Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Death of a Bright, Young Woman

As I live here longer, I think I become inured to some of the outward signs of poverty. But when I see people I’ve come to know suffer and die, I’m brought back to the terrible realities of poverty.

I returned from my vacation to America to find out that one of our employees miscarried while in her seventh month. Some say it was due to stress at work, others say she fell.

Even worse, I returned from Moscow to find out that one of our employees died from kidney problems. I’m going to use her real name, Mairam, to honor and remember her. Her name means “holiday” in Kyrgyz and she was born on the 8th of March (International Women’s Day), one of the most important holidays of the year. Just last month she turned 26.

She was a bright, vivacious and hard-working woman, who was popular among her co-workers. She graduated with honors from the university in 2001, majoring in French and English, yet showed just as much talent in math and finance. I had no idea that she’d been sick. Some of my colleagues knew, but they didn’t know it was so serious.

She died on Monday and was buried the same day. Since I missed the funeral, I went to her parents’ home today to pay my respects and to bring some money, as is the tradition.

With our driver Malan and our office manager Gulnara, I drove out to a rural area just outside of Osh, where her parents had recently built a small house. It was just at the base of an imposing and beautiful mountain, flowering with green spring grasses.

An older man, probably her father, was working in the garden. He came to greet us, his face locked into a grimace of grief. An iron settee was placed outside, covered with colorful woven cushions. A withered old woman, probably her grandmother, sat cross-legged there, staring down at the cushions below her.

We took off our shoes and entered the house. As I was removing my shoes, I could hear the sound of crying inside. We were led into a small room with a window looking out into the front yard. Four women knelt on cushions on the floor, facing a narrow bed covered with a thin, red sheet. All of them wore headscarves and all of them cried and wailed, looking at the bed where Mairam must have taken her last breaths.

Gulnara had told me that the women had been allowed to see Mairam at the funeral and she’d lain on that bed, her face puffy and one eye open. Gulnara said that the sight hit her in the stomach, filling her with intense grief.

Gulnara cried and my eyes teared at the pitiful sight of grief. Gulnara stood up, approaching Mairam’s mother, and hugged her. After a few minutes, the younger women switched from crying to prayer, while the mother continued to cry. I later found out that the three younger women were Mairam’s sisters.

Her older sister faced me. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Were you the one who called on Thursday?” she asked.

“No,” I said. I’d been in Moscow.

“Someone called from work, but Mairam was lying right there. I couldn’t explain things in front of her. So I just said everything was fine and hung up the phone.”

I wanted to show the family that I cared for and respected their daughter and sister. But I was uncomfortable, not knowing how to handle myself in a Kyrgyz home of morning. When I sensed that we were about to move into another room, I went to hug the mother and handed her the envelope of money.

“I can’t believe she worked with someone like you,” she said, crying anew and refused to take the envelope. I hugged her again and pressed it into her hand. I’m sure her family has become accustomed to her monthly income, and with no life insurance here, it will be hard for them financially, not to mention emotionally.

We were led into the second room, where colorful cushions surrounded a white cloth trimmed with gold embroidery. We leaned on pillows against the wall while Mairam’s sisters brought out round loaves of bread, dried apricots, raisins, candies, tomato sauce, soup and tea.

Gulnara told me that there was a similar spread at the funeral. “Usually people don’t put out a lot of food at funerals,” she said. “Maybe just some bread or something simple. I was surprised that her family had so many expensive things and so much meat. I wondered why they’d go to the expense. But when I asked, someone told me that because Mairam was young, they hoped that feeding people well would make her happy.

I wasn’t in any mood to eat. I took only a tiny piece of bread in order to satisfy the Kyrgyz hospitality rule of needing to offer bread to houseguests. While they brought out the food, Gulnara whispered to me. She told me that Mairam had had a dream in the winter in which she’d married a man who was already dead. Never having been married, she was preparing to marry someone she didn’t love. Twenty six is old for a Kyrgyz woman to marry and her parents felt it was time. Toward the end of her illness, she told her female friends from work that she wanted to have children and she wanted to have a wedding and a pretty dress. “I think those things might not happen,” she said, regretfully.

I asked if the woman cried all day and she said they only cried when visitors came. I asked if they cried again when money was offered and she said no, that wasn’t part of the tradition.

Mairam’s mother looked so much like her that I could almost feel her presence. When she spoke from her place on the sofa (the only piece of furniture), it seemed it was Mairam herself speaking. Her mother pulled out a black and white picture of Mairam and handed it to me.

