Sunday, August 08, 2010

The View from Castle Valley

Above: Utah's high desert, where Mormon colonizer Brigham Young and his followers sought pastures for their cattle in the 1870s, despite warnings from Indian tribes. Rainfall is so rare, its arrival seems to bring miracles.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The View from Route 292

Above: Nevada's Route 292 runs just three miles south from a desolate Oregon border.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The View from Crooked River

Above: Oregon's Crooked River Highway follows its namesake along a watershed that supports river otter, redband trout, golden eagles, prairie falcons, and pronghorn antelope, among other wildlife. Farther south, a weathered oasis in the town of Brothers seems transplanted from another century.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The View from Olympic Peninsula

Above: views from the peninsula's Dungeness Spit, where Indian paintbrush blooms alongside dandelions, and a ferry ride to the Emerald City.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Kyrgyzstan in Murals

Above: military insignia left by past visitors and a series of newly-painted murals adorn a dining facility at yet another undisclosed location in northern Kyrgyzstan. RBM and other Peace Corps volunteers spent time here after being evacuated from the city of Osh in June. (Note: some photos have been blurred.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast

An essay by RBM about whether American groceries and garden supplies should contain human hair appears in the spring issue of The Normal School. The story won third prize among research and reporting-based essays at the 2009 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, Texas. It also appears in the 2010 volume of Ten Spurs, the conference's journal. Here's an excerpt from "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast":
"DOUGH CONDITIONERS" reads the fine print on a bright blue box of Texas Garlic Toast. It’s made by Great Value, or GV ("When Quality Counts"). Wal-Mart, the product's distributor, describes GV as the country’s largest food brand in both sales and volume, and in March, 2009 announced an expansion. "At a time when families need to make every penny count," explained a company press release, new GV product lines, including thin-crust pizza, would provide Americans "with affordable, high-quality grocery and household consumable options comparable to national brands." (The Hartman Group, a marketing research firm, has called GV a "likely to purchase" label that outperforms other generic brands marketed by Wal-Mart as well as Kroger, Target, Albertsons, and Safeway.)

One night ... my roommate grabbed GV's Texas Garlic Toast from the scores of vertical freezers that line Wal-Mart SuperCenter no. 2729. Minutes ago I heated a few slices in the microwave near my desk and began to eat lunch. And just now, the moist, salted crust has reminded me, with a twinge, that this is exactly the kind of bread long sought by commercial bakers. Peering closely at the ingredients listed under dough conditioners, just before sugar but after yeast, I spot a familiar term: "L-CYSTEINE." Later, in the Encyclopedia of Food and Color Additives (1997), I find an American manufacturing association’s designation for L-Cysteine, based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines: "status GRAS," or, generally recognized as safe.
To read free essays from the new issue by David Shields and Bob Shacochis, or (what else?) subscribe, visit the magazine's blog. For another excerpt from RBM's essay, check out this post.

Update (June 10, 2011) -- Journalist Scott Carney has just authored a 272-page investigation of the global human tissue trade, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers. Here's an excerpt from NPR's write-up:
In his book, Carney also delves into the marketplace for human hair, known as "black gold."

"It is amazingly valuable," he says. "The market is about $900 million around the world, and about 40 percent of [that] hair is sold for human extensions."

Many of those transactions take place at the Sri Tirumala Temple in southern India, where people give their hair to the god Vishnu as an act of humility.

"I went there about two years ago and had my head shaved with probably about 1,000 other people," Carney says. "These women came, swept up the hair and threw it into these giant steel vats. [The hair] eventually gets combed and sorted and sold at an auction, and shipped out to the international market."

Hair collected in a single cut from a person's head, known as "remy," is used all over the world for hair extensions. But the shorter hair, often shorn from men, serves a very different purpose.

"Most of the hair that gets shorn is from men," Carney says. "That gets sold to chemical companies and gets reduced to an amino acid called L-cystine, which is used as a leavening agent in baking goods."

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

War, Literature, and the Arts

"What Happened Yesterday in Baghdad," an essay by RBM about understanding the Iraq War through voice-overs and conversations with Iraqi students, will appear in a forthcoming issue of War, Literature, and the Arts. More about WLA, a journal of the U.S. Air Force Academy:
From time immemorial, war and art have reflected one another, and it is this intersection of war and art that WLA seeks to illuminate. If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war’s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall towards an individual’s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal. For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first. We live in a culture that values the individual. Our works of art about war mirror this welcome bias.
Update -- The 2010 WLA Conference runs September 16-18 in Colorado Springs and will feature a reading by RBM of "What Happened." From the conference's online schedule:
Thursday, 16 September

