadic
herdsmen, but recently their way of life and their traditions
have been dealt hard blows. A few years ago, many Kazakhs left
Mongolia for Kazakhstan only to find that fortune didn’t
await them in the land of their ancestors. They returned home
to a less than warm welcome in all but one special case.
Abukhaan syrakhbai’s eyes look both sad and lost. A
69-year-old Kazakh nomad living in the remote mountainous
region in Central Asia, Abukhaan sits inside a practically
empty yurt, the traditional, round, felt-covered dwelling
of his people.
“There were good times in my life. I was named the
country’s best herdsmen and elected to the People’s
Khuriltai (parliament),” he says as his eyes search
the snow-covered mountain peaks of Tsambagarav looking for
an expla-nation of the change in his fate. “Too many
people to feed and too few cattle,” he murmurs.
Nine of his relatives and his younger brother’s children
are crowded into two old yurts. With only a dozen sheep and
one cow bringing in an income of 12,000 tugriks a month (US$
22), they can barely manage to make ends meet. “No jobs,
no cattle, not much flour,” Abukhaan sighs.
Abukhaan’s story is a sadly familiar one here in the
westernmost part of Mongolia. Four years ago, he and his two
brothers moved with their families across the border from
Bayan Ulgii to neighbouring Kazakhstan, the place from where
their ancestors had come more than a century before. They
were among over 60,000 Kazakhs who had been living in Mongolia
and hoping to find a better life in Kazakhstan, the former
Soviet Republic which became independent in 1991.
Remote and underdeveloped, Bayan Ulgii was having trouble
accommodating its growing Kazakh population. By 1990, unemployment
among the Kazakh population reached almost 20 per cent. The
deep economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet
Union, Mongolia’s main development aid donor, aggravated
the situation in the province and especially hit the Kazakh
population which is bound by traditions and culture into its
own tightly knit community.
“Facing the grim realities of economic decline, rationed
food and unemployment, people were very uncertain about their
future,” Marat Hurmetbk, a local official, says. So,
at that time, the promises of jobs and housing made by Kazakhstan’s
newly elected president fostered hope and encouraged migration.
Between 1991 and 1993, half of Mongolia’s ethnic Kazakhs
left for Kazakhstan on five-year work contracts.
On arrival the settlers were given a one-off allowance of
US$ 400 or free housing. They could choose where to go and
the kind of work they preferred. Indeed, many fared quite
well working mostly as herdsmen and industrial workers. Professionals
particularly found better career opportunities – to
the detriment of the place they left behind. “At one
point the province’s main hospital and its theatre almost
closed since most of the staff had left,” Myzimkhaan,
Bayan Ulgii’s governor, says.
Still, not everyone managed the transition well. Many could
not overcome the challenge of adjusting to the different climate,
lifestyle and customs. “It was a little bit scary,”
Kuldan Samrag, says. Kuldan, 38, worked for three years at
a cement factory in Dzhezkazgan. “We share a common
language and culture but could not understand each other.
Then my wife and children fell sick and the doctors told us
to come back,” he says.
“It was no good going to Kazakh-stan,” Abukhaan
echoes. “Our younger brother soon died because of illness.
Our relatives remaining in Bayan Ulgii needed our support
and we decided to come back.”
Since 1993, more than 800 families have returned to Bayan
Ulgii and the number of people returning is increasing. As
five-year work contracts expire, the Kazakhstan government
gives the migrants a choice to either become citizens or to
go back to Bayan Ulgii. A team from the Ministry of Labour
and Population of Mongolia recently studied the situation
and came up with forecasts that up to 2,000 families will
be coming back every year as Kazakhstan refuses to extend
existing contracts in an effort to boost its 49 per cent ethnic
No matter the individual cir-cumstances, all the returnees
now find themselves in difficult situations. Having sold their
homes before going to Kazakhstan, most people have no place
to stay and not enough money to buy new accommodation. Relatives
usually cannot offer much help apart from a few sheep. In
most cases, those who came back have to start from nothing
and are living in cluttered storage rooms, cattle shelters,
tents – whatever space is available.
