There’s one important detail that people are missing in this whole argument about ISPs to policing traffic and suspending the accounts of filesharers. One small factor which should render the whole debate null and void. Same goes for the idea that everyone who goes over a certain bandwidth cap should pay extra in order to renumerate struggling musicians who may have had their songs pirated. Not a great plan, Muse-man.
It’s quite important, if you’re a business of any size or shape, to have an internet connection these days. Apart from the obvious roles of email, e-tail, instant messaging and file swapping collaboration in getting absolutely anything done, the biggest growth market in telecoms right now is Voice over IP. Telcos are falling over themselves to give away high quality, wide bandwidth, voice-ready internet connections at cut down prices to small businesses for two reasons. 1) They can, because they’ve all just (or are in the process of) upgraded their networks to ‘next generation’ fat pipes. 2) If they don’t someone else will.
Seriously, if you’re a small business, you can get an unlimited, guaranteed and traffic-prioritised broadband connection for a tenner a month. For £22 (+VAT), you can get an all you can eat package that includes WiFi hotspots and an IP phone bundle that charges just 5p an hour for calls. If you’re running a small business and haven’t looked into this yet, you probably should. You can get consumer accounts cheaper, but not much.
Now, here’s the question. Are ISPs supposed to be monitoring all business traffic for excessive and illegal usage as well? And will they be applying the same sort of tough love when it comes to disconnecting them. Or, as is more likely in my opinion, will they leave their most lucrative and sensitive market the hell alone?
Even if you could stop just anyone signing up for a business account – and that would be yet an another regulatory nightmare on top of simply spying on consumers – the government is really pushing the concept of homeworking at the moment. It’s far more efficient and healthy for a company to pony up for one of these cheap but rock solid business packages for an employee who wants to cut down on their carbon footprint and get back a bit of quality of life, they say.
So what happens when sales reps are banned from the net for a couple of years because their kids ripped a couple of Lily Allen’s singles? Think the CBI might start getting involved?
The thing anyone involved in the proposals to cut off pirates should remember is that ubiquitous, cheap broadband is here to stay and any plans to enforce copyright restrictions simply can’t get around that. I’m no economist, but the costs of policing such a system must surely come close to anything the music industry is realistically losing, and still be unworkable, because the internet doesn’t differentiate between a consumer and a business.
Debate the ethics of filesharing and the damage/benefits it brings to bands to your heart’s content. But any public money spent on drawing up plans to withdraw internet access is just a waste.
There’s a few stories about the hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold found in the Midlands, not far from where I grew up by the sounds of it, doing the rounds today. My brother in law metal detects just down the road. He’s very jealous. But he did forward on the link to really incredible images of the hoard.
I’ve almost finished the feature for The Guardian, and although I hope to write more on Kyrgyzstan soon, it feels sad that this particular adventure is coming to an end. So here’s a final post about an incredible art project to round things up for the time being.
It’s easy to forget, living in post-Blair Britain, that in some ‘less developed’ countries people can still force their governments to listen.
In the UK, a million people can take to the streets to protest against an illegal war and be written off as a mere trifle. London be brought to a halt by crowds complaining about bank bailouts, but the public money is still pissed away on bankers’ bonuses. A postal strike can damn near bankrupt the likes of me, who still mails cheques to his bank, but the case for keeping local branches goes unheard. Despite decades of state investment in high quality comprehensive education, the idea that the general public might have a better idea of what they want to do with their money than the government is still an anathema to the political classes.
They wonder why a generation has given up interest in Westminster. Our politicians could learn a lot from ‘backward democracies’ like Kyrgyzstan, where the public can not only force politicians to listen, but an art project can change the world.
Just to put things in perspective, it’s no worker’s paradise, the Kyrgyz Republic. Lenin may point with revolutionary fervour at the parliament building, but forty odd percent of people live on less than the dollar a day standard for absolute poverty and corruption is endemic. If you’re ill and can’t afford to bribe your way into hospital, there’s a good chance you’ll die before a doctor can see you. In one settlement we visited last week, at least four women had recently passed away giving birth in their homes.
Critical to understanding Kyrgyzstan is awareness of the two tier legal structure. The constitution is one of the most liberal – if not the most liberal – in the former Soviet Union. Great swathes of it were imported wholesale from places like Switzerland and Sweden. Freedom of movement and expression are guaranteed, healthcare and education are promised to be universal and free.
