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.

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