Saturday, April 10, 2010

Images From Bishkek

April 10th- (Above) Mourners gather in front of the White House laying tribute to the 76 killed

With the central square filled with mourners, Friday and Saturday have been declared official days of mourning in Bishkek. Rings of flowers encirle the final resting locations of the 76 protesters killed by the violence on Wednesday. The opposition, with interim leader Rosa Otunbayeva, are claiming complete control. However, many questions remain with the former president Kurmanbek Bakiev stating he is unwilling to abandon his duties and he remains in the southern part of the country. He lays blames for the deaths on the opposition, however sources have indicated it was the president's brother and sons who issued the orders for violence. Bakiev's family was highly intertwined with the corrupt government. For many locals, it sounds as if a majority of looting that occurred following the revolution was targeted at businesses owned by or affiliated with Bakiev's family. For now the banking system remains frozen as it is believed the president transferred a majority of the country's funds elsewhere. Only a mere $21 million dollars remain in governement accounts. As we spoke with people at the ongoing funerals in front of the White House the mood was somber but anger still lingered at the former president. However, people seem optimistic about the future.

It is unclear how the new leadership will be able to meet the concerns that brought about this conflict to begin with. The recent spikes in electricity rates and widespread corruption throughout the government seem difficult to confront with a meager bank balance and destroyed infrastructure. This is also the second revolt in recent Kyrgyz history. The 2005 Tulip Revolution that put now ousted president Bakiev in power was a people's revolution centered on the same issue of an increasingly corrupt government. Bakiev's administration proved to be even more authoritarian and continued to promote widespread corruption. In asking locals how they know the new government will not continue in the same direction, one kyrgyz woman noted that revolutions might be part of Kyrgyzstan's future until "the government got it right".

April 10th - (Above left) Kyrgyz women describe hope for Kyrgyzstan's future under the new leadership (Above Right) Flowers circle the resting spot of a killed protester

The U.S. Embassy remains closed and the Manas transit center, the U.S. Airbase outside Bishkek, has yet to resume normal operations. Looting has mostly ceased as groups of citizen militia have taken to the streets at night and the military has joined forces with the new leadership. Slowly but surely, daily life is resuming with many small stores opening during the daytime and schools and businesses planning to be open on Monday. For now with banking shut down and rural travel still limited, we continue to sit in limbo in Bishkek waiting for a more clear picture on the security situation.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Different Kind of Storm Day: The 2010 Kyrgyzstan Revolution

THE PLAN WAS… Molly Tyson and Jaime Musnicki, both of Victor Idaho, arrived at the beginning of this past week to join me for an exploratory ski expedition into the Jetim-Bel Range. With support from the Hans Saari Ski Exploration Grant, we were planning to spend 14 days pursuing ski mountaineering objectives in this remote range of the Tien Shan. We planned a departure from Bishkek on April 8th, which provided us a few days for final organizational chaos after Jaime and Molly’s arrival to Kyrgyzstan. From Bishkek we were to travel to the village of Barskoon, on the south shore of Issyk-Kul Lake before traveling via jeep over two 3,500 meter passes to our drop off location at 3700 meters in a high steppe valley just north of the Jetim Bel.

WHAT HAPPENED WAS… On Tuesday April 6th, the day Molly landed in Bishkek, demonstrators took over several government buildings in Talas, located in the far northwest corner of Kyrgyzstan. Via my network of local friends I heard about the events in the early afternoon but it took several hours for word to spread to the streets of Bishkek. The opposition party, Ata-Meken (Fatherland), were calling for protests in Bishkek and across Kyrgyzstan the following day. That evening, as I was riding a bus back to my apartment, dark skies threatened rain and I heard one local say if it rained people probably would not find the motivation to protest.

Wednesday- April 7th
Our day began as any other as protestors started gathering in Bishkek. Mid-morning Molly and I conducted an interview on the impacts of climate change with Dr. Kochumkulova, a local cultural expert. It became clear that things were escalating when the interview was cut short when Dr. Kochumkulova needed to move her car to protect it from protestors. Still, local people were going about their days, so I continued running last minute errands, including buying 2 kiddie sleds for hauling expedition gear from a seven year old Russian boy. Returning to my apartment in the city center banks were closing, the streets were clogged with traffic and my taxi driver starting speaking louder and louder into his cellphone. Turning onto Kievskaya, one of the main streets, our tiny little silver taxi was suddenly the only vehicle insight and we found ourselves facing hundreds of oncoming protestors. My driver pulled over, turned around at told me “Shass, shass (just a minute)”. He hopped out of the taxi, locked the doors and headed into the crowd shaking hands and greeting various protestors whom he clearly knew. After the crowds passed, he drove me the final two blocks home. From the apartment windows, Jaime and Molly witnessed the same crowd pass. My flatmate arrived home within a few minutes. Within an hour smoke from burning buildings filled the sky and gunfire filled the air. We gathered pieces of information about the conflict growing violent from coworkers, friends, local news and the occasional sounds of gunfire. At one point looking down into the street, we watched a group of young boys surround a police car and throw rocks through all the vehicles windows. A shaking policeman with an automatic weapon in hand finally exited the vehicle and temporarily halted the oncoming mob before the car drove away.

