Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Review of

"Mars" (via Brevity)
A guest review by RBM of debut nonfiction at, "Three Cups of Veritas," appears today on Brevity's nonfiction blog thanks to editor (and co-godfatherDinty W. Moore. An excerpt:
“In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war,” the president is saying confidently. But the modesty of his blue tie conveys less optimism.
“The way I’ve always understood Greg” (Mortenson), one embittered anthropologist tells [Jon] Krakauer in the closing pages of Three Cups of Deceit, “is that he’s a symptom of Afghanistan. Things are so bad that everybody’s desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it. Everything else might be completely fucked up over there, but here’s this guy who’s persuaded the world that he’s making a difference and doing things right.”

Meanwhile, on Oshima Island, some 100 miles from Fukushima, Grandma Fumiko, almost 80 and the matriarch of the Murakami family, has already awoken to a ruined house. She is perhaps looking out to sea and recalling the curious American in a spotted raincoat who recently remarked that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it seemed particularly sad that her countrymen should again be fearing an invisible fallout. (The old woman clutched at a bamboo stick to escape the magnitude 9.0 mayhem of March 11; “I saw the wave: lots of bubbles, so it was white. It was low.”)

“The Murakami family’s is the last tsunami story I will tell,” writes William T. Vollmann, almost apologetically, halfway through Into the Forbidden Zone.
For another favorite Brevity post that's garnered just a few more comments, see our update to RBM's "In an Age of Great Nonfiction Writing, Too Much Nonfiction Writing?" And for Brevity's current issue, a tribute to tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, visit

Update (July 1, 2011) -- "Three Cups of Veritas" has been cross-posted with additional links to the editor's blog at Colorado State University's Center for Literary Publishing, where RBM has periodically worked on Colorado Review nonfiction. Check out this blog's "publishing" tag for his other CLP posts.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Remembering Osh (Updated)

Volunteers reach the safety of a helicopter in Osh (via "Exit Osh")
Another former Peace Corps volunteer recently based in southern Kyrgyzstan has contributed some thoughtful commentary in response to "Remembering Osh," last weekend's dispatch on the first anniversary of the Central Asian province's interthnic riots.

Along with several of RBM's colleagues whose service ended as a result of the fighting, Peter Andrew Clark went to work -- almost immediately and for months afterward -- on behalf of a Western aid organization operating on the ground in Kyrgyzstan. Clark signed up to coordinate temporary housing in Osh. He now lives in New York and writes, in part:
In June of 2010, the world was reminded of a simple, general reality: Kyrgyz and Uzbek people do not like each other. These woes arise from even more widespread malaise and grief -- both sides feel victimized. Rumors have always spread about economic suppression. Kyrgyz blame Uzbeks; Uzbeks blame Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz villagers blame the rich Uzbek businessmen in Osh city for dishonest business practices. Uzbek businessmen blame the rural, uneducated Kyrgyz farmers for spreading mendacious propaganda thereby ensuring more discord. Unfortunately, these vicious rumors have rooted themselves in the culture to the point where many observers now simply see it as racism.

And on the edges of this problem are most international organizations. There have been international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some have advised economically. Some have tried to better the dietary habits in rural areas. Some have even worked in the South of the country to prevent ethnic disputes and conflicts. But none of these organizations have integrated quite like Peace Corps. Unique among them all, Peace Corps volunteers, however callow they may seem, work with idealism and hope. The volunteers learn the Kyrgyz language, and oftentimes the Uzbek language, and live with families. The volunteers learn the names of shop owners and shake the hands of every little boy in their village. And unlike most of the other INGOs that function out of the two largest cities of Bishkek and Osh, Peace Corps is inside of the conflicts, often in a very tangible way. And it is from these grassroots efforts that Peace Corps sets itself apart from all other organizations, and it is this freedom to inspire change from the disenfranchised and downtrodden that should rally more support for Peace Corps volunteers.

One of the many criticisms of Peace Corps have been its manipulative bureaucracy (easily traceable to Washington) and the horde of neophytes it brings into the world of international aid. Many reasonable critics have also denounced it as a political arm of the State Department and a vehicle for American interests abroad. One cannot deny the organization's potential for these insidious doings just as it cannot deny the organizations potential for peaceful, cheap and productive change. Ironically, Peace Corps does not handle conflict well. It was not designed to. Peace Corps volunteers seek protracted engagement, dreaming of generational changes, not immediate ones.

So in June of 2010, when conflict erupted in South of Kyrgyzstan, Peace Corps came out and INGOs went in. INGOs offer aid equitably; they document their activities for the world to see; they have plenty of money; and they respect the governments and people for whom they serve. Their efficacy, though, is based entirely on the willingness of the populations to embrace their programs. When providing food and shelter to monoethnic, non-conflict communities, aid provides relief. In a post-conflict situation where the aggravators still live in close proximity to the victims, relief to the victim provides further enmity for the aggravators. INGOs are stopgap solutions, not lasting ones ...

... Peace Corps reaches populations that other organizations would consider statistically irrelevant. INGOs spend a large amount of time writing reports and justifying their actions because their projects need ... maximum impact at all times in order to secure more funding. Peace Corps does not have this issue. In some cases, it will take generations of volunteers before results are produced. And ethnic divide is a waiting game that may require nothing more than perpetual involvement -- no one can really say for sure. And most Peace Corps volunteers work directly with the children that can influence the next generation, subtly asking them to question their role in the world.

