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.


  1. Bek,

    We just saw the NPR piece today by David Gura on your chaotic travels through Bishkek.


    Stay safe and continue reporting when possible.


  2. Raul...
    Missed the NPR piece. Keep your head down and keep reporting.

  3. Thanks, guys. Bek: indeed, "Exit Osh," posted here early Tuesday and later taken down, is the same account NPR is quoting. You know that region better than I do, so I'm sure this is hard to read. My thoughts are with everyone there.

  4. I think you are incredibly irresponsible for putting up that post. You have been in-country for, what, 3 months? You probably have local-language skills the equivalent of about a 3-year old. Do you realize that Kyrgyz nationalists could use what you wrote as proof that PCVs are "dirtying the reputation of the Kyrgyz" and decide PC should be kicked out of the country?

  5. @Anonymous (5:14am)-

    Having personally lived in the area and experienced somewhat similar situations as the events posted on this site, I completely disagree with you that RBMoreno is being 'incredibly irresponsible.' I've read emails/blog posts from current Kyrgyz PCVs living in Osh and their descriptions of these events are not only similar but even more terrifying. RBMoreno describes this briefly at the end of his post ("calls to friends in Osh"). As was the case with the Andijan massacre (Uzbekistan) 5 years ago, PC has nothing to do with this tension and your comment re: "local-language skills" is off-point and irrelevant. One doesn't need to know the local language to understand that their life is potentially in danger by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The (few) pictures and eye-witness accounts of this mayhem is "dirtying the reputation of the Kyrgyz" people (as was the case with the Uzbek government with Andijan). I think your lack of empathy for the PCVs who are caught in the middle of this chaos is incredibly irresponsible.

    Tinchlik Bolsan - Bek

  6. To add to Chris's response, I'll only point out that my account avoids taking a political stance, or naming specific places and people. Instead, I tried to simply describe what I saw happening in Osh, as other volunteers do in communities around the world, every day. I should note that I have an additional obligation to reporting as a Master's International journalist with Colorado State University (http://bit.ly/t1DDf). I fail to see how this kind of unvarnished narrative becomes irresponsible or inappropriately reflective of anyone. Colleagues who experienced the same ordeal agree that the lack of reliable information about the situation in Osh necessitates that conditions there be made known.

    A postscript: As noted above, the Peace Corps requested late Tuesday that my blog's posts about Osh, and others like it, be removed in the short term, for reasons that can't be discussed. I've honored that request and as soon as our guidance changes "Exit Osh" will be re-posted here.

  7. I am a RPCV currently attending the career conference in Washington DC.... I sat next to a RPCV from Kyrgyzstan who told me about your site. I have read your story on the NPR blog and I just wanted to wish you luck and thank you for your wonderful reporting. You are putting faces to a part of the world that is often times overlooked. I truly hope that all your friends and family from your area of service (as well as the innocent people the whole country over) are safe at this time. I also hope that PC will provide you with the proper support and service options to make you feel safe, well-adjusted and productive in the future. All my best!

  8. Thank you, RPCV. Very kind words.