Monday, May 31, 2010

Laundry Day

Above: scenes from a barnyard in northern Kyrgyzstan where RBM has learned to wash clothes beneath a spigot.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Photo of the Day

A Saturday shopper at Bishek's Osh Bazaar escapes the heat.

Kyrgyz Chinese

Above: Peace Corps teachers order Chinese food from a basement restaurant in Bishkek known simply as bakyt (happiness). Despite some questionable entrees, the menu's eggplant, fried spinach, and spiced tofu garnered enthusiastic reviews.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Photo of the Day

Lunch at a Bishkek university cafe offers not one, but two rarities in Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

RBM Goes South

Above: incoming volunteers gather around a giant map of Kyrgyzstan to await news of their permanent assignments.

RBM is to assist instructors at a university in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's oldest city and the scene of power struggles in recent days, the Peace Corps announced today. Past volunteers posted to the same institution have co-taught subjects ranging from lexicology, grammar and phonetics to methodology, journalism and American literature. The local population of 300,000, “is a fabulous mix of peoples,” notes Stewart and Weldon's Kyrgyz Republic (2008). Their entry continues:
A market town to its very heart, [Osh's] bazaar has apparently occupied the same spot on the banks of the Akbura river for 2,000 years. The rich history of the oasis lies hidden beneath the avenues of socialism and little remains to be seen. History's cultures, religions, and wars have disappeared from memory. The founding of the city is variously attributed to Alexander the Great, the Prophet Suleiman and even Biblical Adam. The most enduring tale is that of Suleiman who, when he reached the blade of rock at its centre, shouted “khosh” (“that's enough”).
Surrounding Osh is the Fergana valley, a verdant lowland renowned for its watermelons and framed by the Pamir Alay to the south and the Chatkal range to the north. With Uzbekistan just five miles to the west, enclaves also abound among the region's Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kurds, Uighurs, and other ethnicities. Physical isolation tends to exacerbate the valley's divisions, write Stewart and Weldon, along with "unemployement, poor housing, population pressure ... [and] the failure of the goverment to ensure fair and even distribution of land and resources."

"About 40 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan's Fergana territory is Uzbek; people who report feeling like outsiders in Kyrgyzstan but who are considered Kyrgyz by Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. All of these destabilising influences make people more susceptible to the influence of Islamic extremism from the south."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Photo of the Day

A vocabulary lesson from the back stoop of a compound where four Peace Corps trainees attend classes in northern Kyrgyzstan.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

AFP: Secret tapes spark fraud scandal for new Kyrgyz rulers

By Tolkun Namatbayeva (AFP)

BISHKEK — Secret recordings released Friday implicated Kyrgyzstan's interim rulers in a fraud scandal as the new government struggled to impose its authority over the unruly ex-Soviet state.

In the covertly taped audio recordings posted on YouTube, the country's acting prosecutor general and finance minister discuss how to "secretly" divert one million dollars from the Kyrgyz central bank.

"If we ask the central bank to give us a million dollars, they'll faint," interim finance minister Temir Sariyev is heard saying.

"They've said the money had to go through the treasury. But then the million dollars will be registered, that won't do. It would require a decree from the interim government and that won't be secret."

The two plot to order the central bank transfer all its reserves to the finance ministry, "ostensibly for safe keeping," Sariyev says. In the process, one million dollars can be diverted, he adds.

"Let's transfer 19.6 million dollars, but let the finance ministry write 18.6 million on its books," Sariyev proposes. "If there's an audit in five years, I'll say that we ate the million," he jokes.

Kyrgyzstan's new leaders, who came to power in an April uprising that ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, moved swiftly to deny its officials sought to embezzle funds.

"There is nothing illegal in these conversations," Sariyev said in a statement, confirming that at least one of the recordings was genuine.

The million dollars was urgently needed to pay for police operations amid unrest in the south of the Central Asian State, he said.

"I had to urgently resolve the question of funds to pay the law enforcement forces."

The interim government added that it had launched a probe into illegal wire tapping after other recordings of conversations among officials appeared on the Internet. The source of the audio tapes is unknown.

In one, acting prosecutor general Azimbek Beknazarov roughly accuses deputy interim prime minister Almazbek Atambayev of corruption, hinting at conflicts and division within the new government.

"You took 400,000 dollars to appoint someone on whom we all agree, then go and name someone else," he rages.

Atambayev defends himself, saying: "He was a bribe-taker and corrupt. And what money are you talking about? I've never taken a kopek!"

But Beknazarov furiously threatens to publicly denounce Atambayev along with interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, who this week was appointed president until 2012 after the new government scrapped October elections.

"I have energy enough for a third revolution! I have unmasked you -- you are stinking s(expletive)s, scum, farts worse than Bakiyev!," Beknazarov rants.

"We were all together when we overthrew Bakiyev but now our paths divide."

Neither party has commented on this recording.

