Violence in Kyrgyzstan

Hey everybody,

I was planning to write an in-depth comparison of my experiences on Soviet victory Day – the 9th of May – between Riga, Latvia, Chisinau, Moldova, and Cherkassk, Kazakhstan.  It’s fascinating to consider the different narratives that have been formed regarding the end of WWII.

But there is a much more pressing topic at hand.  On Friday night and into Saturday, violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan.  The following is a story that a friend – a Peace corps volunteer in northern Kyrgyzstan – sent to me yesterday.  It’s long, yes, but it is absolutely worth the read.

Hey everyone, below is an email that a pc vol sent home to america.
she was in the south when everything started…it’s a very VERY long
account of peace corps evacuation from the south, but i promise you it
is worth reading.  keep in mind while reading it that i am totally
safe. i’m 20 hours from the violence and i don’t see it spreading
here.

xo, k

__________________________________________________________________

Hi All,

Well, if you thought that what I’ve already been through here has been
bad – that was kid stuff compared to the last 48 odd hours.

The following account is going to be insanely long, but it is all true
– unbelievable, possibly – but true, and I wanted to give you as much
detail as possible, and as long as it is, I’m probably still
forgetting some things.

At 1:30am on Friday, June 11th, I received a call from a volunteer
living about one block north of me that there was a mob of men outside
of his building.  They were yelling, trashing stores, setting fire to
the building next to his, and progressed to throwing rocks through his
apartment window.  I told him to go in his bathroom, which has no
exterior windows, and to stay there.  Since then, I received calls
from PC’s Safety & Security Coordinator (“SSC”) about the situation,
and was told to, as Osh Warden, put all of my PCVs in Osh Oblast on
Home Standfast, meaning they could not leave their homes until further
notice, but thinking that the situation would clear up in the morning
and life would go back to normal.  It took probably an hour to call
everyone, maybe a bit longer, due to the information I had to relay,
and the level of consolation some volunteers needed.  One PCV I called
informed me that the men in his village were blockading the street at
the entrance to his village.  Other volunteers were hearing gunshots
and yelling.  Oddly, though my apartment was between two other PCVs’
apartments, I did not hear a thing at the time.

Well, I was on the phone all night and never got to sleep (I had just
returned from a vacation with my dad in Italy less than a week before,
and had been getting only about 4 hours of sleep each night due to
work and semi-insomnia, and that night was supposed to be my day to
catch up).  I started hearing gunfire around 3am or so.  At 5am, it
was light outside and the gunfire was still raging.  That caught me by
surprise, because we had all just assumed that the conflict would be
over by daybreak.  It only got worse.  Two other PCVs reported seeing
two groups of men fighting outside their apartment, one group throwing
rocks, the other throwing Molotov cocktails.  Another PCV who lived in
a nearby village had a host father with a car, and I arranged, with
SSC permission, to have them go pick up the 2 in the apartment because
the situation there was becoming very unstable.  On the drive out,
they got stuck in a mob, but thankfully made it to the house safely.
Another PCV who lived in an Uzbek village en route to the airport
reported that night that the men in his village were blockading the
street.  The next day, he reported that the women and children had
fled the village and the men handed him a pitchfork.

Around 8am, we decided that the volunteer who originally called me and
another PCV living close to him should consolidate at my apartment.
We arranged for the girl PCV to go to the guy’s apartment (nearer to
the road) and go from there together to my apartment, thinking that
there would be safety in numbers.  They got to my place safely.  At
that point, the SSC had asked me to try to arrange a ride to the
airport.  So, in between moving those two and 3 other PCVs to my
apartment, I was calling local taxi drivers I know, trying to find
someone to get us.  My director from work agreed to come, but everyone
else refused because they were too afraid to leave their homes.  The
first two PCVs and another who lives very close to me go to my place
safely.  When my director arrived outside of California Café (a café
in my building), we went down with their stuff (there was only room in
the car for 4 of us, so I was to stay behind) to meet him, awaiting
one other volunteer living nearby, who was undertaking evasive
maneuvers because he saw a Kyrgyz man in the street waiting to rob
people.  We were getting the 3 in the car, when the 4th walked up with
a local Uzbek woman he had saved from an assault.

