Saturday, June 11, 2011

Remembering Osh

Evacuation day: June 12, 2010
By R.B. Moreno

As Central Asia watchers the world over have been noting -- see the Associated Press, the BBC, and EurasiaNet, for example -- this weekend marks the first anniversary of a street war that pitted ethnic Kyrgyz (backed by officially unidentified forces supported in turn, perhaps, by a foreign party) against ethnic Uzbeks. The riots left many hundreds of residents of southern Kyrgyzstan dead or wounded.

The AP estimates that almost three-quarters of those killed were Uzbeks -- a minority population that fled en masse from the province of Osh to the Uzbekistan border amidst the violence, only to see several children trampled to death in the panic.

Another group that got the hell out town last June: the U.S. Peace Corps. As I wrote one year ago via, I was among 10 American aid workers evacuated from Osh by way of hired cars, a maddeningly uncoordinated military convoy, and an Mi-8, the camouflaged gunship pictured above (the same photo has been previously published).

Two boys take cover from gunfire below my apartment window in Osh
It's hard to find words appropriate for this kind of anniversary. In reading other commemorations, what seems generally true is that an uneasy peace has settled on Osh. The fires that ravaged whole neighborhoods have been extinguished. The dead have been buried -- sometimes, again, en masse. Students have returned to scorched schoolyards. And farmers and shopkeepers have slowly reoccupied the city's vast, once-bustling bazaar.

But with the spring thaw, the foundation of trust that had finally begun to solidify two decades after 1990, the year that saw Osh's last interethnic slaughter, has dissolved.

"Many Uzbeks seem glumly resigned, focusing on rebuilding their homes and trying not to get drawn into arguments over who was to blame for the violence," observes the AP. "Speaking in her partly reconstructed house in one of the worst-hit Uzbek neighborhoods, 57-year old Mokhidil Ganyzhanova says things have quieted down. But she despairs at how little she feels the government is doing to restore people's livelihoods."

Meanwhile, and with irony fit for a Russian tragedy, "deputies are bogged down in heated debates over who [bears] responsibility -- Uzbek 'separatists,' Islamists, loyalists to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev," reports EurasiaNet's Alisher Khamidov. In Bishkek, "few seem willing to look at the complexities of ethnic relations in southern Kyrgyzstan."

Those complexities were on full display last June as I waved goodbye to Ms. Jashyrova, my host, a woman about Ms. Ganyzhanova's age, and ducked into one of the cars the State Department hired to get its personnel to a safe house.

An English teacher with twinkling eyes and an indomitable telephone, Ms. Jashyrova (I'm using a pseudonym) had over the previous 24 hours received word of a Kyrgyz nephew dying in the fighting, and more chillingly, a mob of ethnic Uzbeks attacking a number of Kyrgyz girls at a dormitory. (That rumor was later proven false; instead, a fight between dueling gangs at a casino likely sparked the 2010 riots.)

"Why did they go out?" Ms. Jashyrova demanded of the rioters. "Teachers, farmers: we just want to work. Who suffers? Ordinary people!"

I've corresponded infrequently with Ms. Jashyrova over the past year. In the fall, a shipment of undisturbed books and papers arrived to my apartment in Colorado, having been turned over to the Peace Corps by the same woman who insisted on cataloging her every purchase at Osh's bazaar on my behalf (e.g. "2 kg potato; 0.5 kg tomato; 1 kg cucumber; 1 cabbage; 3 bunches of herbs; 2 types of noodles; 1 kg rice").

In her last letter, Ms. Jashyrova writes of moving to her family's village in the countryside -- not only to help with the harvest but to avoid further unrest, I imagine -- and of the brickwork shower that her husband has built in the cherry orchard.

"We tried hard to make its walls high taking into consideration your height," she explains, adding "we all hope that you will come one day."

I do intend to return to Osh one day. In the meantime, I've been searching for answers to the region's perennial violence. And I've been contemplating the role of the Peace Corps, as presently configured, in that environment. More concretely, this involves interviewing former Kyrgyzstan volunteers, writing essays, and researching a nonfiction manuscript about the months I spent there. (It's currently titled Zen and the Art of Conquest and based in part on Robert Pirsig's travelogue of a similar name.)

In sum, I'm asking questions about the value of young, inexperienced volunteers in an enchanting but volatile country -- one that's deposed three autocrats in two decades and trafficked countless tons of Afghan heroin to Russia and Europe. Neighboring Uzbekistan's Peace Corps program ended in 2005 under similarly violent circumstances (even as a pilot program in Mexico, a drug transit territory often compared to Kyrgyzstan, was launching).