“This is her in first grade,” she said.

“Third grade,” her sister said.

She had two ponytails on the sides of her head, a questioning expression, and she wore a badge pinned onto her white blouse.

“Yes, she must be in third grade,” Gulnara said. “She’s wearing the Young Pioneers badge.”

“She looks just like she did as an adult,” her mother said. And it was true.

They told me that she’d been sick for the past few months. She had piercing headaches. She used her last vacation to get treatment at the local hospital. But they misdiagnosed her kidney problem as high blood pressure. And it sounds like by treating the high blood pressure, they exacerbated the kidney problem.

By January, she couldn’t keep anything down. Gulnara had told me she was eating only mandarin oranges.

“Anytime she put anything into her mouth, she’d have to go right to the bathroom and throw up,” her mother said. “But she didn’t say anything to anybody at work.”

She recently took another vacation to treat herself again. This time, they went to the regional hospital and got a correct diagnosis. But by this time it was too late. They gave her a blood transfusion and she went downhill from there.

“After the transfusion, she lost all her strength,” her mother said.

“Her coworkers told me that after the transfusion she couldn’t walk and her face got puffy,” Gulnara said. “She joked that she must have gotten the blood of an alcoholic.”

The hospital sent her home to die.

“We tried to get her to Bishkek,” her sister said. “We sent them the test results, but they rejected us, saying it was too late to do anything.”

“Why couldn’t she get a new kidney?” I had asked Gulnara and Malan in the car.

“How?” they asked.

“By donation.” I told them I’m already signed up to donate.

“Muslims think that’s a sin,” they said, looking disgusted.

“But what’s the point of putting a functioning organ in the ground and letting a 26-year-old woman die when she could live? What a waste,” I said, and, surprisingly, they seemed to agree.

“Our medical technology hasn’t developed that far,” Gulnara said.

“But they do it in Russia,” I replied.

“Yeah, there they cut open people before they are even dead and sell their organs,” Malan said. “You just get in a little car accident and you’re killed for your body parts.”

He was referring to a much publicized trial of several doctors in Moscow who are accused of taking the organs from a car accident victim instead of treating him.

Mairam’s family brought out her college diploma and a small photo album to show me. “She didn’t take many pictures,” her mother said. As her younger sister carefully put them away, I felt sad that their physical reminders were so few.

Her mother explained how the regional hospital said Mairam was eligible to be an invalid of the first class, a status that receives some government benefits.

“Mairam refused,” she said. “She wouldn’t even fill out the paperwork. She told me that she wasn’t going to lie around and be an invalid. She said she’d be back at work soon. I told her she was sick and if she needed to, she would lay at home and not work until the fall. She started to cry.”

I don’t know what it is that causes kidney problems, but they seem to be pretty common here. One colleague thinks it’s due to sediment in the tap water. Another thinks it’s due to improper nutrition.

In any case, it’s just tragic that a kind, intelligent, good-hearted young woman had to die. It seems like with a little better healthcare, she could have been treated and lived a full life. And at such times, the inequities in the world loom in front of me like a sharp-tooth tiger, making me feel powerless. I think and worry about two other employees, both young men, who are sick. One has had persistent stomachaches, and can’t get a diagnosis either in Osh or Bishkek. Another regularly receives shots. Both continue to work and to live their lives, hoping for the best.

And while I could use my resources to give the family a little financial help, I’m powerless to do what really counts, to bring this promising young woman back to life and give her the chance to realize her potential.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A View Over Moscow

I’ve spent the past five days in Moscow, my first visit here in the past couple years.

Sheremetyevo airport gave us the same type of welcome I’ve received in the past – a slow and bureaucratic journey through passport control. In a city where everything else is changing as lightening speed, the only change I noticed at the airport was that the ceiling had been redone, the ugly metallic cylinders replaced by a more soothing white pattern.

I had a room on the 23rd floor of the Ukraine hotel, a 1000-room massive Stalinist structure, located across from the White House. While the food and service are still remniscent of Soviet times, the building has been remodeled into a four-star hotel and I enjoyed the luxury of the comfortable bed, the high-pressure hot shower, and of course, the view.

I’d get up in the morning and look out over the smoggy city, taking in the wide six-lane road passing through endless sand-colored buildings, the Casino boat docked on the dirty Moscow River, luxury high-rise apartment buildings, one shiny gold cupola and the Stalinist spires of Moscow State University in the foggy distance.