Session 2: 0950-1045

WAR COMMENTARY PANEL: Greg Dandeles (“The War in Peace: The Armed Forces of Liberia Loses a Soldier”), Leila Levinson ("Cracking Open the Silence: What War Bequeaths to our Children"), Raul Moreno (“What Happened”)

Moderator: Byron Calhoun

Lecture Room 3
Other conference presentations include Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), Benjamin Busch (The Wire, Generation Kill), Dexter Filkins (The Forever War), and Brian Turner (Here, Bullet). To attend, e-mail RBM or visit the conference's registration page by August 15.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Relief for Osh

Slideshow: Relief for Osh

Above: U.S. Peace Corps workers, tourists, journalists, security guards, and other volunteers at Manas International Airport load a Russian cargo plane with relief supplies bound for Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on June 19. In the hold, thanks to local and international donations: flour, rice, potatoes, sugar, cooking oil, and dishware.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Analysis Roundup (Updated)

From Foreign Policy, on June 14, "Trouble Down South: Why did Kyrgyzstan suddenly erupt into violence?" An excerpt:
The Uzbek minority is largely excluded from Kyrgyzstan's political system, though they dominate the country's merchant class. Disputes over water and land use between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are common in the south. The Soviet Union spent decades trying unsuccessfully to suppress ethnic nationalism in the area and in 1990, when the Soviet military was unable to put a stop to a three-month-long inter-ethnic battle between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh that resulted in hundreds of deaths, it was taken as a sign of Moscow's diminished power over its regions.
From the Telegraph, on June 17, "Kyrgyzstan: Death, dictators and the Soviet legacy." An excerpt:
It would be wrong to characterise the violence in Kyrgyzstan as politically motivated. Ancient ethnic tensions and stereotypes have come to the fore, and poverty is the root cause. But at the same time it is broadly true that the Uzbeks of the south generally support Otunbayeva, while their southern Kyrgyz attackers do not. Bakiyev supporters have played some role in stirring up the violence.
From the Times, on June 18, "Diplomatic Memo: Value to Big Powers May Not Save Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
Now, Kyrgyzstan needs help building a stable government that knits together the north and the south. Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that NATO should be working with the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to develop a mechanism for collective action. The next time a Central Asian country is wobbling at the edge of a precipice, he said, someone must be prepared to accept responsibility.
From the Post, on June 21, "Both sides in Kyrgyzstan fault government for failing to prevent violence." An excerpt:
At the front of the crowd was Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a prominent Uzbek politician, businessman and university chief who argued that Bakiyev's ouster meant Uzbeks would finally get the political rights they deserved. After recapturing the building, the throng marched to the Bakiyev family compound in Jalal-Abad and burned it down.

Witnesses said Kyrgyz and Uzbeks stood side by side in the crowd. But Bakiyev's supporters framed the conflict in ethnic terms and painted Batyrov as a radical Uzbek nationalist, tapping into fears among local Kyrgyz that Uzbeks might gain too much power and attempt to secede.
From The Economist, on June 24, "Kyrgyzstan's humanitarian crisis: Sad homecoming." An excerpt:
[Ethnic-Uzbek] women are now trickling back to their husbands, fathers, and brothers, who stayed behind to protect their homes—or what is left of them. Many houses were burned down, sometimes with their residents still in them. Now they have to go back and attempt to pick up their lives again, side-by-side with their ethnic-Kyrgyz persecutors.
From The Nation, on June 25, "Kyrgyzstan on the Brink." An excerpt:
Unaddressed stereotypes have allowed tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to fester ever since the only previously reported conflict between the two groups, in 1990. These typecasts were a breeding ground for the surge of rumors—spread by Internet chat rooms, text messages and word of mouth—that helped provoke the attacks: “Uzbek men raped a group of Kyrgyz girls”; “young men brawled over a restaurant bill”; “Uzbeks, in their efforts to declare autonomy, had armed themselves.”

But frictions between the two groups aren’t the result of some ancient ethnic hatred. They have waxed and waned for only a generation, as local elites, manipulating economic grievances, vie for control of resources. In recent times, that has meant Afghan heroin. In place of a functioning state, southern Kyrgyzstan has become a network of trafficking routes controlled by narco-barons and their extended families.
From the Times, on June 26, "After Kyrgyz Unrest, a Question Lingers: Why?" An excerpt:
Last week the head of the country’s national security agency issued a statement saying that the younger son of Mr. Bakiyev, Maksim Bakiyev, had hired Islamic radicals from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group with ties to the Taliban, to infiltrate Uzbek neighborhoods and stoke conflict. The statement said the Islamic radicals fired rifles at civilians and then hid, only to reappear in other areas.