April 6th 16:00 - Armed Policeman disperses a crowd of violent protestors

April 6th 16:30 - Smoke billows skyward from the Ministry of Defense

Shortly after darkness, looting began on the streets below. We watched crowds of men smash into all the stores on the streets below us. As crates of oranges spilled onto the streets, new furniture was being pulled out onto the sidewalk and small boys ran by with new stereos. Mobs would move on from businesses but within minutes new mobs would appear to continue the plundering. A thin line seemed to exist and in our neighborhood the looting never transcended into homes. Feeling relatively safe on the 4th floor, we headed to bed as people on the street headed home with new refrigerators and bags of stolen groceries. Jaime awoke in the middle of the night and peered out the window. The streets were swarmed with people taking as many things as they could get their hands on – refrigerators, chairs, desks, skis, huge bouquets of flowers. While earlier in the evening there were mobs of men and very few vehicles, now there were cars lining the road to transport the bounty of the looting. People had shifted focus from destruction to removal.

April 6th 21:35 - (Above)-Protesting turns to looting shortly after dark

Thursday – April 8th

Morning light revealed the extent of the looting. Discarded good and building debris were strewn about the street with wilted roses from the flower shop down the street and orange peels highlighting the mess. As people scavenged through piles for any valuable remains, a group of men took celebratory vodka shots at sunrise, occasionally yelling out “Bakiev is dead” in Kyrgyz. With daylight, the streets started to slowly fill with people stepping out to survey the damage. The first sign of normalcy was sidewalk cleaners making their rounds sweeping their long grass brooms in wide arcs across the streets. The opposition had declared their victory and had placed Rosa Otunbayeva as the interim leader. This seemed by the flight of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the president, had fled to his home in the south. Our planned departure time for our expedition passed. With roads and all local transport shut down leaving was not only foolish, but also impossible. After establishing that the violence had ended, with some local friends we left the apartment to walk through the neighborhood taking in the extent of the looting. Grocery stores were stripped bare, storefronts destroyed; several government buildings completely destroyed by fire and many businesses around the center were riddled with bullet holes. Other store owners were emptying their inventory preparing for the possibility of another night of looting.

April 7th 11:35 - Scorched to the skeleton, nothing but papers remain at a government building downtown (above left) and debris from looters are all that remain at Narondni, a local chain supermarket (above right)

April 7th 12:35 - (Above) A man looks throw broken shop windows in downtown Bishkek

At the White House, the building that holds the country’s president and parliament, we stopped to observe both the growing crowd and the numerous vehicles that had been rammed into the front gates before being burned. Local Kyrgyz and Russian families walked the streets with us, snapping photos with their cellphones and seeming just as stunned as us. Control of the new party seemed questionable as burning continued at the White House and papers continued to be tossed out the windows of this and other government buildings. By early afternoon, we returned and settled back into the apartment. In our neighborhood things remained quiet through the night, as a citizen militia group patrolled the streets for looters. However, other parties of Bishkek experienced continued violence and gunfire through the night.

April 7th - (Above) Men stand on an abandoned tank to see over the crowds gathered around the Whitehouse

April 7th - (Above) Crowds inspect burned cars in downtown Bishkek

Friday April 9th

Taking the advice of the U.S. Embassy and other knowledgeable locals, we find ourselves still in Bishkek. Our current plan is to hold off at least through the weekend on making any moves towards Barskoon and the mountains. We, along with everyone else, are interested to see how the new government manages re-establishing order and security in the country. From most appearances, on the street, people are continuing on with their lives. Rumors abound about what the weekend will bring. There is speculation the president is attempting to rally support, but there is also talk that soon he will announce his resignation. In the mountains, there is often bad weather that we must sit and wait out in the safety of camp. On this expedition, our ski plans are on hold as we sit in Bishkek waiting out a different type of storm days.