The flying minibus revealed

September 16 2009

Looks relatively sane from the outside

Looks relatively sane from the outside.

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.

Kyrgyz pictures up…

September 14 2009

Claudia at work

Claudia at work. My shots are but a poor reflection of her amazing images. Not worthy to carry her lenses and all that.

Lots up on my Flickr site. Enjoy.

A song from Osh

September 13 2009

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.”

The Kyrgyz Red Crescent

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, with two ladies from Njinyaya Ala-Archa

Jamilya, with two ladies from Njinyaya Ala-Archa

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.

The delightfully Russian Elena, previously Press Secretary for the KRC

The delightfully Russian Elena, previously Press Secretary for the KRC

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 and Mira, photo courtesy of Mandy at the BRC

Gulmira and Mira, photo courtesy of Mandy at the BRC

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?

Not another profile pic

Not another profile pic

So, this is democracy then

September 11 2009

DSC_9129You 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.

DSC_9250Yet 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.

DSC_9167

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.

The flying minibus

September 10 2009

The mountains. Yesterday.

The mountains. Yesterday.

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.

The ripple effect: Suyorkan’s library

September 7 2009
The toys were made by Suyorkan's disabled son.

The toys were made by Suyorkan's disabled son.

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.

Yak farmers outside the library window

Yak farmers outside the library window

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.

Suyorkan

Suyorkan

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.

Welcome to Bishkek

September 6 2009
Changing guard outside the State History Museum

Changing guard outside the State History Museum

The thing that’s really striking about Bishkek so far is how clean everything is. From the moment we landed this morning, everything’s sparkled. Except, of course, the bits that don’t. In the centre – all I’ve seen so far – there’s no litter, loads of giant Soviet era parks and statues, and huge imposing buildings. Plenty of space though – it’s a hard city to feel too oppressed in.

The guards are doing a great job. No-one's stolen a giant bronze relief in ages.

The guards are doing a great job. No-one's stolen a giant bronze relief in ages.

Underneath the veneer, though, there’s clearly another story to tell – the broken mosiacs in the pavements outside the State museum, the run down area to the back of the park, the large number of dilapidated buildings further out, the terrible roads.

There’s clearly a large amount of civic pride here, although it may sometimes go too far: the only homeless guy I’ve seen so far was being bundled into the back of a police car. There’s also a lot of nostalgia for the Soviet days, when the standard of living was higher for most. As a result, if you like your artwork constructivist, this may be the place to see it.

Unlike many ex-Soviet states, loads of statues and bronze reliefs of proud workers have been left in place or are on display in the State  museum along with hundreds of letters from Lenin and other memorabilia. Nice story about the giant Lenin statue outside our hotel – apparently, when he was taken down from the front of the museum to be replaced by a spirit of freedom figure, people complained they missed him. So he was relocated tot the park outside the back door, facing the parliament building. It’s not as nice a view as the museum, but he seems happy there.

Parliament's just over there.

Parliament's just over there.

Long day tomorrow – two government ministers and two senior Red Cresent officials to interview, then off to the first of the projects in the afternoon. Must go do interview preparation.

Sex, drugs and Kyrgyzstan

September 4 2009

Just doing the final bits of research before I head off today, and a few things struck me about this article, Women Are a Hidden Population of Drug Users.

First of all, I was under  the impression that drugs were rare in Kyrgyzstan thanks to its strict laws on the subject – which I’d understood were heavily enforced. Then again, its proximity to Afghanistan and the abject poverty of  many citizens logically point to a fairly thriving black market in heroin.

The police attitude described here – demanding cash or sex from female users – while shocking shouldn’t be surprising given the high levels of corruption and treatment of women in the country.

So far, so depressing but also not atypical of ‘transitional economies’ – the highly sanitised borg-speak for these countries which I keep coming across. As usual the transition could as easily be interpreted as ‘into something worse’, as opposed to the more optimistic ‘developing country’ epithet, I guess.

Like most countries in the area, Kyrgyzstan has big problem involving women being trafficked to the West for the sex industry, which I’m hoping to find out more about while I’m there.

Today, though, I’ve been googling for ‘Kyrgyzstan women’ hoping to throw up recent news articles or research papers that might be useful backgrounders.

Naturally, the first few pages are dominated by ads for mail order brides. Ironic, no?

This year we’re all going to sunny… Kyrgyzstan

August 18 2009

Bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, its a small country easily overlooked

Bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it's a small country easily overlooked

Today I found out where the Guardian will be sending me for the final part of the International Development Competition, and which NGO I’ll be visiting.

It’s been quite an interesting day, just to see inside the Guardian’s offices, which the paper has occupied for a year, was intriguing enough. If you’re curious, they’re open plan with very tall ceilings, to help the natural convection air con apparently, and Network Rail live on the top floor. Strangely sedate, mind you, for a place which is reckoned to be at the cutting edge for modern news gathering technique. I know I should have got pictures, but it didn’t feel like the right thing to do.

The day itself was straightforward, lots of meeting and greeting the other finalists in the morning, a few pointers and advice from the very lovely Sue George, who’ll be editing the section, and finally the drawing of names and assignments out of hat to find out where people are being sent.

I won’t pretend not to be slightly disappointed I didn’t get the ‘Female Child Soldiers’ brief. That sounds like an incredible story to be covering – not something you come across every day.

I am, however, enormously happy with the assignment I do have. I’ll be heading off at the beginning of September to one of the lesser known ex-Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan (pronunciation is easier than it looks) to visit several of the British Red Cross missions there.

The subject I’ll be covering – in 1,000 words and four case studies (and Sue was quite insistent about the latter point. Apparently most of the writers ‘forgot’ them last year) is ‘Female Exclusion’. Initially it’s a bit of a terrifying one – a potentially huge subject in almost any country, which straddles so many areas and could be impossible to get to grips with in just under a week.

After the draw, I headed off to the Red Cross offices in Moorgate to meet the Programme Support Manager for Eurasia, Olga Dzhumaeva, who went through a few of the projects she works with in Kyrgzstan and the issues that she deals with – ranging from helping victims of kidnapping to microfinancing for social entrepreneurs, and the plans to visit as many of them as possible while we’re there. Really – it’s a three cities in four days itinerary which should provide far more to write about than I can ever hope to fit into one article.

Fortunately, Sue’s cleared us blogging about it and so on, which means there’ll be much more going up here over the next couple of weeks. Which means I’ll save some of the many ideas I’m scribbling into notebooks for later.