Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A city under the spell of a maniac

November 19, 2006

Yesterday, while meeting two friends for tea in posh surroundings, we discussed the situation on the street. They also agreed that the atmosphere had changed. Cathy had several acquaintances who were leaving Kyrgyzstan because they didn’t feel comfortable any more. Her friend, a foreigner, had been mugged at 5:30 p.m. a few days before, and was traumatized after her attacker punched her in the chest.

Earlier in the day, I’d been in a neighborhood on the outer edge of the city with a local employee, Nurgul. I liked the streets we were walking down. They were narrow, devoid of cars, filled with pedestrians and dogs, various houses divided by fences and gates on either side. It felt more like a small town or a village than part of the capital. I commented to Nurgul that while I liked the area a lot in the day, I imagined it would be hard to walk home there at night.

“Yes, it’s completely black,” she said. “Scary.” And with darkness falling at 6 p.m., people who live in those outer regions can have a tough time getting home.

Nurgul told me that since the maniac has been at large, her brother picks her up directly from work. He then makes the rounds to pick up his other sisters and they all head home together.

My Dutch friend Joke told me that for this reason, at least one international organization has changed their hours. Formerly 9 to 6, they now work from 8:30 to 5:30, so that people can get home before dark. This change was made just a few days ago, also a result of the maniac.

Rumors were that they caught him, but now they say it’s the wrong person. Joke theorizes that it may not be as simple as it’s presented.

“You know, having this maniac about is very convenient for the government right now,” she said. “It works well for them to not have anybody on the streets at night and to raise suspicions about those from outside Bishkek.”

She was right, though I hadn’t thought about that. The streets have certainly been most unappealing after dark in the last few days. And the description of the maniac – a Kyrgyz
man, aged 25 to 30, speaking poor Russian, fits the typical protestor to the tee.

In the news, they described the victims of all seven attacks, and they gave the features of the wanted man. But there was no composite. At the time, I asked my co-workers why they didn’t publish a drawing of the wanted man. They didn’t know, but seemed to think it would be a good idea. Maybe there is no wanted man?

Clearly, people are heading for their homes at nightfall, feeling that once they reach the security of their homes, they will be safe. And for the most part, they are correct. The level of violent crime against average citizens is very low.

However, the consequence is that almost overnight, the disappearance of the average people and the families from the evening streets takes away the public eye that keeps order. It’s a disappearance that happened long ago in the US, when people stopped walking. And it would be a shame to lose it here.

“People feel they are safe as long as they are home. But what’s going to happen when break and enter robbers and murderers appear here?” I asked my friends.

They laughed. “That’s too advanced,” they said.

I can only hope the maniac will be announced as caught soon, and that people will return to the streets before their extra-cautious manners become routinized, that they don’t lose the cohesion that makes this such a nice place to live.

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