The alleged fraud scandal is the latest blow to the authority of the interim government, which faces an economy in tatters as well as sporadic riots and ethnic violence in the south of the Central Asian state.

The audio tapes have the potential to be all the more of an embarrassment because the country's new government has pledged to make fighting corruption its top priority.

But its officials are not the only ones targeted in the wire tappings.

A phone tape that claims to record a conversation between Bakiyev's son Maxim and brother Janysh has also surfaced. Two men are heard plotting a smear campaign and counter-coup against the new Kyrgyz authorities. The whereabouts of Maxim and Janysh Bakiyev are not known.

Kyrgyzstan declared a state of emergency in the south of the country this week after ethnic clashes marked the latest unrest to shake the ex-Soviet state since a popular revolt in April ousted Bakiyev and left 87 people dead.

Bakiyev, who drew the bulk of his support from southern Kyrgyzstan, has since taken refuge in Belarus, which has so far not responded to calls for his extradition.

Copyright © 2010 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 17, 2010

40 Days of Mourning

By R.B. Moreno

Night falls on a farmhouse outside Bishkek

Today Kyrgyzstan is marking 40 days since the week of April 7, when more than 80 protesters died trying to oust the government of Kurmanek Bakiyev, who has since fled to Belarus. Pictures from a rally held hours ago outside Bishkek's presidential palace, where many of the victims died in gunfire, was replayed tonight on state television. Rosa Otunbayeva and other leaders of the interim government sat in the front row, listening to tributes and exhortations that moved a crowd dressed in black and patriotic crimson to tears. I could sense, by the sighing and clucking of my host mother and despite my limited Kyrgyz, that the most chilling words came from an April 7 survivor who mounted the podium last, his head wrapped in a bandage and his speech slurred. My host father, meanwhile, remained unusually silent -- feeling too much emotion, I imagine, to share with an American.

From the Kitchen: Samsa

By R.B. Moreno

One friend describes the pastry pictured below, which enjoys popular support among host families and Peace Corps volunteers alike, as Kyrgystan's Hot Pocket.

Eating Well in Kyrgyzstan -- a pink cookbook distributed to volunteers that includes everything from "How to Read a Recipe" to "Issyk-Kul Thanksgiving Stuffing" -- offers the following:

2 cups flour
1 egg
Melted butter
2 onions, finely chopped
Crushed red pepper (kalimpir)
3-4 cubs ground beef or mutton
10 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Black pepper

Dissolve 2 tablespoons salt in warm water. Beat egg and mix with flour. Gradually add the salt water to the flour until the dough holds together and doesn't stick. Set aside in a covered bowl for 20 minutes. Mix meat, onions, garlic, salt, black pepper, and kalimpir together. Roll the dough out into a large disk about 1/4-inch thick. Spread a thin layer of butter onto disk, and then roll up into a long tube (as if you were making cinammon rolls). Cut tube into 3 inch sections, and roll each out with a rolling pin. Each section should be about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. This will create fine layers in the pastry. Put 1-2 tablespoons of the meat mixture onto the dough and fold opposite ends together to make a little triangle package. Repeat with remaining sections of dough. Bake on a greased cookie dough sheet at medium heat for 40-50 minutes, or until meat is cooked through and the dough is brown.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Journal

A page from RBM's Peace Corps journal for Sunday:

The local track comprises three lanes of broken pavement ringing a soccer field. Red and blue stick-figure athletes arrayed in Olympic poses have been spray-painted onto a low wall surrounding the complex, lending the place a sense of antique glory. It's a popular venue for ball players and mascaraed teens alike ("Hallo! How are you? Hallo!"). Those not on the field saunter around the track or chatter atop the bleachers, where broken glass makes the ground glitter. (A corner store at the complex's entrance sells beer and vodka at prices that rival bottled water.)

The young easily outnumber the old here, but a few mothers pushing strollers can usually be seen rounding the track's curve. One balding Russian who wears a slight smile jogs barefoot for hours on the grass, while another man is fond of shadow boxing on the backstretch. The field itself is neatly mowed in the early morning hours by a machine I've never seen, but along the sidelines, where the grass grows high, poor farmers dragging plastic sacks work the land with scythes, then cart away free sheep fodder on bicycles and horse carts. Overhead, meanwhile, Russian jets from a nearby base hurtle themselves toward the Tian Shan range, which rises against the southern sky like a dragon's jaw.

On Friday, just as three friends and I finished a run and strolled toward the store for ice cream, commotion erupted at the near end of the field, just beyond the finish line. A crowd had been squatting in a big circle to swap text messages and shuffle cards, but then something went wrong. Two figures suddenly began to struggle, and as their friends drew close, I realized that these were young girls. Each teen looked, eerily, like a carbon copy of her enemy: spindly limbs clad in factory-faded jeans and low-cut t-shirts, teased black hair, and heavy makeup.