Reinforcing the message of external instigation, on Thursday an airplane flew over Bishkek dropping leaflets warning that “provocateurs” could foment ethnic violence in the capital, too, though the streets remained calm.
From RFE/RL, on June 30, "How Strong Is Kyrgyzstan's New Constitution?" An excerpt:
The challenge for Kyrgyzstan now will be to go far beyond simply writing a new constitution to developing the whole body of institutions and public expectations which assure a constitution is upheld and guides a society.

As Kyrgyzstan took its first step this week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave it a dubious send-off. He told reporters at the G20 summit in Toronto that he did "not really understand how a parliamentary republic would look and work in Kyrgyzstan."

Medvedev asked, "Will this not lead to a chain of eternal problems -- to reshuffles in parliament, to the rise to power of this or that political group, to authority being passed constantly from one hand to another, and, finally will this not help those with extremist views to power?"

Put another way, the same question would be: Are not parliamentary systems, though a proven success in democratic countries, doomed to failure in the post-Soviet space?

Update (July 7, 2010) -- From the Times, on July 2, "Uzbeks Accused of Inciting Violence in Kyrgyzstan." Two excerpts:
The arrests are based on a section of the Kyrgyz criminal code that bans inciting ethnic hatred, after the ethnic Uzbek leaders accused the police and army of instigating and in some cases participating in the original violence ... Azimzhan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek and the director of a human rights group in the town of Bazar-Kurgan, was arrested on this charge, according to his lawyer, Nurbek Toktokunov, who said Mr. Askarov had bruises on his back suggesting he had been tortured in custody.
From RFE/RL, on July 2, "Kyrgyzstan: Anatomy Of A Conflict." An excerpt:
The latest round of fighting in Osh began in the predawn hours of June 10-11, when two youth gangs -- one Kyrgyz and one Uzbek -- were gambling in a local casino. Each accused the other of cheating and a scuffle broke out. The fighting spilled out onto the street as reinforcements on both sides -- alerted by text messages -- joined the brawl. Rumors quickly spread -- which were later debunked in a Human Rights Watch report -- that an Uzbek mob raped as many as 12 Kyrgyz girls and killed three at a nearby dormitory. The false reports stoked Kyrgyz anger as mobs took to the streets to exact revenge.
From NPR, on July 4, "Trust, And Answers, Elusive In Post-Riot Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
As a journalist covering a conflict, I'm supposed to offer more than stories of suffering. I'm supposed to get answers, and the truth. In Kyrgyzstan so far, that's been painfully impossible.
From EurasiaNet, on July 6, "In Osh, Easier to Dig Up Corpses Than Truth." Two excerpts:
Armed young men guarded that Cheremushki street corner, stopping and searching cars. They were a jumpy mix of military conscripts and police ... My colleague and I pleaded with them to give us access: “Officials [i.e. you] keep telling us [Western journalists] to report both sides of the story. Here is an opportunity. Please let us past.” Each recklessly gripped his Kalashnikov – “please stop pointing that at my belly” – and dithered, scared of his seniors, uncertain of his own place in the hazy chain of command.

Eventually, we flagged down a senior officer. He explained that Kyrgyz police had died in the conflict, too, and let us through.
And from RFE/RL, on July 7, "Rising Nationalism Threatens Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
Almazbek Atambaev doesn't want people to talk about that. In his sprawling office in parliament, the interim government's dapper deputy prime minister -- a top candidate to lead the country as a possible future prime minister -- criticizes Western journalists for reporting about the overwhelming number of Uzbek deaths.

"We won't allow divisions in our society," he replies when asked to clarify the figures.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Exit Osh (Updated)

Volunteers reach the safety of a helicopter in Osh
By R.B. Moreno

I came to Central Asia to teach English, live among local people, and tell their stories. So this life in a compound near Bishkek that offers Gatorade and cable TV feels a bit unnerving. For the second time in as many months, I find myself behind barbed wire, along with other U.S. Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from provinces rocked by what newspapers have called ethnic cleansing. Our exit from Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s jewel of the South, says something about what is happening there.

Over two days, ten aid workers gathered in safe houses on both sides of the conflict. When our food ran low, neighbors smuggled us bread and tea and refused to be compensated. But others sent rocks through our windows and demanded bribes. And all the while, bands of young, ethnic Kyrgyz, enraged by rumors of students having been raped, terrorized the streets around us. They ransacked Uzbek apartments. They torched markets and restaurants. They burned vehicles, piled them into barricades, and shot at those trying to escape the city. By night, gunfire and screaming mixed with thunderclaps.