He handed me his huge military style bayonet knife and told me I’d
need it, as he was getting his stuff in the car.  I ran back to my
apartment and locked the door.  Then I got a call from the SSC, who
said to put everyone back on standfast, and to cancel the airport plan
(though the 3 PCVs who were together after that father got the 2 out
of the apartment on the other side of town and the one in the village
near the airport were able to make it safely to the airport and they
bribed their way onto a flight out.  They got to Bishkek safely).  I
called the PCVs getting in the car and told them to come back up to my
apartment immediately.  I called the other PCVs to tell them to stay
home, too, and found out that a 5th was already in a vehicle en route
to my apartment.  I told him to just come, thinking that it was better
to have him with us than separated.  Once he got there safely, I told
the SSC that he arrived safely (as I had told her about each previous
PCVs’ arrivals), and the 6 of us got settled in for the day (it was
only about 10am by that point).

Other than not being able to get out of the city and the sound of
gunfire (which included automatic weapon (machine gun) fire and
occasional explosions) almost constantly permeating the air, our
biggest problems became lack of gas, electricity, and food.  A bit
later in the day, the SSC told me that the new exit plan was for us to
go to the airport the next morning, that they were buying plane
tickets for us which would soon be delivered by one of the travel
agents (a woman I knew).  We asked if she could pick up food for us
and bring it with her.  She said she would try to bring it.  When the
tickets were eventually delivered (about 2 or 3 hours later), she said
she couldn’t find any food (all of the stores were shut down and
looted, some burned to the ground).  She left quickly after giving us
the tickets.  I told PC we had the tickets, but still no food.  The
SSC then gave us permission to have 2 of us go to neighbors in my
stairwell to beg for bread.

I took my closest friend in PC with me (along with his military knife
wrapped in a shirt, in case anyone tried to hurt us while we were out
there) and knocked on doors.  One neighbor opened her door.  She
recognized me when she looked out of the peep hole.  She said that she
didn’t have any food, either, and that without gas or electricity she
couldn’t make any, but that if she was able to cook anything, she’d
give some to us (I got her number for the SSC).  She also informed us
to be careful because the water wasn’t safe to drink, so we should
boil it before consuming it.  Considering we had no available method
for boiling water, short of making a real fire in my apartment, that
wasn’t an option.

We went back into my apartment at that point because we had heard
people knocking on doors below also asking for food, and neighbors
reporting that they had none.  I called the SSC and told her what the
neighbor said about the water and also about the food situation.  We
asked if it was okay to drink water that had gone through my gravity
filter (it filters with gravity rather than distilling, which requires
electricity; thank goodness we had a method of water purification that
didn’t require electricity).  She said she would check and get back to
us.  In the meantime, we stopped drinking it.  The SSC called back
soon thereafter to tell us gravity filtered water should be safe, and
also that we could use our aqua tabs (which make the water taste like
a swimming pool).

About an hour later we heard knocking on my door.  We all froze and
became instantly silent (this became our standard response to any
human noise whatsoever outside of my apartment, even more magnified
the next day).  After a minute or two it stopped.  SSC called to say
that the neighbor called her and said that she had left bread for us
with another neighbor on the floor below.  My knife-carrying friend
and I went back out to get the bread.  We knocked on the door, but
there was no answer.  In Russian, I was saying through the door, “I’m
your neighbor, I’m an American.”  But we stopped when we heard and saw
some men enter the stairwell below.  My friend had me go very quietly
upstairs near my door in case we had to get in fast, while he waited,
knife ready, a bit further down.  The PCV in my apartment waiting at
my peep hole for us to come back so he could open the door immediately
started to unlock the door.  I held up a hand of caution in the
direction of the peep hole because we didn’t want to draw attention
with the sound of the door being unlocked and opened.  When the men
left, we went back down to try again.  Another female neighbor came
out of an apartment and said she knew where the neighbor was and that
she’d go get her for us.  Again, unknown men entered the stairwell and
I quietly ran up to my floor, holding out the caution hand towards the
peep hole.  When the neighbor came back, I went down to meet her.  I
was supposed to get her number, too, but she just unlocked her
apartment, got the bread (1 lepyoshka…about the size of a Totino’s
Party Pizza), and left.  We ran back up to my apartment and cut the
bread into 5 pieces (I had a little bread left over from a lepyoshka I
had bought the day before, so I let the other 5 eat that one).  I had
some locally made peanut butter in the fridge which they put on the
bread.