The lack of muscle made the fight no less fierce; within seconds they staggered toward the high grass and went down, pummeling, yanking, and screaming. Other girls intervened, but a full minute passed before it was over. (My own intervention here, I should note, risked a police report, which can unfortunately jeopardize one's service in Kyrgyzstan.) As the girls broke apart, one buried her face in her hands, sobbing and clutching at loose hair, while the other fled the scene. A freckled boy on a bike pedaled by just then, his face flushed with excitement. "Kyrgyzstan number one!" he yelled, happy as a dog.

This fight was, of course, much like the others I've seen among American teens, both on playgrounds and on YouTube. But the speed with which it broke the tranquility of the place I go to unwind was unsettling. It was a reminder, I think, of how parallel two worlds can become.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kyrgyzstan News Roundup (Updated)

By R.B. Moreno

New unrest involving at least three cities in southern Kyrgyzstan is making headlines today. Walking home along a railroad track in the North, however, it's hard to tell anything is afoot, save for the scowl of a soldier in wrinkled fatigues. Even this old man brightened when asked for a kiosk selling detergent at his crossing, where change comes in fistfuls of 10 som notes (each about 0.25 USD). Let's hope the country's politics stay calm enough for my socks to dry. And for volunteers already at work in the South to stay on.

From AFP, "Kyrgyz opposition seizes two regional HQs: reports." An excerpt:
Opponents of Kyrgyzstan's interim government Thursday seized regional administration buildings in the two main cities in the south, raising fears the volatile state is on the brink of new chaos.

Hundreds of supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev stormed the administration building in the southern city of Jalalabad and occupied the premises, a local official told AFP.

Earlier, hundreds of opponents of the interim government seized the regional headquarters in the southern city of Osh, the main city in the region, a spokesman for the regional administration told AFP.

Another group also seized control of the airport in Osh, one of the interim government's members, Omurbek Tekebayev, told reporters ... Pro-Bakiyev supporters also seized control of the regional administration building in Batken, a smaller town also in the south, officials said.
From RFE/RL, "Former Kyrgyz President's Supporters Take Over Government Building In Osh." An excerpt:
RFE/RL correspondents at the scene say Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who was appointed Osh provincial governor by Kyrgyzstan's interim government last month, left the building surrounded by his guards.

Our correspondents say former Osh Governor Mamasadyk Bakirov and his deputy then entered their "offices."

Later, both Bakirov and Jeenbekov addressed the crowd outside the government building, where supporters of the interim government also gathered.

Bakirov called for the restoration of legality and the return of Bakiev. Jeenbekov called for calm and promised that the interim government would meet people's social demands and carry out reforms.

Interior Ministry spokesman Bakyt Seitov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that police were maintaining order in the city.
From the BBC, "Opponents of Kyrgyz government seize regional offices." An excerpt:
Witnesses said the raid came after a demonstration in Osh's central square by some 1,000 supporters of the old regime.

A parallel protest, by some 500 supporters of the interim government, was also taking place in Osh.
From Reuters, "Kyrgyz protesters take over local government HQ in south." An excerpt:
In Bishkek, the capital, interim government chief of staff Edil Baisalov told Reuters that "measures will be taken to restore authority" in the city of Osh. He did not elaborate.

"Those are actions of revanchist forces, they will fizzle out soon," interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Bakyt Seitov said police were monitoring the situation and would not allow an escalation of unrest.
And on Wednesday, from the Canadian Press, "Hundreds rally in Kyrgyz capital in call for return of mayor in largest meeting since uprising." An excerpt:
The demonstration was peaceful, but showed that tensions remain high in the Central Asian country that is of strategic concern to both Washington and Moscow ... the provisional government has warned that Bakiyev supporters may provoke disturbances in a bid to destabilize the country ... The demonstrators on Wednesday held signs in support of former Bishkek mayor Nariman Tuleyev, a Bakiyev loyalist sought by the interim authorities for complicity in organizing riots in the wake of last month's protests.

Also Wednesday, the security services detained the head of the Communist Party for questioning over his conduct during the April 7 disturbances. Iskhak Masaliyev was held at the airport after arriving from Moscow.
Update (May 14, 2010) -- TV pictures of stick-wielding crowds battling for control of Osh's government (interspersed with a cheery weather forecast calling for partly cloudy skies in Bishkek) made for interesting lunchtime conversation today. A regional governor came on the air shortly thereafter to assure viewers that the interim government is restoring order in southern Kyrgyzstan.

From Reuters, "Kyrgyz government supporters retake Osh administration." An excerpt:
Backers of Kyrgyzstan's interim government regained control of a key government building in the southern city of Osh on Friday, a day after it was seized in what authorities said was a coup attempt by their opponents.

In another southern city, Jalalabad, gunfire broke out as thousands of interim government supporters surrounding the provincial administration headquarters scuffled with opponents holding the building, two eyewitnesses said by telephone.

In the capital, Bishkek, interim authorities said ousted leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev was behind the seizure of government buildings in all three southern provinces and announced the arrest of a Bakiyev ally they said organized the unrest.