At last two hired cars arrived to get us to an airfield. The drivers wore bandanas; one carried a hatchet, another a hunting rifle. But there was confusion about where to rendezvous with another convoy. And so for 20 long minutes we sat exposed on burning Lenin Street. Smoke and sirens hung in the air. Rioters sped past carrying metal pipes, even a bow and arrow. Most of our cell phones didn’t work. Every time I shifted my legs, the volunteer pinned beneath me became asphyxiated. Another suggested running headlong toward a city park.

Presently, a dark sedan cruised by, pulled a U-turn, and came back for another look. Inside were three masked men and a Kalashnikov. This is what the trigger man wanted to know: Were there Uzbeks behind our tinted glass? “If any of you are Uzbeks we will kill you all,” he cried. No, no, just Americans, said the man with the hatchet. Show me, said the trigger man. And so my door was yanked open, and the trigger man raised his gun. For a moment we locked eyes – his glittering, angry, undecided. “No Uzbeks!” I repeated in Kyrgyz, my voice catching. Then the sedan's engine roared, and they were gone.

Minutes later we boarded a bus and began to roll slowly, behind a tank, through neighborhoods whose destruction we had only glimpsed earlier. Some passengers gasped at the shells of nightclubs, warehouses, and other landmarks now reduced to ashes. But other foreign nationals sitting alongside us – from Denmark and France, among other places – looked ecstatic. As if by magic, we were quitting what had become, overnight, a godforsaken place.

It wasn’t over yet. At the entrance to the airfield, another face-off, this time with scores of men agitating for weapons and furious about our convoy. Shouted questions filled the air. Who’s aboard the bus? Are they taking pictures? Rocks and sticks began to pelt our windows.

“Just smile at them,” said one woman. Instead, we cowered on the floor. And then the unthinkable happened: guns snatched from nervous troops huddled aboard the tank.

This is it, I thought to myself. What will a bullet feel like?

“I love you,” said another woman next to me, to her friend. Both began to cry.

A long volley rang out. But we could feel no pain. By some miracle these were warning shots, aimed at the clouds. Again an engine roared. And we were through.

As two helicopters lifted us skyward and circled Sulayman Mountain, a barren rock ringed by a cemetery that juts skyward from the middle of Osh, the scene became apocalyptic. Towers of black smoke marked Uzbek neighborhoods engulfed in flames. Much of the Cheremushki district appeared to have vanished. Some buildings glowed orange; others collapsed as we passed over head. Pushing north, with the sun setting, Osh became a terrible blur on the horizon.

It’s been three days since our evacuation, and for some, a creeping sense of guilt has begun to build. It comes in the form of a question no counselor can satisfactorily answer: By what twist of fate did we deserve to escape such carnage, while others perished? Two of the drivers who ferried us between safe houses, I'm told, were shot or beaten to death. Some 100,000 refugees have streamed west to safety in Uzbekistan, only to have the border shut and some of their children trampled in a stampede.

Calls to friends in Osh tell of still more suffering: empty food stalls at the bazaar; snipers picking off Uzbeks from atop Sulayman Mountain; a mother seven months pregnant dying of thirst on a rooftop; a Pakistani student, mistaken for an Uzbek, shot and beaten to death in the street. Although the official death toll stands at 138, locals tell of hundreds already buried and more bodies yet to recover.

“I wish I could have pushed some magic button that would have saved everyone,” one volunteer told me yesterday. “I can take no pride in having been evacuated.”

Postscript (July 1, 2010) -- After being removed temporarily at the request of the U.S. Peace Corps, this post has been republished. Excerpts are also available at NPR's blog.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Osh News Roundup (Updated)

From the Times, "Kyrgyz Rioting Spreads in Apparent Ethnic Violence." The story is currently leading Google News. An excerpt:
The official death toll from four days of clashes neared 100 people, though the unrest seemed so widespread that the figure is likely to go far higher. Reports from the region said bands of ethnic Kyrgyz were seeking out Uzbeks, setting fire to their homes and killing them.

Thousands of Uzbeks have fled to the nearby border with Uzbekistan, and the authorities were said to have lost control of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city.

On Saturday, the fragile Kyrgyz provisional government asked neighboring Russia to send in peacekeeping troops, but Russia, which has a small military base in the north and has been a political patron of this former Soviet republic, said only that it would consider the request.
From the BBC, "Deadly ethnic unrest escalates in southern Kyrgyzstan." Excerpts:
Witnesses speak of armed Kyrgyz men shooting ethnic Uzbeks and setting property alight.