While they were eating, the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) called
to find out more about our food situation.  I told him about our one
portion of bread we were able to obtain to feed the 6 of us, that I
had a little bit of cheese and yogurt, and some peanut butter.  He
made a kind of defeated sound when he found that out and that we had
neither electricity nor gas.  His suggestion was to drink sugar water
(I had sugar) because it would decrease our appetites.  (I had a lot
of Crystal Light and Gatorade flavor packets, so they added those to
their water as a more flavorful sugar water option.)  He also told me
that things had calmed down in Osh and that the situation was under
control.  I’m sure my expression was a mixture of incredulity and
sarcasm and I told him, flatly, “Dr. Eldar, I can hear gunfire as I’m
speaking to you.”  His response was basically, “Oh, uhh, well, okay.
I’ll let them know.”  I think people reporting to them were trying to
sound as if they were in control, when they really weren’t – trying to
save face.

We disassembled my bed, which consisted of tushuks (wool-stuffed
seating pads (you can probably see them if you look at the picture of
my bed on my livejournal.com site) and 2 foam pads and made a large
pad on the floor with 3 of my 4 pillows, one single person pad in the
kitchen for one PCV, and another PCV took the couch with a pillow I
made for her by wrapping my very fluffy down jacket in a towel and
stuffing it inside a pillow case.  I took the now very hard bed with
the remaining pillow.  The PCV in the kitchen (knife friend)
eventually moved to sleep on the rug in front of my door with his
knife belted around him.  My bed was right next to the balcony, so I
had that entrance point covered.  I hid a knife behind my pillow
tucked down between the headboard and the 2 tushuks still on my bed.
I also hid a knife in the center of the apartment and another in the
bathroom, just in case.  There were periods of silence that night
interspersed with new sounds which sounded like tank fire, with the
normal machine gun and standard gun fire and cheering/yelling.  I
actually have recordings of gunfire I could hear from my bed.

I got very little sleep that night, but at least got some sleep.  I
was on duty 24/7 as the Warden and was literally in near constant
contact with PC.  In addition to them calling me, I was also sending
periodic reports about the situation.

In the morning (Saturday, June 12th), I was asked to contact my
director about taking some PCVs to the airport, as a second attempt.
He agreed, again, (note that his coming to help us put his life at
risk every time) and I sent 4 PCVs down to meet him with their plane
tickets (I was controlling them, and would have held onto them if we’d
all gone to the airport together, but I didn’t know if I’d make it to
the airport, so I wanted them to take their tickets with them, but I
put one of them in charge of all 4 tickets) after he arrived at the
foot of my stairwell.  They were waiting to get into the car (some
neighbors were asking my director questions, and he was trying to
field the situation outside before they could get in the car and go).
SSC called then and said to get the PCVs back in the apartment because
the roads weren’t safe to get to the airport because at one point you
had to enter the Uzbek neighborhoods, and they were stopping
Kyrgyz-driven cars and beating up and/or killing the drivers and
torching and blowing up the cars (this was also being done to Uzbek
people by Kyrgyz people in Kyrgyz neighborhoods – a difference being
that, to our knowledge, Uzbek people were only doing this to people
who entered their territory, while Kyrgyz people were seeking out
Uzbeks to kill – this will have more relevance in something I’ll
describe later).

I called one of the PCVs and told him to have everyone come back up to
my apartment because the airport plan was called off.  After a minute
or two, they hadn’t come back up, so I went into the stairwell.  I
could see them on the ground floor and “yelled” in a semi-whisper for
them to get back to my apartment immediately and demanded to know why
they were still down there when I’d already told them to come back.
They came up at once and I locked the apartment once they were inside.
My director then came up and I let him in.  He explained the travel
situation as we had heard it from PC, and emphasized the presence of
automatic weapons.  But he said he’d try to get us food, and left.  He
came back a little later with a bag of 1 kilo of macaroni, a tub of
warm mayonnaise, an open bag of sugar, oil, and half a loaf of
homemade bread.  We decided to hold off on consuming it until we were
very hungry because we didn’t know how long we’d have to be there.