"Bakiyev is behind all this," interim government deputy chairman Omurbek Tekebayev said on state television.
From the AP, "Kyrgyz gov't supporters try to retake offices." An excerpt:
In Osh, Kyrgyzstan's No. 2 city ... [the] pro-Bakiyev crowd held the building until the arrival of a large group of people, many of them young men and middle-aged women wearing blue armbands — the color of interim Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva's Social-Democrat party.

The groups threw rocks at one another, then Bakiyev adherents fled the building.

In Jalal-Abad, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Osh, the situation remained tense in the early afternoon.

Around 200 Bakiyev supporters, some with automatic rifles, were holed up in the government building. A column of about 4,000 backers of the Ata-Meken party, which supports the interim government, arrived to try to evict the occupiers, but quickly dispersed amid the gunfire.

Several hundred Ata-Meken activists, armed with guns and sticks, remained on the square near the government building as party representatives delivered speeches from a rostrum.
From VOA, "Deadly Clashes Erupt in Southern Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
At least one person has died and some 30 others were injured during violence that witnesses say involved gunfire and street battles with sticks and stones.
And from the UN: "Fresh clashes in Kyrgyzstan prompt call for restraint from UN chief." An excerpt:
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has issued a call for calm and restraint as reports of violence and loss of life emerge from Kyrgyzstan, where clashes have broken out between supporters and opponents of the Provisional Government.

One person was reportedly killed and at least 58 wounded in the seizures of Government buildings in Osh, Jalalabad and Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Update (May 15, 2010) -- From the AP, "Kyrgyz governor says new authorities in control." An excerpt:
Kyrgyzstan's restive south calmed down Saturday after a failed attempt to take control by supporters of the nation's deposed president in which one person died and dozens were wounded.

Jalal-Abad regional Gov. Bektur Asanov insisted that supporters of the interim government were firmly in control of the city after two days of riots — the worst violence since last month's forcible government change.

Asanov spoke in an interview with The Associated Press as laborers worked to clear up the aftermath of the seizure of the regional government building. He vowed there will be no repetition of the violence that raised doubts about the new authorities' ability to control the south, where support for former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev still runs strong.

"I think this attempt to seize power that was made the day before yesterday was the last attempt to destabilize the situation made by destructive forces led by Bakiyev's brothers," Asanov told the AP. "The people showed their force and nobody will be able to do this again in the future."
Update (May 19, 2010) -- From the AP, "2 dead as ethnic clash breaks out in Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
Clashes between rival ethnic groups killed at least two people and hurt 50 on Wednesday, raising fears of a new cycle of violence as this Central Asian nation struggles to restore order after a bloody revolt last month.

Eyewitnesses in the southern town of Jalal-Abad said thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz attempted to storm a private university that serves as the focus of the minority Uzbek community. Local residents said gunfire broke out as crowds approached the building, which they said had been encircled by a cordon of special security forces.

Kyrgyzstan has been struggling to maintain stability in the weeks after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted from power amid deadly clashes between government forces and demonstrators that claimed 89 lives.

Tensions have long simmered between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek — both Sunni Muslim groups — in the former Soviet nation's restive south. In 1990, hundreds were killed in a violent land dispute between the two communities in towns across southern Kyrgyzstan, which borders Uzbekistan.

It was not clear who opened fire in Jalal-Abad, but Interior Ministry spokeswoman Gulsara Alieva said that nobody in the crowd appeared to be armed.

At least two people were killed and 50 injured, according to the Health Ministry. Some of the injured were being treated for gunshot wounds.

Witnesses said the crowd assembled in front of the university threw stones at the building and shouted demands for the hand-over of Uzbek community leader Kadyrjan Batyrov, whom they charge with inciting racial tension. Batyrov, a wealthy businessman, paid for the construction of the Peoples' Friendship University.

In the middle of the afternoon, privately owned Akipress news agency cited eyewitnesses as saying that about 1,500 ethnic Uzbeks, some of them wielding spears, were moving toward the central square, where a crowd of ethnic Kyrgyz was assembled. Soldiers barred the Uzbeks' movement toward the square, the agency reported.

Interim Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva said every possible measure is being taken to defuse the situation.
Update (May 20, 2010) -- From the AP, "Kyrgyzstan unrest persists; 2 officials attacked." An excerpt:
More than 2,000 supporters of Kyrgyzstan's deposed president have rallied near a southern town wracked by ethnic violence as unrest persists in the Central Asian country.

Several residents told The Associated Press the acting defense minister and a regional governor were attacked and briefly held hostage Thursday outside Jalal-Abad.

The town was rocked Wednesday by ethnic clashes that left two dead and more than 70 injured, prompting authorities to boost military reinforcements and announce a two-week state of emergency there.

