Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Fire in the Snow

This evening I briefly went out to an internet café near my apartment. When I returned, less than an hour later, a man in thick clothing and a hard hat ran by me. When I turned the corner, towards my apartment entrance, I saw two fire trucks and a crowd of people gathered outside the building.

My heart briefly contracted. Had I forgotten to turn off the oven or the stove after making dinner. God, would I feel awful if I burned the apartment the owners had just remodeled and rented for the first time as an additional source of income. They were all gathered mighty close to my place. A group of women in headscarves looked up and prayed in a foreign language – maybe Tartar, maybe Tajik.

I nervously counted the apartment entrance. One, two, three was mine. Thank goodness, the truck was parked outside the fourth entrance. Not directly attached to mine, but close enough that a major blaze could spread to my place.

I stood with the crowd and watched. I saw smoke curling out of the fourth floor. Residents of the fifth floor apartments, on either side of the stairwell, stood and looked out the window. Of everyone, they were the ones who should really be part of the crowd standing outside. No one seemed to have bothered to evacuate them yet.

The blaze didn’t seem to be too threatening, not like the giant flames I once watched cracking through windows and shooting out into the air from a high-rise dwelling in Peru. So I went back home. And as I type, I can see and hear through the cracks in my shades – the glare of the fire engine light, the status of the walkie-talkie, the gossip and concern of the onlookers, a bang or two from the neighboring building.

Whether or not the equipment is any good, I don’t know. But I’m pretty impressed to see that two trucks arrived when the fire was still rather minor, along with quite a few fire fighters.

Ironically, today was the first real snow, the first snowfall that stuck to the ground and solidified into nice. Since almost no one puts down salt or ice, that means a very slow and slippery walk to work. I usually get in a good 40-60 minutes of walking a day in Bishkek and that mobility is one of my favorite aspects of life here. But the fun is reduced considerably when I’m forced to stare at the ground, instead of my surroundings, and focus on not falling.

Today I met up with some people knowledgeable about prisons in Kyrgyzstan. They told me that there are 17,000 prisoners in the country. In Bishkek, there is a holding cell and a main prison (“colony”). The prisoners with tuberculosis have been relegated to a separate area, called the TB prison. There are 400 or 450 prisoners there and half of them have TB.

“What are the prisoners without TB doing there?” I asked.

“They don’t want to move,” my friends told me. “The prisoners are organized into “families” and they don’t want to leave their families.”

“But they are prisoners,” I protested. “Why do they have the right to chose where they live? Why can’t they just be put in non-TB prisons?”

“Because the prisoners run themselves. There aren’t enough staff members to control them. So if they don’t want to do something, it’s not possible to force them to do it.”

They told me that during the recent prison revolt, during which a Parliamentary Deputy was shot and killed, all of the prison staff left and the prisoners were left on their own. The only reason they didn’t run was that the grounds were surrounded by tanks and the army.

This evening, at my Russian lesson, I learned useful words, like esophagus, large intestine, and spinal cord. As usual, my teacher, Iliana, got off topic, giving me a lecture about something we touch on during class. It eats up quite a bit of our one-hour class. And with only two hours a week, that doesn’t leave much time for vocabulary or grammar. But I rarely stop her because she usually tells me interesting things about the local life, culture or mentality.

Tonight she told me how poorly people lived in the mid-1990s, how young people educated from 1992-2002 received absolutely no education, and how the standard of living in Bishkek only started rising three years ago.

“Three years ago, you could buy a two or three room apartment for $3-4,000. Now, that same apartment is $20,000. Three years ago people started to leave to work overseas. So many people went to Russia and to Kazakhstan. There are Kyrgyz in Italy and in America. These people started sending money back, and only then could people start to think about things like buying property, starting a business, or buying a computer.”

She’s right. Kyrgyzstan has a huge rate of outmigration. I’d like to look into it more to get more specific facts. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it had one of the largest outmigration rates in the world. I went to villages in the south of the country where barely an able-bodied man remained. It didn’t matter that they were poor and educated. They could go illegally to Russia and find work in construction and other manual labor. They wouldn’t make much by Russian standards, but they’d make a lot more than they could at home. And the few hundred dollars they send back every few months is enough to significantly improve their relative’s standard of living. Local banks in rural areas do huge business in money transfers.

One of the best options for hard workers is South Korea. People there have to work hard for very long hours, but they can make $1,000 a month. I met a man in Osh who spent three years working in South Korea with his wife. They saved enough in that time to return, buy themselves a nice house, and have financial security for the foreseeable future.

It’s quite fascinating to see the practical results of open borders and globalization. Of course it’s sad that many are leaving Kyrgyzstan, and that many families go years without seeing their husbands and fathers. But they are likely taking work that Russians don’t want themselves. For them, it’s an opportunity and a chance to raise their families prospects. And that is heartwarming to see.

I can hear one man yelling at another outside. They must have found the person who started the fire. Then he called someone, it sounded like his father, told him what happened and started to cry.

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