At this point, PC decided to arrange getting 3 other volunteers and
one English Language Fellow consolidated to my apartment, so that in
the event of a viable exit strategy, one transport could get us all
from one place.  Two new male PCVs were picked up together and we were
told they were en route and that we needed to scrounge up $300 USD (or
13,000 som) to pay the drivers.  When I heard knocking, I very quietly
peeked through the peep hole with money and hand-written receipt in
hand and my knife-armed friend at my back.  I first noticed 2 masked
Kyrgyz men, then my gaze adjusted and I saw the 2 male PCVs we were
expecting.  I opened the door and let them in past me, as I went into
the hallway to pay the men and get the receipt signed.  They signed
and left, weapons in hand.  Next, we were told that a female PCV was
going to be picked up and brought to us.  When she eventually got to
my apartment, I had 6,500 som ($150 USD) ready to pay her drivers, the
same ones who had brought the boys (I wasn’t expecting to see the
masked men again, but it worked).  Again, I paid the money and got my
new receipt signed.  Finally, the men went to get the English Language
Fellow (“ELF”) who lived just down the street.  He paid them $20 USD
out of his own pocket.  He was very impatient while waiting for me to
open the door, he kept trying to yank it open, which was making
unlocking it difficult and we were all yelling at him through the door
to wait.  But he got in safely.  So, basically we bribed masked
bandits to get our PCVs to me safely.  If this had happened later in
the month, we may not have had enough money to do all of this, but
between our recent 18,000-25,000 som withdrawals and one volunteer’s
40,000 som PEPFAR funds, we had over $4,200 USD to work with.

With everyone safely transported to my apartment (still fairly early
in the day – either late morning or early afternoon), we hunkered down
for the day.  One PCV saw the neighbors outside talking to some Kyrgyz
men.  With the windows closed over we were talking about the various
people’s experiences coming to my apartment.  The ELF had the easiest
trip, though he was originally afraid that the masked bandits who came
to get him were there to kill him not to help him.  Luckily, he
decided to trust them when they explained why they were there and that
PC sent them.

The two guys who came first got a better view of the general
destruction in Osh.  The guys weren’t masked at first when they got
him, so he was less apprehensive about going with them (also, I had
told him we didn’t have much food at all, so he brought what snacks he
had with him, some Cliff Bars, trail mix, and Peanut M&Ms,
thankfully!).  They brought him to a foot trail between buildings into
which they had squeezed the car for protection.  Once he confirmed
with SSC that these were the men he was supposed to go with, he got
into the car and they drove at high speeds through a smashed gate,
around broken roadblocks, over piles of dirt next to burned out Uzbek
establishments, and picked up the other volunteer, who was frightened
by the appearance of masked men at his door insisting he go with them.
The ride to my apartment was similarly intense, and they passed many
cars full of young Kyrgyz men carrying large sticks, guns, and batons.
(The men escorting them were armed with sticks and large, jagged
pieces of metal.)

The girl had the most harrowing experience.  Her house (she had an
Uzbek host family) had been previously tagged as one that the men were
coming back to that night, and at one point her host mother and
siblings took her and screamed that they had to run.  They ran through
marshy, muddy fields into which her legs sunk into foot-deep muck (she
lost her shoes in it and managed to retrieve them, but couldn’t put
them back on).  The men there to get her found her and as they were
driving the car was shot at, though no one was hurt at that point.
She had also reported that the Kyrgyz men were breaking into a
military base near her house to steal weapons.  We think they were
successful.

After their stories, we heard noises in the stairwell and became
instantly still and silent.  Then with an earsplitting crash we heard
my kitchen window shatter and something heavy land in there, then a
second crash followed.  One PCV who was crouched by the kitchen door
reached up and closed it silently.  We moved silently to duck away
from the windows waiting to see if they were going to throw anything
else through the other windows, afraid that they might throw a Molotov
cocktail, which were being used all over the city to burn down Uzbek
homes, businesses, cars, etc.  Because I was positioned in the most
vulnerable location, I covered my head with a pillow in case a rock
came flying at it.  After about 45 minutes to an hour, we decided it
was safe to move around due to lack of noise, though I had called SSC
right after the later-determined large rock and a bottle had been
thrown through my window.  That scared PC and I think it led to the
involvement of the U.S. military in planning how to get us out of
there fast.