The interim authorities that came to power after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's ouster last month have earned widespread popular acceptance. But unrest has persisted around Bakiyev's former stronghold in the south.
And from the The Wall Street Journal, "Kyrgyzstan Struggles to Quell Violence." An excerpt:
The interim government of Kyrgyzstan raised wages for police and military officers Thursday as it struggled to consolidate power and contain politically tinged ethnic violence in the former stronghold of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

The raises were announced after ethnic Kyrgyz protesters assaulted the governor of the southern city of Jalal-Abad, where two people died in clashes Wednesday at a university defended by ethnic Uzbeks. News agencies said the governor, who had been trying to calm an angry crowd, was treated for injuries at a hospital.

"The situation is explosive," Edil Baisalov, the acting president's chief of staff, said in a telephone interview from Jalal-Abad.

He described the violence there as a struggle between ethnic Kyrgyz- and Uzbek-led clans to fill a local power vacuum left by Mr. Bakiyev's ouster from office and departure from the country last month. The interim authorities who took over in Bishkek, the capital, have gained popular acceptance in most of the country, which is home to both U.S. and Russian military bases.

But Mr. Bakiyev had a loyal following in the Jalal-Abad region. The unrest there is being fueled, the chief of staff said, by "frustration among some residents, who fear that they will be denied representation in the new government."

Police officers have been reluctant to intervene in the disorders. On Wednesday acting President Roza Otunbayeva declared a state of emergency and sent army units to enforce a nightly curfew in Jalal-Abad and an adjacent rural district.

The pay increases announced Thursday are intended to get the police back to work and keep the army loyal. The pay of officers, who now earn $200 to $300 per month, was boosted by 50% to 80%.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Journal

A page from RBM's Peace Corps journal for Tuesday:

The most baffling part of the day came just minutes ago with a familiar tapping of metal at my door: five-year-old host brother E, back again, teasing the latch. This time he had a clear glass marble to show me. After inspecting it for a moment I closed the door, perhaps a little too quickly, and just then he snatched the key resting in the opposite side. I reemerged in time to catch sight of him stuffing the bright metal into his cargo shorts, whereupon he dashed toward our barnyard.

Determined to win him over with my broken Kyrgyz, as has worked in the past, I followed in slow pursuit. E stopped running. We considered one another across the mud and harsh sunlight, both expressionless. Then he inched toward me, shrugging innocence at my questions and even refusing a toy car I snatched on my way out. After a time E's hand burrowed into his pocket, and there in his palm lay the key, a thing of beauty, notched on four sides like no other I have owned.

It seemed then that a car-for-key trade might be in the cards, but instead the little man began gesturing toward the garage roof, threatening to launch the only thing that stands between me and the wilds of Kyrgyzstan into oblivion. E's eyebrows arched, drunk with power. Then he did it. He chucked the key skyward with a deft flick of his arm, and as it clattered toward a rusty doom between slats of corrugated metal that haven't seen daylight since
glasnost, I stood with my mouth agape.

Had he really just done that? The rat bastard! Why? Rather than curse I could only shake my head, then begin yelling for E's grandmother, S, and his 16-year-old uncle, U, who came from the sheep pen. U scaled the roof twice to search but it was no use. After some gestures S came to understand what had happened and began laying into her grandson, who sent up a wail that only just ceased a few minutes ago. (Luckily she had a spare key, which avoided a lock change.)

I still can't fathom why E did this thing tonight -- or why, a few days ago, he buried my sandals under a cabinet in the main house. Except, perhaps, for the fact that he knows I sometimes drink fruit juice behind that locked door, and don't always share. And at five years old, that might be reason enough.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The View from the Backyard

Slideshow: The View from the Backyard

With dancing and toy guns RBM's extended host family celebrates Victory Day in northern Kyrgyzstan, one of many former Soviet republics that observe the May 9 holiday.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Oil Spills and Human Hair: Who Thought of That?

By R.B. Moreno

Crude oil spreading shoreward from the blowout of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the northern Gulf of Mexico has "crept deeper into the bays and marshes of the Mississippi Delta," according to news wires. The AP notes that "[a] sheen of oil began arriving on land" days ago, prompting efforts by the Coast Guard and BP to burn, chemically disperse, or contain the spill with booms. Still, a "thicker, stickier goo -- arrayed in vivid, brick-colored ribbons -- is drawing ever closer to Louisiana's coastal communities."

Major U.S. oil spills, such as the the 2007 wreck of the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay, have been relatively infrequent since the plight of Alaska's Prince William Sound first generated public outcry more than two decades ago. When spills do make the news, one particularly novel means of mitigating the goo tends to attract volunteers and environmentalists -- and with them, reporters.

"As it turns out, hair adheres to oil pretty efficiently, which is why your hair gets greasy," explained NPR on Wednesday. "Now," the report continues, "salons are donating their discarded locks to help with the Gulf Coast cleanup." Matter of Trust, a San Francisco group specializing in oil booms trimmed with nylons and animal fur, "is directing its current stockpile of hair -- 400,000 pounds" toward the same effort. (Full disclosure: RBM worked for NPR between 2004 and 2008.)

