Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
Last week I read an article by Foreign Policy Magazine about the possibility of an ‘Arab Spring’ occurring in Central Asia and it made me remember looking out of my window on a day that I took for granted, and on another that impacted my life greatly…
In the spring of 2005, I was living in Andijon, Uzbekistan as a US Peace Corps volunteer. I had spent the first three months of the previous year in the capital city of Tashkent learning to speak and read Uzbek, and received training in NGO capacity building. After that, my assignment took me deep into the mountainous region of eastern Uzbekistan called the Ferghana Valley, close to the border with neighboring Kyrgyzstan. There I was assigned to a local NGO that did conflict mitigation work along the border, organizing activities for communities from both countries to join in youth sports leagues, holiday celebrations and festivities. They also conducted job training and livelihoods programs for women. Conflict mitigation along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border was necessary to foster peaceful relations after a decade of border disputes that followed the fall of the Soviet Empire and the separation of its territories into the various -stans.
The arrival of spring was particularly celebrated that year after a harsh winter of living in cold utilitarian Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings without insulation or heat (except for clunky old hot water heaters that threaten to explode every time you light it, well, every time I tried to light mine anyway).
Looking out of my window into the courtyard in between apartment buildings I could see women laboring over a huge vat of ‘sumalak’, traditionally made every spring by boiling fresh wheat sprouts into a thick sweet paste to spread on the local bread called ‘nan’. They labored over the sumalak for hours stirring tirelessly while fueling the wood fire with an endless supply of logs.
Beyond the women I could see children playing contentedly in the empty lot despite the hazards of exposed gas pipes, open manholes, and trenches.
On a very different spring day only a month later, I remember looking out that window and seeing an eerie emptiness. No one was outside heading to work. No children were on their way to school. The little kiosk down the lane was shuttered. The air was so still there wasn’t even the cool breeze that usually stirred up the dust of the dirt lot. It was the morning of the Andijon massacre. I was told to stay home and not to go out. I didn’t know what was exactly going to happen so I readied my emergency bag and waited, and waited. Later that evening I was evacuated by the American Embassy diplomatic security team from a city that had suddenly turned violent over night. That day marked the beginning of the government of Uzbekistan’s xenophobic eviction of Americans that eventually lead to the closure of the Peace Corp program in Uzbekistan, and even the closure of a strategic US military base in the southern city of Termez. We were the last group of Peace Corps volunteers to serve in the country to this day.
Thinking back on this experience, which I do quite often (probably because of the nostalgic tug of unfinished business of getting yanked away so suddenly), it seems ironic that while my NGO was working hard to prevent conflict along the border, the horrific events in Andijon unfolded from within, from among the disgruntled citizenry who protested against their government and the systematic oppression they could no longer tolerate. But on that day their voices were violently suppressed, and according to the Foreign Policy Magazine article, the potential for significant political change in Uzbekistan and the Central Asian region appears to still be a long way off. In the mean time, I’m sure that the women of Andijon will still be out in that courtyard stirring a huge vat of sumalak in the coming spring.
For details of my experience that was written in real-time as these events unfolded, see my old blog here.
Do you have nostalgia for a place that you’ve had to leave so suddenly?