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Beginning again, again


by Lutaa Badamkhand
Most 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.

 

 

 

A new start

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.”

Harsh homecoming

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 Kazakh population.

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 the mountains.

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
Lutaa Badamkhand is the editor of the Business Times newspaper in Ulaan Baatar.


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