THE WORLD

Associated Press

AP reporter Mansur Mirovalev and AP photographer Alexander Zemlianichenko followed dozens of migrants on an illegal six-day bus journey from Uzbekistan to Russia. Here is their story.

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On paper, the bus does not exist.

It has no schedule, and no route. It shows up mysteriously, and just as mysteriously, the dozens of men who await it know when it is coming.

Every year, the ghost bus -- and its many cousins in Uzbekistan -- transports hundreds of migrants to Russia, crossing two state borders and 2,200 miles of steppe, desert and farmland. The men it carries do not exist on the books either, but Russia needs their labor, and they need the money.

Russia's oil wealth and its plummeting population have turned it into the world's top immigration destination after the U.S., attracting as many as 15 million labor migrants a year from former Soviet states. Uzbeks account for 2 million to 4 million of them. They build houses, till the soil and work in Siberian oil towns and even on the Pacific Coast, eight time zones and more than 6,000 miles from home.

Scrawny and swarthy, seasoned by the Uzbek sun and Russian frosts, with a wilted face and the bloodshot eyes of a man who has not seen a doctor in years, Saidullo Sadykov is a veteran labor migrant in Russia. The 54-year-old takes the ghost bus every year to what he calls his battlefield.

The bus emerged in the late 1990s, back when it was legal. But in January 2006, a rattletrap bus broke down in the western Ustyurt plateau, and all 30 passengers froze to death. Russia-bound buses were prohibited.

These days, only corruption keeps the buses alive. Each year, hundreds of Uzbeks without permits are deported and barred from entering Russia for five years. They can't get through passport controls at airports or railway stations, so they get on the bus.

To book a $150 ride, Sadykov goes to see the bus owner.

Azim Azizov, 37, has the look and bling of a movie mobster. He sports four gold teeth, two gold chains on his neck, two gold rings on each hand.

He has two houses under construction in suburban Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and Moscow; two wives; and five children. Both marriages are legal in each country. He has two passports, and his fathers-in-law shuttle with him twice a month, helping him earn about $5,000 for each trip.

In Uzbekistan, where the average salary is about $50 a month, it is a fortune.

Despite the money the passengers bring, Azizov treats them with disdain. Clad in a velvet bathrobe and puffing an expensive cigarette, he scribbles down their names and their passport and telephone numbers. Some bring thick wads of sums, Uzbek currency. Those unable to pay upfront leave their passports. They will work off their debt.

Azizov is part of an informal chain of recruiters who lure Uzbeks abroad with promises of jobs. Some use elaborate schemes to ensure the virtual enslavement of their clients, says Shukrat Ganiev, a Bukhara-based human rights advocate.

A recruiter brings up to 200 people to Russia. Their passports are taken away for registration, the promised jobs never materialize, and the migrants panic, agreeing to work for less, he says.

The economic downturn has multiplied cases of forced labor, enslavement and delayed or refused payment, rights groups say. Some companies hire migrants only to kick them out without payment after a month or two.

In Russia, most Uzbeks live in squalor and save every kopeck to send to their families. In 2008, they wired home $1.3 billion -- almost 10% of Uzbekistan's GDP, according to the World Bank. Remittances from abroad account for 38% and 19% of the economies in neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two other major exporters of labor to Russia.

Sometimes, migrants go missing. Until recently, walls of the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow were covered with handwritten notes about relatives. Some began with "Dear Uzbek Muslims, help us find . . . "

On Sadykov's last day at home, his family prays for his safe return. When he leaves Bukhara the next morning, his head is covered with the snowy white cap pilgrims wear after making the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

"I'm going to the front line," he says.

The Nightingale arrives at a chaotic bus station at noon. This 33-year-old ghost bus is painted lime yellow, with the Russian word for "nightingale" and the bird's cartoonish silhouette on its windshield.

Seventy-three men ages 17 to 60 clamber aboard in the scorching sun. There is one woman, Khafiza Ibragimova, whose henna-dyed braid hangs down her long purple dress. She is traveling with Ulmas Tashev, her gaunt brother, to work at an Uzbek restaurant near Moscow.

Its windows sealed and its air conditioner broken, the Nightingale ventilates on the go through ceiling hatches and open doors. It also carries a Russian license plate to avoid the attention of Russian police.

Arif Ortykov, 52, airs his grievances over a cup of tea on the second night of the trip.

"If only I could make $150 a month, I wouldn't go there," the welder says.

It takes him two more cups to get to the fact that Uzbeks depend on jobs in Russia.

"If they close borders, we're all be at war with each other," he says. "There's too many hungry and too few well-fed."

Uzbeks have fled their country, a Muslim nation of 27 million, because there are no jobs. But now the economic crisis in Russia is likely to send millions of jobless migrants back, which could destabilize Uzbekistan.

The bus moves all night, passing fields encrusted with salt. It enters the lifeless Ustyurt plateau, where the passengers froze to death in 2006.

By the third night, the bus reaches a Kazakhstan border checkpoint. The passengers of three other migrant buses are already there.

Over tea and chewing tobacco, Sadykov instructs the youngest passenger, 17-year old Kamol Shamsutdinov, on how to dodge police in Moscow.

"Don't swerve when you see one, but don't look him in the eyes," Sadykov says.

Even the Russian police admit to routinely preying on labor migrants.

When looking to detain a labor migrant, police officers "make up anything, because they want to live and eat," says Mikhail Pashkin, head of the Moscow police trade union. "The state created a system where a policeman cannot survive on his salary."

Police officers top the list of people Uzbek migrants fear the most. They also fear skinheads. In 2008, 99 people were killed in Russia in apparent racial attacks, 49 of them natives of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, reports Sova, a Moscow hate crimes watchdog.

The next day's border crossing takes nine sweltering hours. Kazakh guards tell the Uzbeks to line up and rummage through their bags. Then the passengers leave -- all but Khafiza Ibragimova.

She has a prior deportation from Russia. She whispers goodbye to her brother and walks away, her head hanging.

The bus passes through western Kazakhstan in less than two days, but it takes almost another two to cross into Russia at the village of Ilek. Since the bus is too crowded, Azizov tells 11 passengers to stay in the no man's land.

The passengers again line up. Russian guards ridicule their shabby clothes and shoes. "He's gonna dance at a strip bar in these," one of them says, pointing to a pair of worn-out platform shoes.

The guards tell Azizov to remove some of the Nightingale's paneling. He says he paid the guards $1,000 for not delaying the bus and for letting through several people with prior deportations.

At dawn, eight of the 11 stragglers knock on the bus door. They say three others were deported. Azizov says it's their own fault because they didn't bribe him.

The bus moves past meadows and pine forests. Despite the Russian license plate, police pull it over several times.

Sadykov, his face covered with gray stubble, is getting fidgety.

"We have to hurry to build Moscow," he tells Kopeikin.

"Moscow was built long ago," Kopeikin growls. "All you need is our money to run away with."

Many Russians feel that way, partly because of an anti-migrant campaign by the state-run media. Some analysts say it's designed to divert anger over the financial crisis.

After the sixth night on the road, the bus approaches southern Moscow and stops near Azizov's unfinished house. Several Uzbeks are installing plastic windows.

Azizov takes the passports of 22 passengers who didn't pay and herds them in. "They'll work it off in here," he says.

Other passengers pour out, smiling. Sadykov takes off his gray and dusty pilgrim cap, exposing his bald head to a Russian drizzle.

"The battle is beginning," he says.

In a week or two, the bus will take another load of Uzbeks home. They will bring along secondhand refrigerators, TVs and stoves for their families.

In the meantime, in the giant yard of Azizov's house, the Nightingale will wait.

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