The reality, though, is that state institutions have held on to communist rule books for day to day life, and are resistant to change because doing so is lucrative for them. If you move from countryside to city, you’d better be rich enough to bribe someone to stamp your papers to confirm your new address, because without this ‘propiska‘ in your passport, you’ll have no access to medicine, education or utilities in your new home. The endemic corruption spread from this point out: ambulances won’t even drive to your front door unless you can guarantee an up front bribe, and if you can’t pay the police to look the other way when they stop and search you for your passport, it’s fifteen days in the cells for you. And here, they don’t bother with a mattress when they beat you, they just keep going until you’re ready to phone a friend who might be able to pay them off.
And the politicians are happy to turn a blind eye. Until a recent survey by the American University of Central Asia actually put a figure on the number of unregistered internal migrants living in poverty in Bishkek (about 25% of the city population), the problem of the squats and shanty towns around the edges of town and the major markets was invisible to parliament. Why bother to stop police from beating up migrants as they queue outside the labour exchange? It’s not like they’ll be voting any time soon, they don’t have propiska.
Problems are easily buried underneath other problems here, like Satan’s own Matroishka playset. When I asked an MP whether or not any action was being taken against the front agencies who advertise lucrative bar work in Russia and Europe for young girls, but actually force them into the sex trade, he told me the issue had never been discussed. “We have too many other problems to solve first” he said.
And yet, and yet… People can make things change. A week ago, almost as an afterthought to our tour of Kyrgyzstan, our Red Crescent hosts asked us if we’d like to see their art project, and meet Orla and Tarot from the Irish organisation Active Art that was helping to organise it.
It was astounding. Two groups of women – some of whom we’d met earlier in the week – that had separately been through training in sewing and computer skills have joined together to create an art installation that will be open to the public in November. The project is called ‘Marshrutka‘, or minibus. The centrepiece will be a minibus, of the kind that passes for public transport here, covered in traditional felt hangings to be made to look like a travelling yurt. Once inside, visitors will be able to see felt pictures depicting the migrants’ journey into Bishkek from the country side in just such a vehicle, pictures which depict officials asking for bribes, families crushed into single rooms, and the violence meted out against them by the system.
The women have created video and audio stories that tell their own personal tales, too harrowing to ignore. Of giving birth in the middle of only room you have, surrounded by your seven children. Of being turned away from shops and kiosks, and stopped and searched by police. Of starvation and fetching water from a shared standpipe. Of… well, you get the idea.
The installation will be open for a few days, and then the fun begins. The marshrutka will take to the streets of Bishkek, and pull up on corners for anyone to get in and see the truth about their city’s invisible, yet economically essential, inhabitants. That last point is important: because whatever the local residents think about the migrants – and it’s the usual ‘smelly peasants taking our jobs’ kind of thing – without them the city would cease to function.
Bishkek isn’t huge – around a million inhabitants – and the downtown area has lots of big open spaces that a brightly covered marshrutka will be very visible in. It’s like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters gave up on hippy tripping their way across country and decided to ram raid the White House to highlight the issue of healthcare. I can’t wait.
During the week of the marshrutka’s tour of the city there’s a round table convening to discuss the situation and rights of migrants, organised by local activists, the university, mayor’s office and the Red Crescent. Hopefully, it’ll result in a change of the law regarding propiskas and promises to address the impossible corruption which faces newcomers to the city. The marshrutka is just a small part of this process, a simple gesture, but it’s going to be a hard one to ignore.
Armed guards wouldn’t let us take photos of the plane from Bishkek to Osh, in part because Manas Airport in Bishkek is also a US airbase. However, a little digging on Wikipedia has revealed it to be an Antonov An-24. If I was only slightly more geeky than I actually am, I’d probably have known that already.
Jamilya started the self help co-operative in Gulbaar village near Osh, not only runs the sewing group which makes school uniforms and local craftwork, but also volunteers for the Red Crescent and helps reach out to abused women in the area. Thanks to her, many women have been able to escape from illegal, forced marriages and put their lives back together.
She also has a great singing voice. This song roughly translates as: “Mother, my mother, I am the girl you can be proud of, and through me you shall live forever.”
There’s lots of stories which will be told from the trip to Kyrgyzstan in print, but it’s unlikely that all the people from the Red Crescent will get quite the credit they deserve. So here’s a thank you for their generosity and helpfulness in putting up with a British journalist nagging them all day with questions that they never hinted might be as banal, ignorant and repetitive as they no doubt were.