“I worked here for 20 years as a truck driver. But
I came back last summer with a sick wife and three children
and I can’t find a job. My truck has been given to another
driver. My wife, who was a nurse at the province hospital
for 20 years, was told that there are no vacancies,”
Selikzhan says. He is 40 and now lives in a wooden wagon borrowed
from the company he used to work for. Unable to support his
family, he sent his two daughters to live with relatives in
Economically, the prov-ince is still depressed and the provincial
government, which relies heavily on state subsidies, can offer
very little support. “I just spread the message ‘don’t
come back’ or ‘if you come back, bring money’,”
Myzimkhaan says honestly. “Right now the local economy
cannot support more people.”
Steppe and forest ablaze
Between February and mid-June this year nearly 400 fires
raged through the steppes and forests of northern Mongolia
leaving 25 people dead and 1,600 homeless. The fires destroyed
more than 100,000 square kilometres of land and killed thousands
of head of cattle. Responding to the crisis, the Mongolian
Red Cross coordinated a relief operation with support from
the Federation’s representative in Ulaan Baatar. The
operation brought food, household items, sanitary goods and
clothes to 183 families. In addition, once the last fire had
been extinguished, the Federation assisted some 500 people
who had lost everything in the fires by providing food, clothing
and cattle to replenish their herds.
Solidarity and small things
In spite of the daunting economic constraints, a local Red
Cross initiative is providing returning Kazakhs with a few
basics and a warm welcome. “It was really heart-wrenching
to see those people getting off the plane holding their children
and carrying only a couple of suitcases,” Farida Bailmolda,
head of the province’s Red Cross office, says.
Desperate to do something for the returning Kazakhs, in February
1995 Farida designed a small project to help. “The people
returning sometimes needed such bare necessities as sheets,
mattresses and warm clothes. I thought that even such small
things can be helpful to people,” she says.
Two days after Farida’s project proposal was sub-mitted
to the Mongolian Red Cross headquarters, it was approved and
funded by the US Embassy in Ulaan Baatar. The National Society
also supported the project.
With two million tugriks or approximately US$ 4,000 Farida
bought blankets, sheets, shoes, and even toothbrushes and
soap. Based on previous surveys, she distributed the items
according to family size, needs and income. Over the course
of a year, she distributed parcels to about 160 families in
almost all 14 principalities of the province.
“It’s nice to know that there is somebody who
cares about you. This is the true meaning of home,”
Zhanaikhaan, 60, says optimistically. Zhanaikhaan returned
in 1994 after working as a carpenter in Kazakhstan for one
year. “I went, as you say nowadays, ‘bankrupt’
and in a way I am starting my life anew at 60. Clothes and
shoes given by Farida are really helpful as I have to support
my four children with only 6,000 tugriks of pension (about
US$ 11) which only buys a half sack of flour.”
Receiving little if no help from the local government and
left on their own, people are obviously touched when they
receive their parcel. Of course the items offered by the Red
Cross cannot address the problem of hundreds of families forced
to build their lives from scratch. “It’s not the
aid itself that matters. Sometimes people need just a few
comforting words and somebody to talk to and they get the
strength to carry on,” Farida says.
“The stream of people coming back is still steady.
In Tsengel principality 70 out of 97 families that moved to
Kazakhstan have returned. Now I realise that I underestimated
the extent of the problem. Here and there, people hear about
the project and come to ask for help.”
Even if the needs seem over-whelming, at least they are recognised
and acknowledged. This in itself is an important start and
Farida’s initiative, designed to meet the needs of this
vulnerable group of people, is extraordinary. “Farida’s
proposal was among the first initiated not from the centre
but from a local level,” D. Tserensodnom, programme
officer at National Society headquarters, says.
The project was supposed to have ended in April 1996 but
it has continued past its scheduled finishing date because
people are still returning. Odonchimed Luvsan, the Mongolian
Red Cross’s president, is optimistic about the future.
“If the project works, I am committed to continue it.
Our goal is to reach out and help people, and everything that
contributes to that goal deserves our total support.”
Lutaa Badamkhand is the editor of the Business Times newspaper
in Ulaan Baatar.
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