Thousands of ethnic Uzbeks have been fleeing the city of Osh, where a BBC correspondent reports hearing gunfire ... Kyrgyzstan's interim government extended a state of emergency to cover the entire southern Jalalabad region, as ethnic clashes spread there from neighbouring Osh.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April and now lives in Belarus, has denied accusations from the government that he is involved in the unrest.

Without international assistance there are fears the interim authorities in Kyrgyzstan will struggle to contain the conflict.
Finally, from CNN, "Armed ethnic clashes rage in Kyrgyzstan." This story cites the highest death toll yet. An excerpt:
Armed groups are fighting each other for control of the main hospital in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan, Russia Today reported, as ethnic clashes continue in the strategically important central Asian country.

At least 80 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured since Thursday, Kyrgyz and Russian news agencies reported, citing health ministry officials.

According to one report, the numbers were much higher. Local officials in Osh, the city worst affected by the violence, said at least 500 ethnic Uzbeks had been killed, according to, an independent news agency. CNN has not independently confirmed the number of dead.

Update (10:45 AM, June 14, 2010) -- From Xinhua, "Russia sends troopers to Kyrgyzstan to protect Russian facilities: Interfax." An excerpt:
A battalion of Russian troopers have been sent to Kyrgyzstan to protect the Russian facilities in the Kant military base, Interfax news agency reported on Sunday.

Three Ilyushin Il-76 military cargo aircraft, carrying humanitarian aids and the paratroopers from the 31st landing brigade of the Russian Air-Borne Force, have landed at the Russian air base on Sunday afternoon, a military source told Interfax.

"The task of the battalion is to guard Russian military facilities and guarantee the security of Russian servicemen and their families," the source said.

The battalion was transferred to Kant air base due to the aggravation of the situation in south Kyrgyzstan, he added.

The paratroopers were armed with regular small arms and ammunition, and took the necessary food supplies, the source noted.
And from the WSJ, "Kyrgyzstan Violence Threatens Region." An excerpt:
Ethnic violence flared out of control in this strategically important Central Asian country on Sunday, threatening to destabilize what has been a conduit for troops and supplies for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan's government, for the first time since the country declared independence in 1991, appealed to Russia for help in restoring order. The Kremlin responded by saying it was sending 300 paratroopers—but only to protect its own military base near Bishkek, far from the fighting in the country's south. Russia otherwise appears wary of being drawn into the Kyrgyz conflict.

Kyrgyzstan's own security forces have failed to contain a rising tide of ethnic violence in the south, where more than 100 people have been killed since fighting began Thursday night, according to the country's health ministry. The officials say the death toll could be considerably higher, as the current count includes only the dead at hospitals and morgues.

Around 75,000 people have now fled fighting into neighboring Uzbekistan, Russia's official news agency said, citing the Uzbek government.

Ethnic clashes — mainly of Kyrgyz attacking Uzbek minorities — spread Sunday through Kyrgyzstan's second-largest province, Jalal-Abad, government officials said. Crowds were setting fire to Uzbek homes and businesses, according to local news reports.

The ferocity of the fighting heightens fears of wider havoc in Central Asia, whose hitherto peaceful former Soviet republics have been a base for resupply of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. The State Department Sunday called for a quick restoration of peace and order, and endorsed efforts by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a solution.

Postscript (July 1, 2010) -- After being removed temporarily at the request of the U.S. Peace Corps, this post has been republished. According to Kyrgyzstan's president, the death toll from the violence in Osh likely exceeded 2,000. Please see current updates elsewhere on this blog.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Osh Riots, Day Two (Updated)

By R.B. Moreno

It's early afternoon and I've moved to a safe house in another part of Osh where a number of American aid workers have gathered. The drive here, in a word, was harrowing: gangs of men with clubs guarding road blocks fashioned from felled trees and torched cars; others trying to forcibly enter apartment complexes. It's unclear who is in charge of the city, but cannon fire can be heard from our vantage as well as helicopters patrolling overhead. An evacuation plan is being developed; I'll update with more as I can.

Update (2:00 AM, June 13, 2010) -- With help from local security forces and a commendable coordination effort from headquarters staff, our group has evacuated from Osh. We are safe now in a compound near Bishkek, but our thoughts remain with our Kyrgyz and Uzbek colleagues in the South. Tonight these families cope with interethnic violence that at last count had claimed close to 80 lives and wounded nearly 1,000 (see updates below).

Inside our safe house, a barrier is erected to expel rocks and firebombs

As we made our way to a helicopter today our convoy was met repeatedly with vigilantes brandishing everything from bows and arrows to Kalashnikovs. Later, aerial views of neighborhoods in flames and a skyline blackened with smoke suggested the death toll will rise much higher.

