Gulasal Vakhitdzhanova gazes sadly at the charred remains of an ancient mulberry tree in what used to be her courtyard. All that is left of the family's belongings is a mangled bed frame.
Vakhitdzhanova is one of tens of thousands of Uzbeks who have been pushed out of refugee camps in Uzbekistan, where they fled after ethnic riots, to return to southern Kyrgyzstan. This week, a steady stream of Uzbek women and children trailed back into Kyrgyzstan through the border village of Suratash, carrying worn raffia bags full of possessions and sometimes food.
But an estimated 1,800 houses, like Vakhitdzhanova's, have been destroyed by arson attacks in the main city of Osh alone. That leaves the returning Uzbeks in limbo, homeless and terrified of renewed violence.
For now, Vakhitdzhanova and her extended family have taken shelter at the packed home of relatives in Suratash, about 10 miles from Osh.
"Of course, we are afraid, but what else can we do?" says Vakhitdzhanova. "We have nowhere to live, we will have to stay here until our home has been rebuilt."
Clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan starting two weeks ago are believed to have left possibly thousands dead and 400,000 displaced. Of those, tens of thousands of Uzbeks fled for their lives to Uzbekistan. Others found refuge at ethnic Uzbek villages that survived the rampages, or stayed in schools, kindergartens and even open fields.
The Kyrgyz government now says 74,000 refugees have come back from Uzbekistan, claiming their return as proof of its success in restoring security to the area. Only about 800 refugees, mainly the sick or wounded, have stayed in Uzbekistan, a Western aid worker told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But human rights group Amnesty International has criticized Uzbekistan for forcing refugees to leave the country, and says Kyrgyzstan is being too hasty in urging its citizens to return. The interim Kyrgyz government, which came to power in a bloody uprising almost three months ago, wants to gather as many people as possible to take part in a referendum Sunday to approve a new constitution and legitimize its rule.
"People fled their homes because they feared for their lives. They fled shootings, arson attacks and destruction. It is premature of the (Kyrgyz) authorities to encourage refugees to return before they can ensure their safety," Andrea Huber, deputy program director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
The U.N. has appealed for $71 million in emergency assistance funds, in part to rebuild homes before the winter sets in. But reconstruction cannot start until Kyrgyz authorities convince Uzbeks that they will be safe. Many Uzbeks remain too scared to venture back into Osh and are mistrustful of Kyrgyz security forces, who some believe took an active part in attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods.
"I think there are many issues for the authorities to deal with until refugees can feel certain they will be protected," said Khulkarpasha Sabirova, deputy head of the Uzbek diaspora in Kyrgyzstan. "This process will take at least two months."
The most immediate priority is food, clean water and toiletries. The U.N. World Food Program says it has distributed more than 650 tons of wheat and oil and airlifted over 110 tons of high energy biscuits into the region. There is also the danger of disease.
"What people really need is soap and nappies. Some people haven't bathed for 10 days and many are now suffering from diarrhea," said Anna Ford, Asia expert for Save the Children, who is in Osh to help with aid operations.
Refugees returning Thursday embraced one another and wept with delight as they reunited with family left behind. Periodically, minibuses and zippy little Uzbek-produced Daewoo Tico cars rumbled in over a bumpy dirt road to ferry away relatives. Under a darkening, cloudy afternoon sky, rifle-toting Kyrgyz border troops patrolled the road out of the village, partly, as one soldier defensively explained, to stop returning refugees from stealing cars.
But the air of suspicion could not spoil the joyful mood as Vakhitdzhanova's two young daughters, 4-year-old Makhlarai and 6-year-old Samarbono, rushed to tearfully embrace their father, who like many Uzbek men stayed behind in Osh in the vain hope of protecting their neighborhoods.
Vakhitdzhanova says she and her family got food and medical treatment in the refugee camp in Uzbekistan, but were encouraged to leave by Uzbek officials.
"They told us that we should come here before the referendum or the Kyrgyz government would not let us in," she says.
Vakhitdzhanova's husband, Sharabiddin Sabirov, surveys the remains of his firebombed house at the foot of Mount Suleiman, a craggy outcrop that dominates Osh's skyline. The house built by several generations of the family is now a roofless, scorched ruin.
Neighboring buildings owned by Uzbeks on Osh's Alisher Navoi avenue are also burned, making the area look like a World War II picture of a bombed city. Sabirov says he watched the Kyrgyz mobs approaching his house, burning all buildings on their way.
"When they were some 150 meters away from my home, I decided to run away," he says. "I ran over neighbors' roofs."
Sabirov says the mobs also burned the headquarters of the local Uzbek TV station where he worked. He laments what he calls the lack of help from the government.
"All the government wants to think about is the referendum," he says. "They don't want to give us any money to rebuild our houses."