Jamilya, Head of the Health and Social Care Department under whose remit the women’s group work, trekked all of the country with us. From Parliament to the villages of Jalalabat, sharing in our frantic days of short meetings and long drives around. Her tapping of the watch signalling that it was time for me to shut up and let Claudia, our incredible photographer, get to work was repeatedly ignored by me, and without her patience and ability to quickly reorganise the schedule I don’t think we’d have got out of Bishkek. We’d certainly have missed two flights. Her knowledge of the issues surrounding facing the women of Kyrgyzstan is second to none, and I’d love to be a fly on the wall the next time she sits down with government ministers to discuss the changes in the law that must happen, and the next round of funding for the program. A formidable force indeed.
Elena and Rimma, who work with the migrant groups in Bishkek and co-ordinate the actions of the various programs into one coherent whole are two of the most committed and dedicated people I’ve met. Their ability to repeat over and again the finer points of their work which took a while to sink in and never get annoyed made our lives much easier, and their interest in our work gratifying. Their capacity for vodka and fun over lunch makes the harshness of life there more bearable.
Gulmira, who mans the phone lines for Kyrgyz citizens wherever in the world they are, from the slums of Bishkek to Moscow, arm here compatriots with the knowledge they need to avoid exploitation and the confidence to exert their rights. She has an amazing sense of humour, an excellent command of English and a lovely sister, Mira, who makes the most adorable felt animals (and just about anything else that can be made with wool) too.
And finally, our translator Baktygul. Normally, she’d be wandering from her house to an office in Bishkek to facilitate meetings for World Bank types then back home in time for tea, but we made her schlep from Bishkek to Jalalabat with barely an hour off, never giving her a moment to catch her breath after climbing the endless staircases that characterise the interior of Soviet era Kyrgyz government buildings. Instead of quietly sobbing into her blov, I think she actually enjoyed it.
According to them, I have become a real Kyrgyz man, thanks to the Ak Kalpak (literally ‘White Hat’) which they presented to me after the final debriefing. Suits me, n’est pas?
You could make an incredible road movie based on the drive from Jalalabat (or Jalalabad, the English spelling seems a little indiscriminate) to Osh. Vim Venders would have an great time lingering over the scenery.
In the late Autumn sun, it has the air of an Oriental paradise. Children sit in the fields after school wearing colourful uniforms, young boys herd cattle down the middle of the road, and men in tall felt hats pause by streams before moving on to lazily scythe down corn stalks still standing from the recent harvest.
And always, always there are incredible mountains in the background. Apparently the skiing season is fantastic, so I’m told.
This is no pastoral idyll, though. It’s more like a glimpse of life after the Apocalypse.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, people here didn’t need to use ox carts to haul corn picked by hand around: they had tractors and combine harvesters. The children were taken to school in buses, rather than walking for miles through fields. Teachers weren’t in such short supply that if a group tried to kidnap a colleague’s daughters for marriage, they’d be hauled off to the gulag rather than tolerated for the sake of keeping fragile, failing communities together.
It seems incredible that we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall just a month or so ago. It took less than a generation without law and order for standards of morality – particularly where the standing of women is concerned – to vanish in many rural areas.
Even the warm autumn sun has something of the lie about it. In the winter, the temperature drops to 30 below zero, and people are forced to retreat to the back rooms of their wood and straw shacks, away from the glassless windows and hope that the tin roofs don’t let the snow in.
With no decent housing, no industry to speak of and a low quality of education for the poor, what’s been lost here is knowledge, and it takes a painful toll on all, but especially on women.
Women in the poor districts within towns and villages describe themselves as “scared and shy”, because all they know is to shut up and be subservient to men and their terrifying mothers in law. They accept being kidnapped as a way of life, and would rather families sort out local disputes than dare to try and call the authorities in. In some villages, the nearest police station is 200Km away.
Yet for the women we’ve met, a simple class in rights and advocacy has been enough to grow their confidence enough that they won’t take the beatings any moreme . They’ve struck out on their own, setting up collectives to create and sell handicrafts, keeping Kyrgyz artwork and traditions alive while at the same time making money for themselves. One lady we spoke to laughed about the banks and microfinance institutions she had borrowed from to buy materials and equipment in the past – “They ask why we don’t come any more for another loan, we say we don’t need them! We make more than enough now for all of us.”
Part of me wants to be angry that people have fallen so far and so fast. But I don’t really know what life was like here under communism: no-one mentions the political oppression, disappearances and state interference in life which must have happened. All we hear is that women were respected and had equal opportunity (whatever that meant under the Soviet system) and were represented by women’s councils in every district. I doubt that the Soviet era was as plentiful and liberating as some people have described it, but certainly there were some values which it taught that everyone agrees on.