Postscript (July 1, 2010) -- After being removed temporarily at the request of the U.S. Peace Corps, this post has been republished.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The View from Osh

Out my window, a farmer pauses to listen to a firefight
By R.B. Moreno

It's been nearly a day since predawn text messages brought news that renewed fighting had broken out on Osh streets and in surrounding villages. The unrest quickly spread to neighborhoods including mine, whose location can't be named here for security reasons. Wire services report as many as 37 people killed and over 500 wounded, many from bullet wounds; already this is half the number who died in Bishkek in April. Local TV channels have aired pictures of students being evacuated from dormitories on buses, as well as interviews with officials from Kyrgyzstan's Health and Interior ministries, some of whom stated that the city is now back under control. That does not appear to be the case, at least locally.

As I write this post the popping and booming of gunfire and cannons can be heard through an open window, along with the rattle of Chinese firecrackers lit by teenagers looking to add to the mayhem. Few cars have taken to the streets today; those that do motor past at high speeds. Gas lines have been cut. Along one avenue a steady stream of pedestrians, mostly young men, could be seen moving downtown. Columns of smoke later rose from that direction, then dissipated. Shouts from mobs occasionally waft skyward. Still, for some Osh residents, including the neighbor pictured above, life carries on.

For another man close to the family I am staying with, life has ended. The jangle of a telephone, just minutes ago, brought word that a 27-year-old nephew of my host, whom I'll call Ms. Jashyrova, has died in the fighting. This news shook a woman whose stately features and ebony hair rarely lose composure. "I told my sister, keep your children at home!" she protested, raising her hands toward our dining room ceiling. I met this nephew's mother recently at a reunion that had both sisters chatting in whispers for hours on end. The victim's father passed away years ago, just before his birth, and so the son's Kyrgz name carried that fact. As the youngest child, he would have been expected to care for his mother, who now must lean on aging Ms. Jashyrova and other siblings. (At one time they numbered 15.)

As tonight's curfew descends and combat helicopters orbit the city, the reasons for this family's loss remain obscured. Wire reports mention a brawl breaking out Thursday evening on Osh's main thoroughfare and a number of damaged properties owned by ethnic Uzbeks. (Other property owners have also suffered losses.) But Ms. Jashyrova prefers to think today's events were coordinated by Uzbek enclaves themselves. Then again, maybe it was a reminder from God. Kyrgyzstan's people, she points out, were also rocked by an earthquake Thursday.

"Why did they go out?" she demands of the rioters, and again of the ceiling. "Teachers, farmers: we just want to work. Who suffers? Ordinary people!"

Postscript (July 1, 2010) -- After being removed temporarily at the request of the U.S. Peace Corps, this post has been republished.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kyrgyzstan News Roundup (Updated)

By R.B. Moreno

A series of gun battles have begun overnight here in Osh. I can hear periodic reports of different calibers, including automatic weaponry, coming from southern and western parts of the city. But the trilling of grasshoppers and a nearby lightening storm are making the clashes hard to distinguish from Mother Nature.

In other news, a moderate earthquake centered hundreds of miles to the southeast shook my apartment for a long minute Thursday morning. More now from the wires, which have not yet picked up the fighting.

Postscript (July 1, 2010) -- After being removed temporarily at the request of the U.S. Peace Corps, this post has been republished. According to Kyrgyzstan's president, the death toll from the violence in Osh likely exceeded 2,000. Please see current updates elsewhere on this blog.

From CNN, "Earthquake hits border region of China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan." Its report:
A moderate earthquake rattled far-western China on Thursday, near its border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

The magnitude 5.6 quake hit southern Xinjiang province and was centered about 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, west-northwest of Kashi.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

The Xinjiang region is seismically active. In March 2008, a powerful 7.2 magnitude quake hit a remote area of the region, followed by a series of moderate to light quakes.
And from UPI, "Bishkek disbands political police force." An excerpt:
The provisional Interior Ministry will no long monitor opposition groups in Kyrgyzstan, interim leaders said Thursday from Bishkek.

A statement from acting Interior Minister Bolot Sher said provisional leaders signed a measure to disband a political police force, Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti reports.

"From now on, the interior ministry will not monitor oppositional sentiment in connection with the analysis of the social-political situation," the statement said.

Bishkek had established an interior police force to monitor religious extremism and terrorist ideology in the country. RIA Novosti said the force was busy keeping tabs on "untrustworthy" politicians and opposition groups, however.

Update (11:15 AM, June 11, 2010) -- From the AP, "Twelve killed in new wave of unrest in Kyrgyzstan." Excerpts:
Witnesses in Osh, the country's second-largest city, reported hearing sustained gunfire late Thursday. Local media also reported that gangs of young men armed with sticks and stones smashed shop windows and set cars alight in the center.