In drafting this manuscript, apart from the bloodletting, which seems uncharacteristic of Kyrgyzstanis like Ms. Jashyrova, there's something very particular I have trouble reconciling. I'm just as perturbed, that is, by the deaths of two hired drivers that I described in "Exit Osh." By what twist of fate did American aid workers deserve to escape unharmed, I asked in that post, while others perished in the evacuation? I'm still not sure.

Secretary Rice addresses Colorado State University on April 19, 2011
I tried to put a similar query to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in April, at a public lecture here in Fort Collins, Colo., that has in past years hosted the likes of Madeleine Albright, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Greg Mortenson. But Colorado State University, whose unique Master's International partnership sent me to Kyrgyzstan and whose professor emeritus Maurice Albertson helped found the Peace Corps, declined to put the question to the secretary.

The university invited questions via social networks

A staff member at the university's Department of Public Relations "does remember your question," one official told me in an e-mail, "and although it was a good question, it was determined there were others that had a more direct connection to Dr. Rice." More importantly, does Colorado State have a position on the role of Peace Corps volunteers serving in volatile countries such as Kyrgyzstan, I wanted to know? As to that question, "the university does not have an official position," the e-mail concludes, suggesting I contact Washington for comment.

Washington, by some accounts, wasn't pleased when "Exit Osh" was posted on June 15. Other, more politicized narratives about our evacuation were causing the most angst at the State Department and the Pentagon that Tuesday, but as my dual role as a volunteer and a journalist wouldn't conclude until July, I faced something of a dilemma. News outlets reading the post -- such as NPR, CNN, and the BBC -- wanted interviews; the Peace Corps, by contrast, suddenly told every volunteer in Kyrgyzstan to go dark. And going dark, our supervisors explained in a meeting at the NATO base outside Bishkek where we had relocated, meant pulling offline anything we had written about Osh.

Of course, as the Arab Spring demonstrates, that kind of blackout isn't feasible given today's Internet. I followed orders, as did other volunteers, but "Exit Osh" had already been republished by NPR, which sent a correspondent to southern Kyrgyzstan in the days following the riots, and I wasn't inclined to ask the network to take down its own post. (Full disclosure: I worked as a producer for NPR between 2004 and 2008.) Two weeks later, when I arrived home by way of Beijing and Seattle, I republished my own accounts of my experience in Osh.

It's easy to shower criticism on the Peace Corps, considering the circumstances I've described. But I'm trying in Zen and the Art of Conquest to avoid that gesture, because worldwide and in Central Asia, the agency gets it right more often that it gets it wrong. My colleague Jia Tolentino made that clear in a recent New York Times op-ed, and my Facebook friends' pictures of kids playing baseball in snowy Naryn Province, taking standardized tests in Talas, and learning to swim in Lake Issyk Kul tell an even better story.

Still -- and this isn't easy to say -- given Kyrgyzstan's geopolitics, the hired men killed last year, and the two carloads of panicked, mostly greenhorn Americans nearly gunned down amidst my evacuation, I'm not sure today's Peace Corps is right for Kyrgyzstan. It certainly doesn't belong in provinces like Osh and Jalal-Abad, where the agency will no doubt attempt to return in the coming years.

So what is American development work in Central Asia supposed to look like, skeptics will ask?

Although Rice's April lecture didn't address Kyrgyzstan, she did point toward policy options in this arena worth considering. In response to a question about military contractors, for example, the secretary praised the efforts of the U.S. military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams as well as the prospect of a "national civilian corps" whose expertise might help rebuild fragile states.

I'm heartened, too, by the poise and potential exhibited by veteran volunteers like Fritz and Ginger Morrison and Ted Trautman, now a journalist who returned to Osh this spring to assess conditions there. The challenge, assuming proper backing in Washington, would be to channel the expertise of this cohort into unarmed but more nimble, better trained, and highly equipped development teams that might have avoided the kind of debacle I witnessed last June.

Finding funding for such a venture shouldn't be difficult. The U.S. spent $20 million on last year's parliamentary contests in Kyrygyzstan. "In the run-up to the presidential elections that are going to take place this fall, we’re likely to do something very similar to support the actual process of the elections and the mechanics of democracy," newly installed Ambassador Pamela Spratlen told public radio last week. That ought to be a story the State Department won't want to darken.

Postscript (June 19, 2011) -- Another former Peace Corps volunteer recently based in southern Kyrgyzstan has contributed comments on "Remembering Osh." My response, in part: "I realize these priorities could upend the image of a volunteer living a subsistence life alongside her fellow villagers, which does have positive cross-cultural benefits. But again, I don't think that model is realistic in this age and in that province."


  1. Difficult and important questions you ask. Thanks for sharing, and "remembering Osh."

  2. Thanks, Liz. Love today's pictures from "the booksellers of owino." And who's that atop the pile? Paul Theroux, romantic traveler extraordinaire!