I profiled two men behind the original prototype for an oil boom stuffed with human hair in "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast," a nonfiction story appearing in the current issue of California State University, Fresno's The Normal School. Here's an excerpt:
[T]he year was 1989. Exxon’s infamous oil tanker had just run aground on a reef, spilling nearly eleven-million gallons of the state’s own crude into Prince William Sound. As reporters and volunteers descended on the scene of one of the nation’s worst ecological disasters, pictures of oil-drenched seabirds, harbor seals, and, especially, otters began flooding American TV sets. The volunteers made Dawn dishwashing liquid legendary in helping to treat affected animals, but the task of mopping up crude from the cold waters and rock-strewn shores of the sound proved a messy, largely insurmountable task.

Watching pictures of the cleanup, meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in Huntsville, Alabama, was a hair stylist named Phil McCrory. “I thought if animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can’t human hair,” said McCrory. World Response Group, Inc., an environmental firm [led by a Florida man, Blair] Blacker, describes what happened next as a “home experiment.” McCrory gathered up several pounds of hair from his salon, drove home, and stuffed the mass into a pair of his wife’s pantyhose. With the legs tied together, the nylon bundle formed a kind of pillow that he thought just might soak up oil. But to test the idea, McCrory needed an oil spill. And so he simulated the catastrophe of Prince William Sound on a slightly smaller scale––his son’s plastic wading pool. He filled the tub with water, added a gallon of used motor oil from his garage, and dropped in his invention. Two minutes passed. Then he checked the pool. “The water was crystal clear,” claims World Response. “Not a trace of oil was left,” said McCrory.

The stylist sensed he had stumbled on something useful, and before long one of the country’s foremost laboratories took an interest. “This is the kind of thing I call genius,” NASA scientist Elizabeth Rogers told an NBC reporter in 1999 ... “It would seem obvious, but no one else did think of it, and Phil McCrory did,” she said. McCrory promptly patented the design for an oil-collecting pillow. A few years later, a colleague of Blacker’s walked into the offices of World Response with a wad of hair. “I had an epiphany, if you want to call it that,” says Blacker. “I said, ‘Wow, we better pay attention to this.’” He decided to buy the technology––and hire its inventor.

Despite NASA’s confirmation that hair does prove effective in separating oil and water—especially because the strands appear to absorb oil, or simply hold on to it, rather than absorbing it, as polypropylene sponges do––the market in the 1990s was not as interested in McCrory’s invention as was NASA. “We were basically equal to or lower in price [and] more efficient” than the synthetic technology, says Blacker. “But it didn’t fit in the paradigm.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the conventional approach to mopping up spills, the one favored by oil companies, did not involve “green” products or attempts to repurpose the oil collected. “Use polypropylene mats and throw them away,” is how Blacker describes the paradigm. By contrast, World Response’s product (a refinement of McCrory’s pillow, still sold today), has cleanup crews wring oil from a limited number of mats woven entirely from hair, “and then when you’re finally done with whatever emergency spill that you have, either clean the mat and store it or then dispose of it.” Blacker explains this logic with the wistful tone of an entrepreneur whose brainchild remains unappreciated. “Totally different paradigm,” he adds. “And remember, petroleum then was 20 bucks a barrel.”

Unable to successfully market the “OttiMat,” as McCrory and Blacker dubbed their answer to Exxon Valdez (in deference, it seems, to Valdez’s otters), World Response began exploring other applications for human hair.
To read this and other tales of cunning and adventure in their entirety, visit The Normal School's subscriptions page and ask for volume three, issue one. "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast" also appears in the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference's 2010 issue of Ten Spurs.

Update (June 9, 2010) -- Government scientists, BP, and the Coast Guard have been weighing in on precisely how valuable hair becomes in cleaning up spills such as the one currently affecting the Gulf. Not so valuable, seems to be their answer. First came skepticism from a microbial ecologist, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's Terry Hazen, who revised earlier comments suggesting that absorbent materials such as animal hair might be used to "seed the affected waters." Hazen recently told the SF Weekly that, in sum, "Yes, hair will soak up some oil. But not nearly as well or expediently as other things." What kinds of things? He says he prefers "corn cobs, corn stover (other corn detritus), the leavings from cotton gins and even peat -- which Hazen has helped Russians use to soak up oil spills."

Then, a week later, in a blow to efforts by San Francisco-based Matter of Trust (see above) to use human hair in mitigating the Gulf mess, the Coast Guard and BP announced they would not be taking hair booms out to sea. One petty officer told told reporters that "We foresee a risk that widespread deployment of the hair boom could exacerbate the debris problem." Instead, an alternative "sorbent boom," of the kind that pushed Blair Blacker away from the OttiMat business, has won out.