The ethnic conflict that so many of these INGOs hope to prevent will take many years of intervention (the expected deployment for many of the large INGOs is one to two years). This violence will probably repeat ten years from now, and maybe ten years after that; but eventually, the children of these children might have peace longer -- maybe fifteen years -- and maybe if a little more time passes, they will start to forget the animosities that caused violence in the first place.

One year later, not much has changed in Kyrgyzstan, but only a fool would have expected otherwise. As many media outlets profess the democratic power of the new government, the country is still plagued by corruption and intolerance. There are dangers still, but there will always be dangers until the collective conscience of Kyrgyzstan reviles racism and all other social ills. This does not mean that the international community should sit on the edges until things get better; this is a call for help.

As with many problems, the answer to how the international community should be involved in Kyrgyzstan is multi-faceted. Should INGOs provide aid? [O]f course. Should Peace Corps keep doing grassroots work? [C]ertainly. Should donors keep sending money into the country, even if it is not always best spent? [Y]es. All of the forces above would benefit from drastic changes to their policies; but in the meantime, they should continue working. Disengagement is the easiest thing to recommend, especially in political and social climates that prefer isolationism and self-determination. But self-determination is not a morally defensible position when people are poor, homeless, and suffering. Different people can solve different problems, and there are enough problems to go around.
RBM: Thanks for writing, Peter. Putting aside the question of INGOs (I agree with most of your analysis there), perhaps our main difference resides in our views of Washington, which I consider Kyrgyzstan's most capable ally in terms of socioeconomic development. Departments of state are indeed -- almost by definition -- manipulative, and in their worst moments, insidious. But next to China, the U.S. is also the Kyrgyz ally with the deepest pockets and best interests at play (other neighboring states and Europe do compete, not always in the latter regard).

Secondly, the power of an individual volunteer is an amazing thing to witness, but in my experience a marooned and ill-equipped volunteer can't go very far toward achieving the kind of literacy and business-related advances that could stop another Osh 2010. And the death of that well-meaning but hastily trained volunteer in the same violence might well end U.S. assistance for political reasons, as we've seen in Somalia, Uzbekistan, and now Yemen, to cite just a few examples. That's basically why I've come to feel, in researching this story, that the Peace Corps as presently configured is the wrong vehicle for empowering communities in southern Kyrgyzstan (the North is perhaps a different story).

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating disengagement. And you're right in that [three fellow volunteers referenced offline, whom I won't name] did become praiseworthy agents of change. But while the deaths of a couple of Kyrgyzstanis acting as American proxies can be quietly dismissed, as I've tried to document here, I shudder to think what the killing of one American last June (much less a group of 10) would have meant for U.S.-Kyrgyzstan relations. Not to mention the Peace Corps worldwide. That said, and as my June 11 post suggests, this doesn't mean that the State Department and its most celebrated agency (I view them as one animal) can't themselves change to adapt to the needs of the country.

Given their fluency and interpersonal skills, and despite your well-founded qualms about economic assistance, I believe [our colleagues] could have been still more effective as volunteers. More effective, that is, if they had been provided the means to buy a dozen Beeline wireless modems for a local nonprofit interested in offering micro loans to farmers, for example. I'm pulling that scenario out of a hat but what I mean to say is that I want to see American aid workers in places like Osh better trained, better resourced and better connected. In two words, if I were speaking to the State Department directly: Think better.

Our aid workers should also be better protected from mayhem by our own military, which could have taken the lead in last June's evacuation. Case in point: a simple GPS unit issued to volunteers might do away with the daily "whereabouts" mess -- a status reporting system based on intermittent mobile service and hand-drawn maps -- that did little to keep the 10 Americans in question away from the epicenter of Osh's chaos.

I realize these priorities could upend the image of a volunteer living a subsistence life alongside her fellow villagers, which does have positive cross-cultural benefits. But again, I don't think that model is realistic in this age and in that province.

Postscript (July 6, 2011) -- Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan has released a rousing slideshow on behalf of its volunteers, who I'm told combed through some 9,000 digital photos looking for just 20 that help "tell the story of what we do here." The photos will tour the provinces as posters with captions in three languages over the next several months.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Remembering Osh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The university invited questions via social networks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Photo of the Day

By R.B. Moreno

My hometown of Ridgefield, Washington, doesn't get much in the way of strange weather, but the storm passing over Fort Collins, Colorado, just now is producing the biggest hail I've ever seen out west -- about the size of strawberries. Big enough to let neighbors give a midnight wave to one another from their doorsteps, anyway.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The View from Interstate 29

Above: pictures from a sweltering, South Dakota-bound road trip along the Missouri River, which forms the Nebraska-Iowa state line. Record snowpack and heavy rains throughout the river's watershed will likely threaten communities in seven states until mid-August, the New York Times reports today.

The flooding hasn't dampened spirits at Omaha's Florence Mill, behind OJ's Mexican diner, where tomato starts compete with a dozen recipes for homemade pie, including strawberry-raspberry-blueberry-blackberry-rhubarb-filled "Farmer's Basket." A nearby placard explains that the Mill allowed Utah-bound Mormons to weather Nebraska's winters in the late 1840s.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The View from Greyrock

Above: the swollen Cache La Poudre River, damage from mountain pine beetles in Roosevelt National Forest, and other pictures from a weekend ascent of Greyrock Mountain. For a panoramic view from Greyrock's 7,536-foot summit, check out the video below.

Photo of the Day

By R.B. Moreno

Above: the view from my apartment window in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Saturday.

Nonfiction pop quiz! What species of bird is pictured? The first reader to identify this ground feeder and link to a photo gets (what else?) a fabulous tweet.