I spent most of my time in the hotel at a seminar, but in my free moments I was able to visit a friend and some relatives. It was nice to see people and I also enjoyed taking in a cup of tea at a real café, enjoying an elegant meal of salmon, salad, orange sherbet and chocolate truffles at a friend’s home, and working out at a modern gym.

I went to a Russian musical with a colleague yesterday evening. The theater was on Stari Arbat, a pleasant, narrow old street in the pre-tourist season. The audience was almost all Russian and the production was colorful and well-done, but hard to understand. It started out with a man on top of a giant white plastic ball, surrounded by colorful cows.

By intermission, I had no idea what the story line was, but a woman in the bathroom explained it to me. She told me that it was based on a popular movie of the same time – Happy Children. A simple shepherd meets a rich woman at the beach and they fall in love. But the woman and her mother mistake the shepherd for the son of a famous composer. By the end, it seemed as though the rich (and strange woman) ended up with a real musician, while the shepherd found himself in love with a childhood acquaintance who he didn’t appreciate before.

A few impressions of Moscow that stood out for me were: the bumper to bumper traffic, even in midmorning, the fear and disgust I felt at seeing two young Russian men beat up two other men in the middle of the day on a populated street, a bright purple Volkswagon beetle with a large tooth holding a toothbrush on the roof, the loud and constant traffic on the 6-8 lane roads, that sounded like waves crashing across an ocean and caused me to have to yell at the person walking next to me, the young girl playing beautiful music on a violin in an empty underground walkway, the way the 13th and 21st floors were missing from the hotel elevator, and the general unfriendliness of people.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


I passed through Bishkek on my way to Moscow. The central square was lively and illuminated, the Chinese café where I ate dinner busy with locals, and the ransacked Beta stores (formerly the best supermarket in Bishkek) was blocked off, hopefully in preparation for reconstruction.

On the way to my hotel I stopped to buy an ice cream. It was almost 9 p.m. and was already dark. A skinny little boy with ragged clothes and a dirty face approached me and asked for money. He looked Russian, not a member of the ethnic group common in the south that has women and children beg for a living while the men sit at home living off their earnings. I handed him my ice cream cone before I had a chance to touch it.

He smiled, ran off, then came back without the cone, asking me to buy him a drink.

“Where is the ice cream?” I asked.

“I gave it to my cousin.”

I looked in the direction he pointed and saw an older boy, maybe 10 or 12 holding onto a wheelchair with one hand, looking for change in the telephone with the other. In the wheelchair was a child licking an ice cream cone. She seemed to be missing her legs.

The boy pushed the wheelchair over to me and also asked for ice cream.

“Where are your parents?” I asked, as I bought them each a cone.

“We have only a grandmother.”

As they walked away, I asked the vendor, who sold ice cream and drinks from a small cooler on the corner, if the children were really poor.

“Yes, they are,” she said, then paused. “I don’t like Kyrgyzstan and I don’t like the Kyrgyz. It’s bad here.”

“Aren’t you Kyrgyz?” I asked.

“Yes, but I don’t like it. I only like French and Americans. Here people are not good.”

I had to keep in mind that she was standing almost across the street from the government building that had recently been overrun, and just a few blocks from the visibly scarred Beta Stores. Still. “There must be some good Kyrgyz,” I said and wished her a good night.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A Little Boy Loses His Dog

For the past month or so, our family dog, Max, was allowed to run free during the day and was kept in the chicken cage at night. He cried for several days about this, but soon became used to it and sat quietly in his cage. I could almost forget about his presence.

Yesterday I noticed that the cage was open, but there was no sign of Max. I walked through the yard cautiously, nervous that he would jump out from somewhere and come after me. When I still didn’t see him by evening, I asked Nigora where he was.

“Faruh went to the market today to try to sell him. But he ended up giving up for free to a lonely, old, single Russian woman.”

She told me that Faruh had paid 120 som for the puppy, so he thought he’d try to make a profit. So he returned to the market to find a buyer. But in the end he chose a good home over money.

“I think he felt sorry for her and sorry for himself. Shavkat told him it would be better to find a good owner for free than to send him with a bad owner who was willing to pay.”

Faruh agreed and sent Max home with the Russian woman. But hours later, Max appeared.