Update (June 25, 2010) -- BBC News Magazine has just published "From Food to Fashion, the Thriving Market in Human Hair." Writer Denise Winterman's story touches on hair's role in some of the same industries profiled in RBM's "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast," including environmental protection. An excerpt:
BP's ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted a very environmentally-friendly use for human hair - as a mop for the crude oil. Each hair follicle has an enormous surface area and is "spiky", so the oil "sticks" to it. This is because it is adsorbent, not absorbent like a sponge. It's why we wash our hair, because it collects the oils our bodies produce. It is also the case with fur and wool ... The idea of using human hair to mop up oil spills was the brain child of US hair stylist Phil McCory. Watching the Exxon Valdez disaster unfold on TV in 1989, he noticed how hard it was for volunteers to clean oil from otters because it was trapped in their fur. He tested to see if it was the same with human hair and it was.

Friday, May 07, 2010

AP: US vows more transparency over base in Kyrgyzstan

By Peter Leonard (AP)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A senior adviser to President Barack Obama said Friday that Washington will ensure greater transparency in the supply of aviation fuel to a key U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, where the previous government often was accused of corruption.

Perceived improprieties over a fuel supply deal with the Manas base, which Kyrgyz prosecutors believe financially benefited members of the recently ousted government, have severely dented the standing of the United States in the impoverished Central Asian nation.

Clarifying the procedure of how fuel is purchased would help eliminate speculation about activities at the base, White House official Michael McFaul told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the Kazakh capital, Astana.

"A lot of this information is available publicly, but we want to put it together in one place, and we are even considering having a website where we have all the payments from the transit center that happen," McFaul said.

Kyrgyz prosecutors say that companies owned by a son of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev avoided almost $80 million in taxes on aviation fuel sold to Manas base, which acts as a key refueling point for warplanes flying over Afghanistan and a major hub for combat troop movement.

Domestic and international critics have suggested the United States may have turned a blind to irregularities in the fuel supply procedure to ensure the future of the base.

The fate of the base was cast into doubt early last year when Bakiyev's government said it would terminate the lease. Kyrgyzstan later agreed to allow U.S. forces to stay after the annual rent was raised to about $63 million from $17 million. Manas was redesignated a "transit center" as part of the deal.

The U.S. hold on the base came under threat again last month after Bakiyev was ousted in a violent uprising and a provisional government took charge.

The acting prime minister, Roza Otunbayeva, has since promised to extend the current base agreement for another year after it expires in July.

But she and other leading members of the government have complained vocally in the past that their pleas for assistance were ignored by Washington when they were in the opposition and facing oppression from Bakiyev's government.

"We are falling down dramatically, and the United States doesn't care," Otunbayeva told The Associated Press in February.

But McFaul denied that the Obama administration had abandoned its commitment to democracy-promotion in favor of U.S. strategic interests in Kyrgyzstan — namely, the Manas transit center.

"That is not our policy in Kyrgyzstan or in any other country," he said. "The moment we have now creates an opportunity for us to be more clear and more direct in articulating President Obama's vision."

McFaul, who was in Kyrgyzstan earlier this week, said he also has urged the provisional authorities to investigate the bloody events of April 7 that propelled them into power. They have to date failed to heed calls for an independent international commission to investigate the clashes between government troops and demonstrators in which at least 85 people died.

Possible solutions could include a bilateral effort with the United States government or a broader international option "to create impartiality and to get the facts right, and to lead to some kind of truth and also reconciliation," McFaul said.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

AP: Kyrgyzstan demands toppled leader's extradition

By Leila Saralayeva (AP)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Prosecutors said Friday they have asked Belarus to extradite deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to Kyrgyzstan to face charges of complicity in murder and abuse of office.

The request for Bakiyev's return came as Kyrgyzstan's interim government stepped up efforts to arrest of several of his relatives and former high-ranking officials.

Belarus has signed an international extradition accord, so it is obliged to hand over Bakiyev, Kyrgyz General Prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov said. But extradition appeared unlikely since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has personally guaranteed Bakiyev refuge.

Bakiyev fled Kyrgyzstan last month, more than a week after he was toppled from power amid violent clashes between government forces and demonstrators in which at least 85 people died.

On Thursday, the international police agency Interpol placed one of Bakiyev's sons, Maksim, on its wanted list at the request of a Kyrgyz court. He is currently believed to be in the Baltic state of Latvia.

Kyrgyz prosecutors said that companies owned by Maksim Bakiyev avoided almost $80 million in taxes on aviation fuel sold to suppliers to a U.S. air base in the country, a key refueling point for warplanes flying over Afghanistan and a major hub for combat troop movement.

The alleged tax evasion dates back to 2005, the year Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power, prosecutors said.

U.S. presidential adviser Michael McFaul visited Kyrgyzstan this week and proposed supplying fuel to the Manas base through Kyrgyz state companies to avoid accusations of financial impropriety.

