Saturday, June 18, 2005

Baghdad? No, Bishkek

“Oh God, not another revolution” I thought. Not, I hasten to add, because I thought it would only further destabilise the Kyrgyz economy, but because I wouldn’t get any holiday out of it. You see, during the ‘real’ Kyrgyz revolution on March 24th, they shut down the school where I work and I got five days off. But now, I’m on holiday anyhow and won’t benefit from any cancellation of lessons. Shit.

Ok, I better give a bit of back story on this one as this is my first post….

I’ve been working for two years now in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the Soros Foundation. Many of my colleagues would like some pretty heavy quotes round the word ‘work’, but we’ll gloss that one for the moment. Kyrgyzstan, at least until recently, was the most laid-back and stable of the ‘stans’. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are police states with loony leaders; Tajikistan is desperately poor and very traditional; Kazakhstan is just a big load of nothing except steppes and oil; Afghanistan…well, you know about that one. If there was going to be political unrest anywhere, it wasn’t going to be Kyrgyzstan.

But it was. On March 24th a meagre little protest outside the main government building suddenly turned into a full-blown revolution. A couple of rocks thrown from the crowd and the small band of riot police guarding the parliament downed arms and walked off, whistling sheepishly as if to say, ‘me? A member of the army? No, I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.’ And that was it. The protestors swarmed inside and took over, all the corrupt politicians snuck out the back door and got the hell out of there and the reign of Askar Akaev, the man with the bushiest eyebrows in Central Asia, was over.

I missed the revolution. Actually, that’s not true. I live about 500 metres from the parliament building, but instead I was sat at home watching it all on CNN. Christ, I could open my window and hear it all going on, but, well, those rocks looked pretty sharp and I don’t see how my presence there would have helped. And those rocks looked pretty sharp. Half an hour or so after it was all over, me and my mate Tom felt suitably shamed at having sat through the whole thing and went out to have a look. We wandered round the parliament, talked to a few of the revolutionaries, gawked at the broken windows and watched as the masses torched a few of the sleek German cars left behind by the fleeing politicians. But we weren’t really part of it all. We took some pictures, but they largely involved us standing in front of abandoned tanks and pointing (in case anyone was in any doubt that the huge green armoured vehicle looming behind was, in fact, a tank). It was Revolutionary Tourism. Of course, since then I’ve significantly embellished the part I played on that day, and reading some of my emails you would think I went face to face with the baton-wielding police.

So, coming back to the start. A couple of days ago I was wandering past the parliament on the way to the shops, and saw a fairly large crowd gathered there. This is not unusual. Since the revolution there have been daily protests about something or other. Normally, you get about ten people standing around forlornly with a couple of placards and often they are protesting about several different things. But today the crowd was larger, so I hung around a bit with my camera to take a few shots.

And then it kicked off. A gradual swell of people got louder and louder, threw a few rocks, pushed at the gates and suddenly there were inside the compound. The army (who were clearly better prepared this time) pushed them back and started firing gas at the protestors. Everyone started running towards me, so I turned and legged it as the canisters came flying overhead. Puffs of smoke started to erupt behind me. Now, this was exciting…

This all went on for a bit. A crowd surge, a bit of argy-bargy, then the gas and running. I’ve got to give the police their due -they were much better organised this time. I suspect they’d been practising in-between taking bribes from drivers on the streets of Bishkek. I hung back a bit and watched it all. Clearly there was not going to be another revolution today. So, what was all this protesting business about? Well, apparently they were supporters of this candidate for president who wasn’t allowed to run because he didn’t happen to be Kyrgyz, but Kazakh. Now, this seems eminently fair to me. I mean, Kazakhstan is a different country, right? You can’t just become the president of whatever country you feel like. The protestors seemed on pretty thin ground as far as I could see.

I didn’t get this info from watching the news or reading the local paper. No, I got it from ‘guy in the crowd cadging cigarettes from me’. While I was watching the protest unfold, he came up to me and asked if I was a foreigner. I assumed he was one of the protestors, thought I was a journalist and wanted to put his side of the story. But he was more interested in the full packet of cigarettes in my pocket and reluctantly told me what was going on only if I gave him a cigarette every five minutes. He was a very cheap informant, though as it turns out not particularly accurate. The presidential candidate wasn’t in fact Kazakh, but a Kyrgyz citizen who happened to have Kazakh citizenship. Hardly Deep Throat.

The whole thing kind of fizzled out after about half an hour and the protestors sloped off to the bars for tea and beer and the police went back to sleeping in the nearby park. But hey, I got some nice pics out of it and some video footage. I was particularly impressed by one clip I took when running away from the gas canisters. It’s got that authentic, jerky, panicky feel reminiscent of Baghdad when a bomb’s gone off. But looking back at it later on my computer, I noticed that half of the people running away were laughing, clearly not impressed by the police’s efforts. Jesus. How can I convince people I was caught up in a war zone when they do that sort of thing?

Below are some of the pictures I took

Picture 1
Picture 2
Picture 3
Picture 4
Picture 5
Picture 6


Blogger Andy H said...

Welcome to the blogosphere David (yes, people really do call it that). I don't really have anything to say except that, but wanted to be the first commenter on what is sure to become the most widely read site on the net. I'll stick a link in my mine so you can sweep up some of my disaffected readership.

1:44 pm  

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