“He somehow found the road,” Nigora said. Even though he’d been kept in a cage, he still wanted to return home. They put him in the car and drove him to the Russian woman’s home.

“She was so nervous and upset. She already had her neighbors out looking for him. She told her neighbors that the boy who gave her the dog was a good boy and she thought he’d bring him back. Once Max was returned to her she was so happy. She said that she wouldn’t eat anything herself. She would give everything she has to the dog.”

Nigora said it was Faruh’s decision to get rid of the dog. But since he was the only one who seemed to enjoy it’s presence, I wondered why he would make such a decision.

“I think that he sensed our reactions to Max. He knew that it made us uncomfortable and he had to respond to that. We promised him that we’d buy him a sheep instead. He can feed it for a couple of months.”

“And then what? Eat it?”

“It’s up to him. If he wants to do business and sell it for a profit, he can do that. If he sells it to us, then we’ll eat it.”

I was impressed. An Uzbek couple raised under the Soviet system both send their 13-year-old to Arabic lessons and teach him how to make a profit.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Day of Remembrance

Last night I came home and found Nigora covered in a headscarf. She’d just returned from her cousin’s. His 64-year-old wife had died unexpectedly the night before.

“Her blood pressure went up and everyone just expected that she’d be treated and then return to normal, but she died.”

She had bags under her eyes and looked tired.

“The close family was supposed to stay the night, but they told me to go home. ‘You don’t have any daughters,’ they told me, ‘and you have small children. There is no one to cook and take care of your house.’

“I didn’t know what small children they were talking about. My sons are big. But even though I’m a grown woman, because I’m the youngest in the family, I’m always seen as the baby.”

This afternoon I attended my first “anniversary,” the traditional event held a year after a close relative’s death. My colleague told me it was “very important” for someone from our office to go, and since I was the only one without plans, it fell to me. Since Kairagul, the employee who was hosting the “anniversary” is one of the locals I knew best, I was happy to be able to attend.

The anniversary marked one year since her mother’s death. Kairagul, an intelligent and ambitious woman, was hit hard by her mother’s death and she fell into a depression. My suggestion that she apply for a graduate school scholarship in the U.S. finally got her out of her funk.

“When you sent me that application, I was suddenly ashamed of myself. Usually I try for everything. And I was embarrassed that somebody else was looking for opportunities for me. I realized that I needed to move on because that is what my mother would have wanted.”

She’s now a finalist and has a one in three chance of receiving a full scholarship to get an MBA in the United States. I can’t imagine a more qualified or worthy candidate and I’m holding my breath in anticipation for her.

I couldn’t remember exactly where she lived, so I took a taxi. My driver was an Uzbek with an old Zhiguli. He wore a white Muslim cap and had stunted fingers on his right hand. We had barely started moving when the car stopped. It seemed we’d run out of gas.

“You’re my first client of the day,” he said. It was already past noon.

“How long have you been waiting for a passenger?” I asked.

“Since morning.”

He got the car going and we drove along streets lined with flowering fruit and nut trees and poplars spreading their first green leaves. The spring colors add a breath of fresh air to the landscape, making me feel bright and hopeful.

Outside of Kairagul’s dingy Soviet apartment building, men dressed in worn suits and fancy kalpaks (tall black and ivory Kyrgyz hats, made of wool) milled around. A group of men were cooking in large pots in the corner of the yard. Another group sat on chairs lining either sat of the entryway to the building, greeting guests as they arrived and left.

I saw Kairagul’s brother in a white kalpak and he led me upstairs. Kairagul was wearing a white scarf around her head, a pale peach dress, and a light blue sweater. About ten of her coworkers were seated on mats in a circle, around an array of round loaves of bread, plov (rice with carrots, lamb and fat), shorpo (a lamb soup), pistachios, raisins, peanuts, candies and cookies.

She offered me a place to sit and I waited a bit nervously. I’d been told by my coworkers that I didn’t have to bring anything. I was just supposed to come sometime around lunch, sit for twenty minutes, and eat. But I didn’t know whether the atmosphere was supposed to be mournful or joyful. She allowed me to take pictures, which led me to think it wasn’t too formal, but people sat rather quietly.

Kairagul gave me a cup of tea and a bowl of shorpo and explained the event to me.

“In the year after a close relatives death, people are supposed to wear only black and dark colors. And I’ve done so for the past year. Today, on the one year anniversary, there was a ceremony this morning, and for the first time in a year, I’m able to wear colors like white and yellow and red.”

