December 21, 2011
I’m really not a very good blogger. Note to self: Must try harder!
I realise that lots has happened in my life since I wrote the epilogue for ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’. Maybe I should fill in some of the gaps.
I continued work with Yak Yak in the Pamirs until April 2010. At that point, I was up in the High Pamirs, distributing yak-combs to Kyrgyz yak-herders in preparation for the yak-down harvest (which occurs as yaks fatten up on new grass and begin to moult). This would be the year that we hoped to get herders harvesting yak down themselves, giving us a viable volume of yak-down to process and laying the foundations of a new workshop.
My old boss in Khiva, Andrea, had been promoted to country director for our NGO in Tajikistan and called in tears to let me know that the KGB (they have a new name but locals still use their old name as they still do the same old job) had paid a visit to her office with various allegations against me, including that I was a spy for Switzerland. She had 30 days to ensure my departure or our NGO would be taken to court by the KGB. When this happens, the KGB always win.
We tried to figure out some kind of logic behind the accusations, not least; why would I be spying for Switzerland and what was worth spying on in the Pamirs? The only explanation we could come up with was that our NGO was Swedish and the KGB had mixed up Sweden and Switzerland, which sound similar in Russian.
Our yak-trip was cut short and I returned to Khorog and collected character references from the community in an attempt to prove that I really wasn’t involved in espionage. Andrea received a sympathetic hearing when handing in these documents, but the answer was still clear; I had to leave.
At first, I struggled with bitterness. I had left little behind in terms of a legacy and I had few happy memories to take with me. However, I didn’t have much time to wallow in self-pity back in England, as events taking place back in Central Asia were to change my life-direction yet again.
In June 2010 a vicious pogrom broke out in South Kyrgyzstan against the wealthier minority Uzbeks there. Over 400 people were killed, 2000 homes burnt down and thousands of Uzbeks fled across the Uzbek border seeking refuge. When you seek refuge in a country with a human-rights record like Uzbekistan’s, you know you’re in a tough spot.
I was asked to lead a rapid-response, rag-tag team of Uzbek-speaking volunteers to offer trauma-counselling to people who had lost homes or loved ones in the violence. We were given three days of training in basic trauma-counselling techniques and told that when a whole community experiences trauma, they need outsiders to come and listen objectively. Having seen the devastation – whole neighbourhoods that looked like war-time Warsaw – I was a little sceptical that turning up with a packet of tissues and a messiah complex was really going to be much help. This view was challenged when I stopped a group of middle-aged Uzbek men squatting outside their homes, to ask for directions.
“My son, my son, come and sit with us!” wept one man as he heard a foreigner speak to him in his own language. “We have been forgotten. The Kyrgyz want to wipe us out, and Uzbekistan doesn’t care about us, Russia isn’t bothered and the rest of the world don’t even know we exist! Even God has forgotten us!”
I sat with them and listened, which is really all most people wanted; to be heard and to have a voice and to feel human again. Soon we were visiting tents within the burnt shells of once-prosperous courtyards, filled with scorched vines, and rubble. I heard horrors which I won’t repeat and felt an immense sense of privilege to be there at that time and able to leach a little of the pain and terror that people still felt. I was amazed at how forgiving most Uzbeks were, (“You know, these things happen,” I’d hear an old woman say matter-of-factly as she gave me a tour of what once was, picking her way through the rubble of her life). The hardest thing for most was the feeling of being stripped of their human rights as kidnappings, extortion, theft and flagrant and systematic ethnic discrimination against them became the norm.
During this time, our little team felt in need of a break and we made a weekend trip to the mountain village of Arslanbob, entirely Uzbek, backed by 4500m mountain peaks and surrounded by the oldest and largest natural walnut forest in the world. Perhaps it was in part because Arslanbob wasn’t full of burnt-out shells of buildings, or people terrified about their future. Perhaps it was simply because Arslanbob is such a beautiful place, or maybe because of the warm Uzbek hospitality we received. Whatever it was, I soon found myself feeling that same sense of pride I’d felt about Khiva, and imagining what it would be like to be part of this community; to live in a village that even had my name on it.
I found out that a new moratorium on felling trees had been enforced in order to preserve the wild walnut wood. This was commendable, but had put out of business the furniture makes who had traditionally worked with walnut. However, each year large lateral tree branches fell in the heavy winter snow and these were collected. For what? I asked, and was shown stacks of firewood. Rooting through these stacks I’d pick up logs of dried, hard walnut wood, perfect for carving, imagining how many cutting boards, Koran-stands or picture frames could be made and what my wood-carving friends in Khiva, like Erkin and Zafar, would make of this incredible resource going up in smoke.
Fast-forward a year, and I’ve managed to recruit a world-class violin-maker from Germany to join me in starting a school for wood-carving in Arslanbob. After further talks with key community stake holders in Arslanbob, I’ve also recruited a cheese-making couple from Oxford, and they’re all currently in full-time language learning preparing to move to Arslanbob in Spring 2012. We hope to partner closely with the Community Based Tourism Association in Arslanbob and help them improve tourism opportunities as well as setting up income-generation projects, and there are more volunteers preparing to come.
I’m excited about the future and have come to appreciate many good things about both Uzbek and Kyrgyz culture, living here in Kyrgyzstan. One day I hope to write a book about this next chapter in my third Central Asian country. In the meantime, I will try to be a more faithful blogger….