Other senior figures sought by the Kyrgyz authorities include Bakiyev's brother, Zhanybek, who is accused of issuing the order to fire at protesters in the capital, Bishkek, during street clashes April 7.

The interim government is offering cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of several of Bakiyev's fugitive colleagues, including former Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov. The rewards of $20,000 to $100,000 are colossal in a country where the average monthly salary is $130.

Bakiyev swept to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests, but his public standing collapsed amid corruption allegations, worsening living conditions and repression.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Country Driving

Above: pictures from the window of a minibus in northern Kyrgyzstan, where transit stops feature elaborate Soviet architecture.

AP: Kyrgyz security chief warns of instability

By Leila Saralayeva (AP)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Allies of deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev may fund public disturbances in a bid to destabilize this turbulent Central Asian nation, the acting head of the security services said Thursday.

The warning came amid unsuccessful efforts to track down Bakiyev's close relatives and former high-ranking officials.

"Until the close relatives of ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev are detained, there will be no end to the instability," said security services chief Keneshbek Duishebayev.
Duishebayev said authorities were concerned by rumors that demonstrations in Bakiyev's support will be held on May 17.

Political rallies will be permitted, but any attempts to create public disorder through illegal means will be quashed, Duishebayev said.

Bakiyev fled the country last month, more than a week after he was toppled from power amid violent clashes between government forces and demonstrators that claimed at least 85 lives. He is currently in Belarus, where he has been offered refuge by President Alexander Lukashenko.

Bakiyev swept to power in 2005 on the crest of a wave of street protests, but his public standing collapsed amid growing corruption allegations, worsening living conditions and political repression.

Duishebayev says Bakiyev's brother, Zhanybek, who is accused of issuing the order to fire at protesters in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, may be eluding capture by moving across the Kyrgyz border with Uzbekistan. Another brother, Akhmat Bakiyev, a businessman and powerbroker in the family's political stronghold in southern Kyrgyzstan, also is at large.

"These are experienced people that have spent their entire lives carrying out investigative work, so they know our methods very well," Duishebayev said.

Acting Finance Minister Temir Sariyev has warned that the Bakiyev family may use finances it is accused of appropriating during Kurmanbek Bakiyev's five-year rule to finance subversive and anti-government activities.

The interim government also is offering cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of several of Bakiyev's fugitive colleagues, including former Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov.

Rewards of $20,000 to $100,000 are being offered to those who can help find them — colossal bounties in a country where the average salary is $130 per month.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Victory Day Approaches

By R.B. Moreno

Above: regalia marking Soviet victory over the Nazis adorns downtown Bishkek's Ala-Too Square, where the charred remains of Kyrgyzstan's former tax ministry can also be seen. The building was damaged during riots that ousted Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power less than a month ago. Along with Victory Day on May 9, Kyrgyzstan celebrates Labor Day and Constitution Day this month. TV channels have been airing both remembrances of protestors killed during April's uprising and interviews with World War II veterans, whose numbers continue to dwindle. In a village park outside the capital, meanwhile, a stern memorial reminds passersby of what happened 65 years prior.

The View from Issyk Ata

By R.B. Moreno

Over the weekend myself and other Peace Corps trainees trekked through hills surrounding Kyrgystan's famous hot springs, once a destination for Buddhist pilgrims. Rowan Steward and Susie Weldon's Kyrgyz Republic notes the following:
Issyk Ata (Father Heat) used to be a place of pilgrimage but is now synonymous with its popular health resort, which offers the full package of medical examination and mineral spring-fed hot baths. Until the 19th century, villagers grateful for the healing properties of the water expressed their thanks by smearing sheep grease onto [a] large rock, which has a depiction of Buddha on it.
The trainees, I should note, enjoyed cold rain and a waterfall rather than the baths, which cost about 6 USD.

Slideshow: The View from Issyk Ata

Monday, May 03, 2010

The View from the Farmhouse

Above: RBM's host family for Peace Corps training in northern Kyrgyzstan. For breakfast: tea, apricot jam, and pastries from a relative's bakery in Bishkek. For dinner: chicken dumplings with homemade bread. And more tea.

The Revolution, Now on DVD

Above: a video montage of Kyrgyzstan's 2010 uprising, which culminated less than a month ago in Bishkek, has already reached kitchen tables in one northern village.

AP: Kyrgyzstan offers bounties for fugitive ex-leaders

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan's interim government is offering cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of fugitive relatives and colleagues of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Authorities are looking to close the net on Bakiyev's circle and said Monday a dozen of his relatives and acquaintances are wanted for unspecified "grave crimes."

The suspects include one of Bakiyev's sons and three of his brothers, as well as former Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov. Rewards from $20,000 to $100,000 are offered to those who can help find them — colossal bounties in a country where the average salary is $130 per month.

Bakiyev was toppled on April 7 during a bloody uprising in which at least 85 people were killed. His brother Zhanybek is wanted for ordering police to open fire on protestors.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.