Health Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bailinova said 12 people have been killed and more than 120 injured. Many of the injured were being treated for gunshot wounds, she said.

Interim authorities swiftly declared a state of emergency in the city and dispatched armored vehicles and troops to the city in a bid to pacify the situation.

But local residents said shooting continued into the morning and helicopters were flying low overhead. Several buildings across the city were on fire ... It is unclear what caused the latest round of unrest, but local Kyrgyz media have reported that a brawl broke out late Thursday evening on the city's main thoroughfare.

One Osh resident told The Associated Press that he heard a 10-minute-long burst of gunfire shortly past midnight. Local media said they received reports of firing throughout the night.

Osh, which lies on the fringes of the volatile Ferghana Valley, has a large Uzbek minority and a history of ethnic violence. There seemed to be no clear evidence that the violence was provoked by ethnic tensions, however.

Russian news agency Interfax reported that seven armored personnel vehicles carrying soldiers drove into the center early Friday.

The interim government has declared a state of emergency in Osh and surrounding districts that will remain in effect until June 20. A curfew has been imposed from 8 p.m to 6 a.m.

In an emotional televised address Friday, interim President Roza Otunbayeva called for a return to calm.

"I would like to appeal in particular to the women of Kyrgyzstan. Dear sisters, find the right words for your sons, husbands and brothers. In the current situation, it is unacceptable to indulge in feelings of revenge and anger," she said.
From RFE/RL, "12 Reported Dead In Kyrgyz Clashes." An excerpt:
The deaths were reported as the country's interim authorities declared a state of emergency in the city of Osh and sent in troops and armored vehicles to quell violence reportedly involving rival groups of youths.

A Health Ministry spokesman is quoted as saying 12 people have been killed and 126 hospitalized with injuries.

Reports say 1,000 or more people were involved in the violence, with groups of youths reported fighting, smashing windows, looting shops and setting fires to cars. Some reports have linked the violence to ethnic conflicts between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the region.

The interim government announced that the state of emergency was in force for Osh and three neighboring districts -- Karassu, Arava and Uzgen -- and would last until at least June 20.

Authorities have also imposed a nighttime curfew in the region.

Update (4:00 PM, June 11, 2010) -- From the BBC, "Deadly clashes in Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh." Excerpts:
At least 17 people have been killed in clashes in Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city of Osh, health ministry officials say.

At least 200 people were also injured when hundreds of youths fought in the streets of the southern city.

Officials say a state of emergency has been declared and armoured vehicles have been sent to the city.

The interim government has been struggling to restore order after a violent uprising in April.

Since then, there have been fears of an upsurge in violence between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in the south.

Osh is home to a large ethnic Uzbek community, and is the power-base of the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

According to local reports, fighting broke out between rival gangs and developed into gun battles.

Reports from Osh said that a number of buildings, including cafes, a local TV channel and a theatre were ablaze ... It is not clear who is behind the violence.

It appears that the majority of the properties belonged to ethnic Uzbeks.

Firefighters tried to put out the fires, but angry youths reportedly threw rocks to prevent them doing their job.

Residents say the shooting continued into Friday morning and that helicopters were flying low overhead.

However, an Interior Ministry spokesman said the shooting had stopped and that the city was now under the control of the security forces.

Update (9:00 PM, June 11, 2010) -- From AFP, "Ethnic clashes in south Kyrgyzstan leave 37 dead." Its report:
Thirty-seven people have been killed and more than 500 wounded during ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, a health ministry spokesman told AFP on Friday.

"Thirty-seven people have now died," as a result of the ongoing violence in the southern city of Osh, a health ministry spokesman said.

Kyrgyzstan's provisional government led by Roza Otunbayeva has struggled to impose order on the volatile Central Asian state since seizing control during riots that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev earlier this year.

Witnesses said brawls had broken out between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek groups in Osh, once the stronghold of Bakiyev.

Update (2:00 AM, June 13, 2010) -- From AFP, "Kyrgyzstan government authorises deadly force to stem unrest." An excerpt:
The decision was taken "in connection with the ongoing clashes of ethnic groups with the use of lethal weapons, and an increasing number of victims among the civilian population," the government said in a statement.

Lethal force will now be authorised in order to repel attacks against police and the military, stop the destruction of government and private property and to protect civilians, the decree said.

The clashes have left 77 dead and almost 1,000 wounded.
From the AP, "Russia won't immediately send troops to Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
The Kremlin says it won't immediately send Russian troops to Kyrgyzstan, which has asked Moscow for military assistance to help quell ethnic violence.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said Saturday that Russia would offer humanitarian assistance and help evacuate those wounded in rampages that swept Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city of Osh.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

CP: US urges ethnic inclusiveness in Kyrgyzstan as busy political season looms

By The Canadian Press (CP)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan is calling for sensitivity over ethnic issues as the turbulent Central Asian nation gears up for a key referendum and parliamentary elections.