But it’s impossible to underestimate the shock a society receives when one day they wake up and the government which told them where to work, where to live and how to live has gone. Perhaps, certainly in the poorest areas, the reversion to Lord of the Flies style madness is inevitable, and the new government really did have too many other issues to address – finding money, distributing land and so on – to maintain order.
What’s surprising is that people here have any sense of humanity left at all. But they do, and many of the Kyrgyz customs – particularly when it comes to the treatment of strangers – are overwhelmingly generous. It’s a traditionally tolerant culture and it doesn’t take much to make people see that that tolerance should extend to each other too. One of our Red Crescent guides talked sadly about a ‘lost generation’, but what she showed us was the redeeming power of just a little information in the right place.
It will be years and a lot of money before all of Kyrgyzstan is as beautiful on the inside as it looks from without, but the work has clearly begun.
Just about the only thing I remember reading in a guidebook before coming here was that you shouldn’t, under any circumstances, use the local airlines. They can’t fly to the EU because they don’t have stringent enough safety regulations. Naturally I double checked that the connecting flight from Istanbul was with Turkish Airlines, but completely forgot to ask about the internal shuttle between Bishkek and Osh.
The locals call these planes ‘flying minibuses’, because they’re not entirely dissimilar to the beat up old people carriers used as buses in the towns. It’s anyone’s guess as to how old they are. Judging by the fact they don’t even have seatbelt warning lights, it’s probably a safe bet that the twin propellered machines are hangovers from the Soviet era.
On the plus side, that does mean there are cute retro fittings like curtains, instead of window blinds, and cushioned walls studded with bolts. On the downside, the seats flop around like a badly broken arm, the belts are twisted and trays fall down as soon as the person in front sits back.
Worse, Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful, mountainous country. Each of the three main cities has its unique character and landscape, but they all involve rolling foothills and snow capped peaks. The largest ranges cleave the country in two and form a border with Uzbekistan. Both of which our flying minibuses pass over on the journey between Bishkek and Osh.
That means turbulence. Which they don’t handle well. It also means a great view though.
Fortunately I’ve never been afraid of flying, and actually the planes don’t feel unsafe. I just know that if Tamsin saw them, she’d never let me out of her sight again.
It’s really not often you meet a Red Crescent Secretary General, two senior members of government, the leader of a prominent local NGO and visit two impoverished settlements in one, so it’s going to take a while to process everything we’ve taken in today.
The big thing, though, has been the ripple effect of training. Our last meeting was with a lovely lady called Suyorkan, in library number 77, the new settlement of Ak-Orgo on the outskirts of Biskek. A city, which, is poor in a way like no other I’ve ever been to – outside the downtown district it becomes really hard to tell areas apart. No roads are kept in any kind of order, there’s no pavements and the verges are all overgrown. Without looking really hard for tell tale clues in the design of walls and plot gates, you can’t tell whether you’re in a commercial area, an upmarket neighbourhood or a slum from the main roads. In fact, even after you hit the backstreets it’s hard to tell for a while.
Suyorkan’s library, with its wonderfully communist name, is inside the local secondary school. She was a librarian in the Soviet union, but had to give up work in the early nineties to look after her disabled son and, later, her sick husband too. When she wanted to come back to work, she found the only training in essential IT skills was available through the Red Crescent program.
Ironically, although IT course kicked off her journey, there are no computers in her tiny library yet. Just 8,500 books in a room smaller than most classrooms along with a huge card index and some artwork made by her son and his classmates. That will change, though, as she’s just received a $9000 grant from the Soros Foundation to buy some laptops.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who possessed something that really falls under the old cliche of ‘steely determination” before, but if Suyorkan doesn’t have it then the meaning escapes me. From her library she helps to organise classes in IT, sewing and hairdressing for other women of her community, as well as first aid classes and classes for teaching disabled children. She also runs a health outreach program for families with disabled children – who have moved to the area from outlying villages at an astonishing rate in the often misguided hope that they’ll be able to get help from the government. Suyorkan helps these families with basic care skills and organising the ludicrous amount of paperwork they need to complete in order to receive benefits.
The ripple effect is that the woman and children Suyorkan helps then go on to pass their knowledge onto others, or at least encourage more people to attend training sessions organised by NGOs at the library, when they might not otherwise have heard of them. She’s been branded a troublemaker and urged to give up fighting a system which has the odds stacked against them by her husband, but she keeps on going, and the longer she keeps it up the more visitors arrive at her library to see the things she’s done and help improve on it. Next year, she hopes, she’ll be able to open a second branch in the basement of another nearby school with room for even more books and training classes.