Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Returning from At-Bashy, where for a majority of our time we were completely removed from outside communication, it is devastating to hear about the destruction of lives in the South. We, Dr. Sarah Halvorson and I, were somewhat aware of the situation while it was occurring. However, rumors abounded and we were unaware of magnitude of the situation or failed to believe it.

Back in Bishkek widely circulating rumors are intermixed with facts making it difficult if not impossible to differentiate between the two. I cannot claim high validity to my knowledge, nor can anyone else. The investigation of the events on June 10th in Osh, Jalalabad and across the south is still speculative. However it is widely accepted that it was planned and well organized, most likely by the former president, Bakiev and his supporters. The were able to utilize an existing ethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnicity and incite violence through incredible manipulation of emotion and fear. Beyond widespread burning of homes and point-black killing, many powerful manipulation tactics were utilized to provoke violence including accusations of Uzbeks raping Kyrgyz children and women. Knowing the difference between accusation and action is faint because the manipulation tactics resulted in many accusations eventually coming to truth. It is difficult to comprehend how this can happen. What complicates the events for me is the fact that several weeks ago wide circulation of a recorded conversation between Janish (Bakiev's brother) and Maxim (Bakiev's son) outlined how to create violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Given this knowledge, I felt certain that the events would not happen since it had been revealed to be a ploy. However I clearly could not comprehend the power of destruction and emotion and it's ability to self perpetuate and rapidly escalate.

Although things are calm in the north, a high level of tension exists as the referendum vote is scheduled to occur on June 27th. The ballot contains two important items to be decided. The first is whether to accept the newly drafted constitution. The second is whether to confirm Rosa Otunbayeva with executive powers until the fall election in October. Despite the individual significance of both these items, they are packaged together in a single vote. The referendum ballot will consist of a single “yes” or “no” vote to either approve the new constitution and accept Rosa Otunbayeva or reject both. I cannot offer any predictions in what events will unfold as I still at a great loss for what has happened in the south.

Life in the Jailoo

Over the past two weeks while violence erupted in the south, I was tucked up in summer pastures of the At-Bashy Range. I have hired a local field assistant, Aizada, to assist in my interviews as my Kyrgyz is insufficient for that level of conversation. However, my Kyrygz had greatly improved over the past month and I find myself actually able to maintain (and sometimes finish!) entire conversations.

I was also joined by another "field assistant" and "photographer" Dr. Sarah Halvorson, Associate Professor and Chair of the Geography Department at The University of Montana. This is Sarah's third visit to Kyrgyzstan and she has extensive research experience in Central Asia. Our time in the At-Bashy area was incredible.

We started this trip by participating in a Teacher's Workshop at Naryn State University in Naryn City, a large town of 40,000 located an hour north of At-Bashy. The workshop was focused on integrating ecological information and sustainable development into Kyrgyzstan's high school curriculum. It was a unique opportunity to interact with local teachers and gain insight into the education system. At the end of the workshop I had the opportunity to run a focus group with the teachers regarding my research interests. I was particularly interested in finding out about how people define glaciers as many of my interview participants in At-Bashy use ice and snow interchangeable, often defining glaciers just as snow. We also had the opportunity to discuss the placement of mountain geography and glaciers in the current school curriculum and in the Soviet school curriculum.
Following the workshop, a teacher from Ak-Muz a small village near At-Bashy invited us to visit. She accompanied us for a day of field interviews visiting yurts in summer pastures. We were treated to a great surprise when her family slaughtered a sheep for us that evening to make none other than the infamous besh-bemak to feast on rump fat, innards and incredible soup and noodles.
We joined my Kyrgyz family in At Bashy for a few days before heading south to Tash Rabat, an ancient Silk Road caravan sari. Here we stayed in yurts for several days, interviewed many herders, rode horses across snow to high mountains passes and were invited to a spontaneous party with seven Kyrgyz families.

Throughout the entire range, yurts are popping up and livestock are taking to the high pastures. Families are leaving villages and taking to up their semi-nomadic living for the summer. Koomuz, fermented mare's milk, is everywhere and is beloved by all Kyrgyz. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but as with all of the incredible dairy products here I am a fan. This past weekend we left the jailoos and koomuz to return to Bishkek and the realities of the death and chaos in the south. Sarah has safely departed for the states. We had so much fun! I am incredibly grateful for her visit which provided the opportunity to receive some mentorship and feedback regarding my fieldwork and to share the experience with someone.