The embassy said Wednesday that the representation of minorities in Kyrgyz political life was crucial to stability in the country.

Southern Kyrgyzstan was rocked last month by clashes pitting ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities against one another.

Authorities have played down the ethnic angle, claiming the disturbances were orchestrated by forces loyal to deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Ethnic Kyrgyz account for 70 per cent of the country's five million people, while Uzbeks make up 15 per cent.

A referendum is planned for June 27 to approve a new constitution, ahead of October's parliamentary vote.

Copyright © 2010 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Spring Harvest

Above: rows of cherries and other produce planted in a backyard north of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, supplement one family's income.

Monday, June 07, 2010

AP: Top Kyrgyz government official resigns

By Leila Saralayeva

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan's fragile interim government suffered its first major defection Monday as the acting president's chief of staff announced his resignation and disclosed plans to create a new political party.

Edil Baisalov's departure from the government renews concerns about political stability in this volatile Central Asian nation, which was shaken earlier this year by a mass revolt that led to the toppling of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

"First of all, I am interested in seeing the events of April 7 through to their logical conclusion," Baisalov told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "In the popular uprising, we kicked out Bakiyev's corrupt family. ... Now we must return Kyrgyzstan to the path of democracy."

Over the coming months, political developments in Kyrgyzstan will be closely scrutinized by the United States and Russia, which both have military bases in the country.

Baisalov criticized appointments made by the provisional government and complained that corruption remained rampant.

"It worries me deeply that people without any education and with criminal records have come to power purely on the basis of party affiliation," he said.

Baisalov said his party will take part in the parliamentary election to be held in October. He urged members of government belonging to parties running in the election to step down over the coming week.

Most leading officials in the interim government also hold top positions in the parties most likely to compete for seats in parliament.

The interim government rose to power in early April after Bakiyev was ousted amid violent clashes between demonstrators and troops that claimed dozens of lives.

Acting President Roza Otunbayeva is set to lead the country until presidential elections in October 2011. But the stability of her government is likely to be tested in coming months by internal rivalries within the Cabinet.

Security also remains a concern amid uncertainty over the authorities' perceived inability to guarantee law and order.

Overnight Sunday, a leading criminal linked with recent unrest in the south was killed in a shootout between rival gangs, police said.

Local officials in the Jalal-Abad region said Aibek Mirsidikov, a Bakiyev supporter known locally as Black Aibek, helped organize the seizure of local government offices that sparked a wave of violence last month.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The View from Osh

Slideshow: The View from Osh

Above: pictures from weekend feasting in villages outside Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Families attending each contributed about 40 USD to a day-long meal, prepared seasonally except in wintertime, that includes everything from mutton soup to pistachios.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Photo of the Day

Some disquieting signage on Avia Traffic Company Flight 179 to Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

RBM Swears In

Above: scenes from a ceremony Thursday in northern Kyrgyzstan where 67 Americans became Peace Corps volunteers. Performances included "Red Flower" by pop singer Julia Rutzkaya, remarks in three languages by volunteers, a partial recitation of the Manas epic, and a speech by the U.S. ambassador, who speaks seven languages. Afterwards, Osh-bound RBM bid farewell to his local host family and fellow English teachers. later posted the following story:
The swearing-in ceremony of the 18th group of new Peace Corps Volunteers in the Kyrgyz Republic took place at the “Alyi Parus” House of Culture in the town of Kant on June 3.

U.S. Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller, government officials, local community members, representatives of international partner organizations, hosting families attended the ceremony.

This group of volunteers arrived in March in Kyrgyzstan and is the 18th group since inception of the program in 1993. During three months the group received intensive training in Kyrgyz, Russian languages, local culture and traditions.

After the ceremony the volunteers departed for their villages and towns, where they will live in families and work for 2 years. 41 volunteers will serve as English language teachers, 11 will work as health promoters and 15 volunteers will work in local organizations focusing on development of the country and business.

140 volunteers work in Kyrgyzstan in total. Volunteers are also engaged into health promotion projects, sport events, summer youth camps, establishment of English language resource centers.

Peace Corps volunteers arrive at invitation of Kyrgyzstan based on intergovernmental agreement signed between the Governments of the United States and Kyrgyzstan in 1993. The work of Peace Corps volunteers supports Peace Corps' three goals: to help interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women; to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people where volunteers serve; to promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.