We knew we couldn’t go anywhere anytime soon, though, so we took
defensive measures.  We barricaded the main room’s windows and balcony
door with my bed and coffee table both wrapped in tushuks, thinking
that if a Molotov cocktail was thrown, we didn’t want it to
immediately shatter and explode against hard wood, and hoping that the
tushuks would serve to provide a bouncing surface.  We barricaded the
kitchen windows with tushuks held into place by a combination of tape,
rope, my shower rod, my mop, and the windows themselves.  The
apartment became dark and utterly stifling (it was at least 90 degrees
in there and so humid that one PCV couldn’t clean her glasses because
they just kept smearing).  We decided not to burn candles for the sake
of conserving oxygen.  The next hours were spent speaking no louder
than a whisper and not moving unless necessary (though there was a
short period of moving our belongings into the smallest bags possible,
getting together only our essentials) interchanged with not speaking
at all and absolutely no movement, in response to banging and slamming
in the stairwell.  We’d hear occasional echoes of gunfire on the
stairwell side (previously it had only come from the other side of the
apartment), so that was also concerning.  We knew that they knew we
were there, and were worried that the rocks symbolized an intent to
return in the night and torch the place, possibly to drive us out into
the street.  We were, with pen and paper, making plans for what to do
if they tried to break into the apartment and created a sign-up list
for volunteers to stand at the door pushing against it (and yes, I
volunteered).  We also made a fire plan, which consisted of running to
the next consolidation point (near my apartment), or to another PCV’s
apartment (also near mine), but that if we couldn’t get to them and
were separated, to first, find cover and hide, second to check
ourselves for injuries, and third to contact SSC from that hiding
spot.  We had everyone put their IDs, cell phones, and money into
their pockets (the IDs because dead Americans spell bad news for them,
the cell phones for communication, and the money for bribing our way
to safety).  I sent SSC a text that our collective mindset was that
this was it.  If there was some last resort button to push – PUSH IT.

SSC called with a new airport plan involving those same masked bandits
and my director driving us to the Uzbek border line (not the
Uzbekistan border, but where the road to the airport went into Uzbek
neighborhoods) and then meeting Uzbek drivers from there to proceed to
the airport.  Well, my director’s phone was off by that point and they
couldn’t find another driver.  They had to move all 10 of us at once,
so we needed at least 2 cars (each car had a driver and 1 or 2 other
armed Kyrgyz bandits for protection, and these cars are Ticos, about
the size of a Geo Metro).  The plan then became for us to maintain a
low profile, avoid drawing attention to ourselves, and wait out a new
plan’s formation.  The escape plan yo-yo weighed on a lot of people,
especially with the Molotov cocktail barricade in place (we had also
barricaded the front door with all of our luggage).  In some respects
we were almost waiting to find out whether we would make it through
the night.  But then stretches of silence would make people more
complacent and low whispers and no unnecessary movement became very
low talking and some movement.  I had to keep admonishing people to
remember the threat and the absolute necessity of being invisible.
One PCV remarked, “I feel like Anne Frank.”

I should mention that all that day, only my phone and one other’s
PCV’s phone were turned on.  We had all other phones off as backup
Warden phones in case my battery failed.  I was down to one bar of
charge most of the day.  Some PCVs in other oblasts were texting to
see how we were doing.  At that point, they had only been told, “There
is unrest in Osh Oblast.  Osh PCVs are on standfast.”  One PCV
actually texted me to ask whether I could bring his book with me
because someone wanted to borrow it.  That pissed off more than just
me.  They had absolutely no idea what was going on, but neither did
the rest of the world, or most even local people outside of Osh, for
that matter.  (I’ll get into the “causes” and propaganda and reality
after I finish the tale of our escape.)

SSC called again to say that the new plan was to get us to a
helicopter site, yet unknown, (because road travel to the airport was
impossible) and that in the meantime PC would send armed guards to
stand outside my building (likely young, armed, Kyrgyz men, at least
that was my assumption).  Another call came from PC, this time by the
woman who arranges PCV travel.  We were to be picked up by the masked
bandits and transferred to her apartment in Osh (she is from Osh, but
lives up in Bishkek when on duty for PC) where her sister-in-law and
neighbors would meet us, and that we would get into a helicopter there
by the administration building (the one that was taken over last
month) because there was enough room by Lenin Square there for a
helicopter to land.  Then, we got a call from a man from Kyrgyz Border
Control (originally they were to help in our airport plan that fell
through).  They asked for my address and we gave it, and they said
that they were going to help us drive to the airport.  We told them
that we had just received news that the plan had changed and told them
to call SSC.  They were a little confused, so we called SSC instead
and gave her the border control guy’s name and number and she called
him and arranged everything with him to be involved in the new plan.