She told me that relatives came from the morning until about lunchtime, then coworkers came at lunch.

The talk soon became more jovial, though I felt an underlying formal restraint. The only Russian in the room, an outspoken, heavyset and funny young woman, talked about her experiences seeing pelmeni (local ravioli) being made and how frightening it was to see what was really in it.

She works in Kara-Suu, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border town, and the sight of a lot of protests leading up to the revolution. I asked her if it was quiet there now.

“Yes, it’s fine there, but these protests have become a fashion. Now anytime people are unhappy, they start getting together and shouting. Just the day before yesterday, at the Osh Government Pedalogical Institute, a whole bunch of people gathered and shouted that the rector needed to leave.”

The others nodded their heads, having seen it on the news. No one knew if he was forced out in the end. They said that he had closed a department of the Institute and transferred all the students to other departments. People were displeased with that and they decided to protest.

“Maybe we can all get together and protest,” one of them said, referring to things they were unhappy about at work.

“It would need to be more than just us,” said Ulan, a young man who works hard and plays hard, spending many evenings at a bar popular with foreigners. “It’s only effective when a large group assembles.”

I was impressed. Even though everyone says that the city residents played little to no role in the revolution, clearly they have learned some lessons.

At the end of the spread was a large object wrapped in colorful clothes. It looked like a baby cradle. I asked Kairagul what it was.

“It’s for you,” she said, and started to unwrap it.

She pulled out a bunch of peach-colored small hand towels and passed them around the circle, asking everyone to take one. She then did the same thing with tea cups.

She then pulled out dark round loaves of bread (evidently from the countryside, because, unfortunately, only poor people use dark flour here) and set them on the mat like plates. She then methodologically piled each one with some of the goods from the baskets: triangular fried donuts, two types of candies and cookies. She passed around new plastic bags with handles to everyone, then passed everyone a loaf of bread piled with goodies. We put our loaf into the plastic bag, then were told to empty whatever was left from the spread into our bags as well – raisins, nuts, candies, cookies. The towel and cup were also for us to keep.

When everyone had full bags, it was clear it was time to go, and people filed out, leaving Kairagul alone with her close relatives.

I saw the mourning and reverence in Kairagul’s eyes, but I think she was also pleased to have so many of her coworkers come and to be able to be the host. She looked thin and fresh and young in her pastel colors, despite her 36 years and the difficulties she’s been through.

We should know by the end of this month whether she has a future in America and I don’t know who is more nervous – she or I.

I walked home past teahouses filled with old men in black on the streetside tables, piles of fresh radishes, spring onions, spinach, and newly arrived fresh cabbage, and car seat cover sewing shops. One bored-looking vendor was able to fit all his wares on a single chair perched on the side of the sidewalk – two half-empty bowls of sunflower seeds and individual cigarettes sold from five open packs. I walked past a brick mosque with Arabic lettering. Three young Muslim boys selling caps out front posed for a picture. Workers shoveled animal feed from streetside storage houses into bags, as people begin to buy animals and prepare to send them to the jailoo (summer pasture).

In my neighborhood, I passed a woman carrying two old white bags full of milk products for sale, her voice hoarse from shouting her wares. Another woman sat on the corner, her hands in a large bag of puffed corn, putting one in her mouth and crunching as she called out what she had to offer.

The streets were crawling with children, like worms in soil, and brightly dressed Uzbek women. I paused to chat with the kids on my street. Most of them are Uzbek. Some can speak Russian, others (who go to the non-Russian schools) can’t. But they all make an effort to communicate with me and welcomed me into their games, showing me how they jump rope. I brought out my jumprope and joined them, losing a contest of who could jump the longest to a little girl with a big, crooked smile.

I returned home, wishing I could share this fresh, colorful springtime world with my friends and family and realizing that I really like Osh.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Barriers to women's employment

Earlier this week, together with my local staff, we hired three new people for a small town a few hours outside Osh. Today, Aisultan, one of the local staff that helped make the hiring decisions approached me.

“You know, I’ve heard something about one of those girls that we hired. I heard that she goes from man to man.” Her face was serious and she looked concerned and nervous. She seemed to think we’d made a mistake.

“OK,” I said. “Is that illegal?”

She looked at me blankly.