We already had our bags ready, and were waiting for our masked bandit
drivers to arrive, after confirming that we were all getting picked up
together.  SSC told us to call her when we heard knocking and she
would confirm that it was the men we were supposed to go with.  It
took a minute or two of them knocking very insistently, but eventually
we got her on the phone, she confirmed, and we went with them.  My
knife friend went first (I enlisted him as my second-in-command as he
did ROTC in college and is planning on a military career post-PC), and
I went last, locking my apartment door on the way out (possibly
futile, but hopefully not).  A masked man with a large hatchet waited
with me as I locked my door and followed me down the stairs.  We had a
buddy system that had to be divided a bit as there was one tiny car
and one small but not as tiny car.  We sent 6 to the larger car and 4
of us went into the tiny one (I was in the tiny, second car).  The
other car left first and we followed after a minute, we had to wait
until another car in the street couldn’t see us and had driven off.
It was absolutely surreal to finally be out of the confines of an 8×10
apartment shared with 9 other people (10 of us total).  We were driven
less than a block from my apartment to sit in front of the university
there by the fountain in the park (because they were told to bring us
to the fountain across from Osh GU (GU being a Russian abbreviation
for State University).  Border Control was supposed to pick us up
there.

We found out that the first car met with some resistance just before
we got there.  A Kyrgyz man came up to the car with a gun, pointed it
directly into one Pakistani PCV’s face and demanded to know if there
were Uzbeks there.  The Pakistani PCV looks somewhat Uzbek, and they
all thought he was going to get shot on the spot.  They managed to
convince the man that he was American and the guy left them alone,
though they were also threatened by another Kyrgyz man they described
as deranged, who was carrying a bow and arrow, but the guy just
laughed after scaring them and left.

While waiting behind them, I recalled that I had not seen even one
vehicle with a license plate, including the one carrying the other
PCVs.  They had all been removed.  Our drivers, armed with hatchets,
sticks, and Civil War-era guns stood outside the cars smoking and
keeping lookout.  Cars and trucks full of young, Kyrgyz men armed with
guns sticking out of the windows drove by.  Cars were painted with
Kyrgyz supremacy symbols.  SSC called to find out if we were with
Border Control yet, we said no, and that they hadn’t come.  She said
they should be coming in a white bus.  Every white van drew our
attention, but as they were full of gun-toting Kyrgyz men, were not
our transport.  SSC called back and we gave the other PCV’s phone to
our driver to talk to her about where Border Control was.  While he
spoke to her, I got a phone call from Colonel Holt up at the Manas
Transit Center, the U.S. Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan.  He, too, was
checking on our status with Border Control.  Between SSC and Col. Holt
it was discovered that we were on the wrong side of the university, as
there was a new fountain on the other side.  Col. Holt told me to call
him when we were with Border Control.  So, the other PCV was then
communicating with SSC and I was communicating with Col. Holt.  They
drove us around the university and on the way to the other side we saw
an Uzbek store owned by people we like very much.  It was just a shell
of charred wood.  Nothing else remained.  There were shells of
vehicles littering the streets, entirely burned, and their drivers
likely shot or beaten to death.  Other than armed rovers, cars full of
armed men, and burned out skeletons of cars, the streets were
absolutely deserted.  Osh, which had, two days prior, been an active,
thriving college town, had, overnight, become a ghost town littered
with bodies.

We got to the large white bus fitted with yellow blinds.  I paid our
drivers 6,000 som and we boarded the bus which was also transporting
diplomatic workers from other countries (France and Holland among
them).  Once settled on the bus, we started driving with a motorcade
of white SUVs behind us.  Seeing the scorched, destroyed shell of Osh
was incredibly strange and sad.  Based on the route, we realized that
we weren’t going down to the administration building area.  We went to
an area around a small craggy mountain called Kidimay-Too where we met
up with an old tank.  The tank was not like the completely protected
ones we associate with the American military.  The men on top were
exposed as if standing in the bed of a pick-up truck, and other men
were in a sort of caged area below them.  All were armed with guns, of
course.  Following the tank, we sank into a massive mob of armed
Kyrgyz men and some older women even roaming through the crowd.  They
stopped the tank and our bus.  They demanded weapons from us.  They
demanded cameras (they wanted to make sure we weren’t photographing
them).  The Border Control men (dressed in military fatigues) were
arguing with them, explaining that we were foreigners and not Uzbeks,
that we had no weapons and were not taking any pictures.