When I’d asked this candidate her three main goals in life, goal number three was to find a man. She is separated and the mother of a daughter. I suppose that in order to fulfill this goal, especially being in her late twenties (old in these parts), she needs to date some different people to find who is right for her. “So, do you have male employees who date different people?” I asked Aisultan.

“It’s different for a woman,” Aisultan said. “It’s a small traditional town where everyone knows each other. She could harm our reputation there.”

“If dating other people needs to be prohibited, that’s fine,” I said. “But to allow your male employees to do so and not your female employees is discrimination. Give her two weeks and see how she works.”

I asked her specifically where she heard this information. “How do you know that the person you heard it from doesn’t have something against this woman and is trying to prevent her from getting a good job?” She agreed to check out her reputation with another local organization.

We’d already offered the job and had her sign the contracts. She’s supposed to start on Monday. I couldn’t believe I was being asked to retract the offer because of rumors that she dated various men. And this was among a group of employees in which a male employee forcibly kidnapped a female employee to make her his wife. There was no talk of punishment for him. In fact, he just applied for a promotion. But a woman could lose her job for a reputation of being with more than one man.

I later asked Gulnara, our office manager, what she thought.

“Even I think it’s worse for a woman to date around than it is for a man. For some reason, I see it as natural for a man and somehow bad for a woman. In our culture, a woman is expected to be with one man for the long term.

“I know it’s OK for Americans,” she said. “I’ve read about Madonna’s affairs.”

She thought I should respect the local culture, even if it meant discriminating against a woman. “Women face a lot of discrimination,” she said. That was an understatement.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


I spent the day in Uzgen today, a town about two hours from Osh, and one of the early centers of rioting. The road is still in really awful shape. Our driver, Malan, seemed on the verge of a heart attack as he led his new Opel over the rocky dirt surface, large rocks frequently banging the bottom and sides of his car, for over four hours.

It was a beautiful ride there. The fields glistened with a post-rain intense green. Most of the trees had turned some shade of green. And in the distance, on either side of us, purplish-white snowy peaks rose up to the sky. They had always been there, but they were so much more noticeable when the rest of the land wasn’t snowy as well.

All the billboards of Akaev had been gas bombed. There remained several billboards featuring the face of Adahan Madumarov in front of mountains and next to the Burana Tower, an ancient structure outside of Bishkek. Malan and my coworker Nurzat told me that he is a major opposition leader and is probably in Bishkek. In addition, there was one billboard of a severe, pockmarked, heavyset man, Marat Orozbaev. They said that he was a rich man, but he’d lost the election.

I thought it would be pretty depressing to have one’s image blown up. On the other hand, it’s pretty egocentric of these candidates to think that people want to look at their giant faces on the side of the road.

In Uzgen, the market, which had been closed for a time due to the unrest, was thriving again. I bought a bottle of honey, sold in a used plastic bottle and walked through the stalls selling clothing, candies, bloody meat, and beauty supplies. Water from melting snow dripped from the plastic sheeting covering the stalls, forcing pedestrians to play dodgeball as they tried to avoid the streams of cold water.

On the return trip, fisherman sold my favorite incredibly fresh fish, still live, on the side of the road. Children herded cattle, throw rocks at cars, rode on carts drawn by donkeys or horses and played on rock piles or in the windowframes of abandoned homes. Farmers tilled their fields. Workers at the American Daimler tobacco drying plant filed home at 5:15, lining the center of the road. The teahouse, where crowds had gathered for ‘agitation’ last time I’d come by, was now quiet. Residents of the villages along the way went about their daily lives. And though the revolution was only two weeks ago, and this area had been a hotspot, it now seemed very far away. So far I could almost believe it hadn’t happened, or could at least forget about it.

After aerobics, I took a taxi home. I had gone with this driver before, an Uzbek with a poor command of Russian. Every time he addresses me, he tacks “sister” on to the beginning or end of the sentence. I hadn’t seen him since I returned and I asked how he survived the unrest.

“I worked every day,” he said. He told me that he parked his car off the street and took orders by CB from the taxi company he’s affiliated with, Fortuna.

“Picking up passengers on the street was too dangerous. I had several guys get into my car with clubs. They told me to drive them to the airport and didn’t even pay me.”

“Did they thank you for the free ride?”

“No, they told me I should join them.”

“Did you want to?”

“No, what am I supposed to do? They weren’t even locals. They were from Jalalabat and Alai. The Osh people didn’t participate at all.”

“What do you think about Akaev being gone? Do you think things will get better?”

“No,” he said. “They’ve already started shooting each other. All those who want to be President are all big people and they are using clan politics. They can’t divide up the Presidency between them, so they have already begun to fight for it. The mafia rules here,” he said. “Under Akaev, life was quiet.”

He’s only been a taxi driver for a year, but is already eager to return to something else, his former construction profession, or to find a job as someone’s driver.

“There are too many different kinds of people,” he said. “It’s become too dangerous.”

At home, Nigora brought me a wonderful dinner of chicken, chickpeas, and spinach, but due to jetlag, I still don’t have much of an appetite. She sat with me for our short evening chat.

“I saw Akaev on TV today resigning his presidency,” she said. “He’s scared to come back, because they won’t guarantee his safety. And we’re just simple people, so I don’t know whether to believe him or not. But he says that he doesn’t own even a single store in Bishkek.”

“That’s doubtful,” I said. “If it wasn’t Akaev himself it was his children and relatives. “ His son was reported to have a large stake (if not full ownership) in the chain of stores most seriously affected during the looting, the Narodni stores.

“On TV,” she said, “the deputies are just talking nonstop. One is saying that Akaev needs to formally resign, another says that he should be impeached for abandoning his country. They talk so much and I sit there all day and listen. My head is full and starts to spin.

Personally, I think he worked as well as he could. But I think it was shameful for him to run away. Perhaps he made the right decision. Maybe they would have killed him.”

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


This morning I woke up to a cover of snow that had fallen during the night, enclosing the green buds and various flowers in a light white blanket. Locals say that snow in April is very unusual here. And it’s especially unfortunate since it will affect the grape, nut and fruit crops.

“There was also a revolution here in weather,” an employee, Erlist, told me. “In 1990 when there was a revolution in the Republic of Georgia, there was an earthquake right afterwards.”

I made a quick trip to the market today. I especially noticed the cows heads turned upside down on the market floor. Hooves stood nearby, balanced against the wall. Birds twittered in the roof above the dried fruit and nut sellers, adding to the commotion of trade.

I bought raisins from the same person I always do. Sometimes it’s an elderly woman, sometimes her daughter, a second year student of English. Today it was the older woman.

In very poor Russian she told me, “The girl, my daughter, who works here, told me you are a good person,” as she handed me two hard pieces of an unidentified dried fruit (that are supposed to be good for the heart) as a gift.

As I was leaving, I carried my backpack in front of me and saw a man casually, but quickly, opening the zipper of the front pocket.

“Hey!” I yelled loudly at him in the crowd. “Thief!”

He was a sad-looking character, walking with a shuffle and using one hand to cover a wound over his mouth. He didn’t seem to be shamed by the attention.

I had lunch in a roasted chicken café. While I was waiting for the chicken to cook, a woman came in holding a pan full of burning juniper. She walked through the café, blowing smoke, then approached the owner. He scooped smoke with cupped hands over his head, removed his hat, and wiped his hands over his face. He and the café had been purified of bad spirits. He handed her a donation.

I’m struck by the absence of all the billboards featuring the President’s face. Malan told me they were blown up by gas bombs, gas-filled canisters that effectively burned the portraits, leaving the billboards empty. Some have been replaced by ads for cigarettes and tea. Others remain empty.

“We used to not have enough of those billboards,” Malan said.

I remember the giant face of Akaev that used to stare at me when crossing the central bridge across town, and the smaller portraits in the center of town and on the rural roads. The protestors did a better job getting rid of Akaev than they did Lenin, who still stands in the central square.

I find the atmosphere to be fresher and more relaxed without an authority figure looking over me all the time.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Today I took a trip to Nookat, a primarily Kyrgyz small town about an hour outside of Osh. The drive there was beautiful. A thin layer of green covered the rolling mountains and flowering trees lined the barren landscape – purple pistachio trees and peach apricot trees. When we entered the town, I saw many more of these trees planted in small square individual homesteads.

I asked my companions, our driver Malan, regional manager Damir, and employee Mirlan where the protestors came from. Most of them were rural and I wondered if they came from Nookat.

“Most came from the Uzgen region,” Malan said. “They had a deputy who didn’t win the election.”

“I heard that everyone who protested was paid 500 som a day ($12) by the opposition leaders,” Damir said. That’s 5000 som for 10 days.

Malan ran the figures through his head. That was more than his salary as a driver. “Not bad,” he said. “Maybe I should protest.”