Our heads ducked down, I called Col. Holt to tell him about the mob of
men and the blocking of our motorcade.  As I was on the phone with
him, shooting broke out all around us, he was saying, repeatedly, “Get
down, get down, get down!” (in addition to advising me on what to do
if the men got onto the bus, as whether they had was something he was
asking me).  Men were hitting and pushing the bus.  I was watching as
much of the external conflict as I could, while still keeping my head
down.  The French woman (aka village idiot) on the bus said, “Just
smile at them!”  She smiled out of the window and got a rock thrown at
her head in response (it missed because she ducked quickly).  Rocks
were thrown at the bus, the shooting intensified.  Men on the tank
were being fired at and fired back into the crowd.  I saw a soldier on
the tank get shot in the neck and fall.  Others fell.  The crowd
climbed up and took the tank.  Somehow, for some reason, they let our
bus pass, possibly satisfied that we were unarmed, as we were not the
ones shooting at them.  We then did an odd backing up and turned to a
gate surrounded by military personnel that was opened for us.  Col.
Holt said we were home free at that point and I agreed to let him know
when we got on the helicopter, and we hung up.

The bus stopped by a small tarmac area with 2 helicopters sitting on
it, both with flat tires.  We waited out there after they did a count
of each group and enjoyed the fresh, cool-ish air.  If circumstances
had not been what they were, it would have been a gorgeous day.  Then
all of a sudden shooting broke out and we all hit the deck.  I was
belly down in the dirt and grass waiting out the shooting.  We were
then put back on the bus and driven to another tarmac on the very
small Kyrgyz military compound.  We walked along a footpath through
the grass to the helicopters and went to the one assigned to the PCVs.
A small 3-step metal ladder with no hand rails, only a thin rope on
one side was what we used to board the craft.  Inside, we sat on
padded benches without seatbelts.  I told Col. Holt and SSC via texts
that we were on the helicopter.  SSC’s response was,
“UURRAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!”

We took off, without earplugs, and the aerial view of Osh was
incredible.  We knew there were some fires, but hadn’t realized before
then just how much of Osh was burning.  Entire Uzbek neighborhoods had
been burned to the ground, you could literally not see one house left
in tact.  You could see straight down to the foundations.  Smoke
poured from all over the city, concentrated in Uzbek neighborhoods.  I
have some pictures on my cell phone of the aerial view.  From one
perspective, the view of Suleiman Mountain was almost completely
obscured by smoke (I lived on the other side of Suleiman Mountain).

The helicopter took us to Osh Airport where we boarded a plane after
being counted and ID-checked by, presumably, an Embassy worker.  When
asked who was in charge, everybody pointed to me.  He had me count the
PCVs boarding the plane.  I boarded last and told him I was it.  I
again told Col. Holt and SSC we were on the plane.  The plane took us
to the airport in Bishkek where we were met by 2 military officers.
We were put on a military bus and driven to the Transit Center.  We
went to the main office where they had snacks and coffee for us and,
upon request, brought over sodas, hot dogs, and burgers for us.  It
had been almost 2 days of being in a high stress, life threatening
situation on virtually no sleep and virtually no food.  We devoured
it.  Before I ever went up to the room where the food was, I was
waiting downstairs trying to find my phone charger.  Some PC staff
members walked in as I was getting up off the floor and they all
hugged me and thanked me profusely for getting everyone here safely.
The PC staff team consisted of SSC, PCMO, the travel staff member, the
acting Country Director, and the PTO (Program and Training Officer).
The PTO was almost in tears and he called me his warden.  They were
all beaming and looked as if a huge weight had been lifted from their
shoulders.

(There are still 3 PCVs down south, one was moved with her family to
Batken Oblast (the Oblast we were originally banned from going to
because it was too dangerous with its land mines and drug trafficking,
but it became the safe haven, if that tells you anything).  The other
2 are safe at the moment, as the conflict has yet to spread to them,
but it’s coming very soon.  We are trying to get a helicopter to them.
We’re all hoping that the other 3 will be here tomorrow.)

PC gave us the option of going to the hotel we usually use for
training or to stay at the base.  We all chose the base.  To feel safe
and protected was something we were all in favor of.  They also let us
use staff phones to call our parents back in America.  I spoke to both
my mom and dad and finally got to tell them what had been going on.
We then went to get toiletries from the chapel, and linens and went to
our tents (divided by gender).  We selected beds (they’re just big
open spaces full of bunk beds) and settled in for the night.  The
other two female PCVs and I were advised, by the major assigned to us
for our duration here, to never go to the bathroom or showers or
anywhere on base alone at night, because war does things to men and as
she serves as the sexual assault response counselor (SARC) on base,
she was very adamant about the importance of this.  For instance, it’s
1:25am right now, and I’m planning to have a male PCV walk me to my
tent once I’m ready to leave the place on base I’m currently sitting
in typing this.  We won’t be here much longer.  But we were able to go
to a kind of goodwill-style clothing container and get some free
clothes.  We have precious little with us.  I saved my electronics,
IDs, and money, and otherwise have only the clothes I was wearing when
we escaped.  As a volunteer from Issyk-Kul Oblast said, to whom I told
the story, “Wow, you really are refugees.”  The idea of an American
being called a refugee seems odd, but I can’t say it’s inaccurate in
this instance.