They talked about the new political leaders. Osh region has a new governor and the city has a new mayor. All Nigora knew about the governor was that he was really ugly. I asked if they knew any more.

“He’s my friend’s uncle,” Malan said, “and I’ve been to his house several times. He seems like a nice guy. He also ran for parliament in Kara-Suu and lost.”

“Were the protests in Kara-Suu on his behalf?” I asked.

“No. No one protested for him. Because whenever he met with people he told them upfront, “I’m not going to be able to buy you anything. I don’t have that kind of money.”

They said that the new mayor of Osh is a young and good-looking man. And Damir said that a staff member of his bank in Bishkek had been named to an important economic position.

“Will all these people also change after the presidential elections in June?” I asked.

“Yes, they are all temporary.”

Everyone seems to be holding their breaths until the end of June. If a new president can be peacefully elected, then life can truly go on with an expectation of stability. Until then, everybody waits for June, as interested parties scramble for power and influence and the rest of the population hopes their lives, businesses, and families can continue to operate in peace.

I hired two new people in Nookat. In Nookat it’s hard to find people who speak Russian. One of the people I hired not only spoke fluent Russian, but fluent English. I asked him why he studied English (given that there is almost no use for it in Nookat).

“I wanted to study in the law faculty,” he said. “But my father advised me to study world languages. He had an acquaintance whose son had studied world languages and was able to do well for himself. And I would never go against my father. I don’t regret it. I’ve found that knowing languages doesn’t interfere with any other profession. I can work in any field and I will still know English.”

While he could probably find opportunities in larger cities, as the youngest son of his family, he is committed to the tradition of staying with his parents until death.

“I’m the youngest son and will never leave my parents,” he said. “I will always take care of them.”

For the last year he’s been working for $50 a month. Before that he made less than $20 a month as an English teacher. Given that he is talented and motivated and stuck in this little town, it felt good to be able to offer him more money and more perspective.

The second person has dreams of moving to Bishkek. When I asked the local staff if they thought he’d move to Bishkek soon after being hired they said, “He wants to go to Bishkek because he can’t find a good job here and he thinks he’d have a better chance in the capital. But if he’s able to find stable, good work here, he will probably stay.”

Our employees make between $50 and $250 a month, depending on their position, how long they’ve been working and the quality of their work. From a Western perspective, that seems really low. And it is possible to find higher pay, but usually only with international organizations (which are hard jobs to get) or if someone has the capital to run a successful small business. Almost invariably, I find that these low salaries are more than candidates have been earning in the past and they are also attracted by the fact that the salaries are stable – they are actually paid every month, where in many jobs that’s not the case.

While we were in Nookat, it began to rain, then snow. The snow falling on the flowering pistachios, cherries and apricots may well kill them.

“Fruit will be expensive again this year,” Damir said.

We returned through an entirely different landscape than the one we’d arrived through. Cows, sheep and goats grazed on multilayered mountains, the red and black soil visible through the thin layer of green, all the colors sprinkled with a cover of white.

A policeman stuck out his red baton at us at the exact same place where we’d been stopped on the way to Nookat.

“What, did they forget they just stopped you earlier today?” I asked Malan.

“I don’t know,” he said, sighing.

He returned, shaken. “Something’s happened,” he said. “I asked the officer what he was doing standing out in the rain. Why doesn’t he go home and be warm. He said that the head of a department in the police was shot last night as he was entering his home after work. He said that they’ve been ordered to stay out and try to find out information and he asked if I knew anything.”

“Do you think he’ll find out anything?” I asked. It seemed like a long shot, stopping every car traveling between Osh and Nookat. If the shooters headed of town, they probably would have done so immediately.

“Probably not,” he said. “But who knows.”

That started a discussion about crime, a topic I’m pretty ignorant about since I don’t have access to local news. They told me that during the unrest, some protestors forced a taxi driver out of his car and and took his car for a ride.

“Poor driver,” said Malan, understanding that a taxi driver’s car is their source of income and is usually about all they own.

And Malan said that for the past three days a taxi driver and his car have been missing.

“Sometimes they kill the driver, then take the car,” he said.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

back in Kyrgyzstan

I'm back in Kyrgyzstan after a two week vacation. Missed the takeover of the Osh airport and government administration building by three days. Bishkek is calm. I head to Osh tomorrow. I'll be updating this blog within the next few days.