We met today with the PTO to discuss our options.  They have summer
camps for us to participate in, but we need to decide whether we want
new sites in country, country transfers, or IS (interrupted service).
Some are definitely wanting to take IS.  For my part, I want either to
work for an NGO I already know in Bishkek that runs a dropping center
for drug addicts (similar to what I was doing in Osh), or to switch to
SOCD (the business project area here) and work with an NGO focusing on
Conflict Resolution; or I want to try to do a 1-year country transfer
to Ukraine, if they have a need for someone with my background and
skillset who can speak Russian.  I don’t know yet what will happen on
that front.

While in the apartment, we had been speculating about the cause and
scope of this “Ethnic Conflict” based on what we were told by outside
sources.  We had heard multiple stories.  One was that this originated
from a fight in a casino between a Kyrgyz man and an Uzbek man.
Another story was that a girl of one ethnicity was raped by a man of
the other.  Yet another was that this was funded and instigated by a
third party who later pulled out once the rabid dog had been unleashed
and spiraled out of control.  We had heard that the day before, there
had been propaganda spread in the mosques.  The Kyrgyz are saying the
Uzbeks are the ones trying to kill them, and that they’re just
defending themselves.  The Uzbeks are saying the same.  Another theory
is that this is funded by Bakiyev’s family, after all, his brother was
known to have a lot of weapons and a lot of money, and that this may
be a political maneuver to either consolidate power in the South or to
take the country back.  The interim government is certainly far from
being in any way in control of this situation, whatever the news may
be pretending.

A new report came in this morning from one of our Uzbek friends in Osh
who is currently in hiding.  She said that Kyrgyz men are dressing in
military uniforms and getting into Uzbek homes, attacking them, and
then filming it when the Uzbeks fight back to use as propaganda tools
showing that the Uzbeks are trying to kill the Kyrgyz.  They’re also
raping the Uzbek women and girls.  As much as we didn’t know what to
believe at first about who was really attacking whom, seeing Kyrgyz
neighborhoods intact and Uzbek villages razed to the ground sealed the
matter for us all.  This is an ethnic cleansing by the Kyrgyz against
the Uzbeks.  The ethnic cleansing has moved to Jalalabad.  In villages
and the city there virtually all of or literally all of the Uzbeks
have been murdered.  Uzbeks escaping over the border into Uzbekistan
were being shot at the border by the Kyrgyz.  Uzbek women were handing
their babies over to Uzbek soldiers trying to get them to safety.

One of our LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators – she’s worked for
multiple PSTs as a Russian language teacher), Malika, is trapped in
Uzgen outside of Osh, surrounded by Kyrgyz villages.  She can’t get
out without being killed.  We are hoping she and her friends, family,
and neighbors find a way to escape.  She can’t find her son.  Her
nephew is confirmed dead.  Other deaths are approaching the 90s, in
terms of what has been reported, but my own guess would put the
estimate at approaching 200.  The last report is that there are over
1,000 injured.  This is so much worse than the revolution.  Remember
when I told you why Jalalabad was being closed and PCVs weren’t being
allowed to return?  Osh became worse than Jalalabad ever was, and we
were there when it happened.  Some of us still are, but they’re safer
than we were.  Batken is sending food and aid to the law enforcement
officials.  But we’re also hearing that the Kyrgyz military might be
giving weapons to the young, Kyrgyz men who are killing Uzbeks.  We’re
not sure there is anyone fighting for the lives of the Uzbeks, except
for the Uzbeks themselves.

People need to know what is happening down there.  Aid is needed.  The
murder has already spread out of Osh into Jalalabad.  If it reaches
the north, that may be it for the country.  I don’t know what will
happen, but I can’t imagine it would be good.  The kindest, nicest,
friendliest, most generous, and happiest people I’ve met in this
country have been Uzbek, though I certainly have Kyrgyz friends, too,
and there are some very good and brave Kyrgyz people who are trying to
help their Uzbek friends and neighbors.  But the fact remains that our
friends are dying and we can’t do anything to stop it.

We were lucky to escape with our lives.

Kristi

SMUHP9V95W2Q

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