26 February 2011

Previously added on March 21st, 2009

The below blog was originally written and posted on March 21st, 2009 while I was still a volunteer with the US Peace Corps serving in Talas Oblast in Kyrgyzstan. Needless to say it caused quite a stir when I posted it and sharply divided the volunteers and the staff still in-country. Basically it divided the volunteers between the people that were there and could personally attest to the veracity of what I'd written, and the volunteers who weren't there...the staff were divided as well, mostly down different lines. I deleted this shortly after moving to London which happened to coincide with a revolution in Kyrgyzstan. I don't think that my leaving encouraged the people's revolt but this has as of yet remained unproven (note: that was a joke. Bad taste perhaps, but a joke nonetheless). I removed the below post upon arriving in London out of respect for the country and the volunteers still there, and I'd also ruffled the feathers of my now-sworn enemy to a sufficient extent so I felt the posting was no longer required in the public domain.

Now enough time has elapsed, and because I'm hoping to start blogging more often I've decided to re-post this because it was a major event in my life and other people's lives, and the true story should be told. Below is what I'd originally posted in it's entirety:


The following, though I know how it will sound, is completely true.

Two weeks ago I was in Bishkek for the K-16 PDM (Project Design Management) seminar. My new counterpart from my new school was there and we designed, what hopefully will still someday be, a great project. We planned to take a room in the school and turn it into an English Language Resource Center. Because my new school is the largest public school in my Rayon (Kyrgyz equivalent of “County”) we are always hosting many teacher-training seminars. This room would be ideally suited to host those, as well as function as a one-stop source for English Language materials for teachers and students to use as a library of sorts, as well as a great study room/English club room. Because all Peace Corps seminars are ‘business casual’ dress, I packed my backpack full of slacks, dress shirts, my suit coat and a nice pair of black shoes. This left room enough for only one other change of clothes to use for ‘leisure activity’ (that will make sense further on). Anyway, PDM was highly successful and my counterpart and I both left feeling excited to embark on what will be a huge project involving grant writing and lots of time and organization—perfect for the summer when school is out!

Friday was given to PCV’s as a ‘travel day’ back to our sites to go back to work on Monday. However, Friday also happened to be my good friend Francis’ birthday. He decided to celebrate by renting an apartment in Bishkek large enough to host about 10 volunteers, and we would use that as the party location all night. So far, nothing here is out of the ordinary. Volunteers have been renting apartments in Bishkek for one-night-at-a-time parties for years. Because it was Francis’ birthday I bought a bottle of Beefeater Gin (by far, the best dry Gin to mix in a G n’ T), and a few other people bought some other nice liquors so that we wouldn’t be beholden to the Kyrgyz standard vodka that we’ve all come to loathe/love accordingly.

Once we dropped all of our baggage off at the apartment we left to go to the store to buy picnic supplies because the weather had taken a remarkable turn for the better. We bought a couple beers, bread, cheese, sausages, tomatoes, black olives and some guacamole and chips. Then we all caught a bus to head to a huge park to hang out listening to our portable iPod’s and just lounge in the sun. Thus far, considering the success of our PDM, and what this day was turning into it’s truly been one of my better days in country.

We got back to the apartment around 5 and started hanging out watching English-language TV and drinking the first of our mixed drinks. At this point there’s just a few of us there and it’s pretty chill. Then around 7 o’clock about 10 other volunteers show up (honestly, not a big deal ‘cause we’re all friends and the apartment was huge) and we began a rousing game of Beirut (or Beer-pong to west-coasters). At this point I was getting a bit exhausted due to the abnormal amount of sun I’d had that day, the few G n’ T’s I’d had (honestly, just a few) as well as the compounding of PDM and the parties that rightfully accompanied it, so when everyone decided to head out to a local bar (Metro, I think I’ve mentioned it in a previous blog) I decided to take a nap and pick up the party when everyone returned. About an hour later Kristen, who also decided to not go to the bar due to exhaustion, woke me up to go to the balcony and drink some Starbuck’s out of her French-press coffee maker (Thanks Mr. & Mrs. Kennedy—it was delicious). A short while later we decided to take a walk to the store around the corner and pick up some more cheese and crackers, as well as a couple of beers to split.

Once we got back to the apartment we sat in the room her and her roommate-for-the-night claimed earlier and ate and talked for about an hour until everyone came back from the bar. They all came in a bit agitated and proceeded to tell us about a drunk old man who’d accosted everyone outside the apartment trying to get money. He even grabbed my friend Alex by the neck to try and take him out of the elevator before he head-butted my other friend Lee as he was trying to subdue him. Everyone came back to the apartment without actually fighting back (something Peace Corps stresses repeatedly in our ‘safety-security’ sessions) and although shaken up we all started hanging out again and relaxing. At this point I was in the room with Kristen, Alex, Kelly, Erin and Amber. Alex and Amber had not been drinking at all (this will matter further down). About 30 minutes later there’s a very loud knock at the door, and when we open it about 5 militsia guys come in (the local cops) and proceed to question us and collect our ID’s. I tell Francis that he needs to call Mahabat (our Peace Corps Safety/Security person) immediately and inform her of the situation. He does, as well as a few other volunteers and she comes in about another 20 minutes. The entire time the militsia is there they are asking for a “fine” to make them go away. Now a “fine” in America means you get a ticket and deal with it in court. A “fine” in a 3rd world country means “bribe me so I don’t fuck with you any further.” Peace Corps always tells us not to, so no one does which only serves to frustrate the militsia. When Mahabat arrives the militsia asks for her ID and tries to bribe her into getting it back. At this point I’m stressed out so Kristen and I, as well as a few other volunteers, go back into her room where I start drinking a beer to calm down and we just keep to ourselves. This is where it gets interesting…

One of the militsia guys was so drunk when he arrived in our apartment that he rushed to our window and puked out of it. Yes. I’m serious. The cop was so drunk when he arrived that he puked out of our window. Then he puked in the bathroom a couple of times before sitting down with my friend Joe who offered him some water and pizza we had left over. The entire time he’s sitting down all he keeps saying is “I just want to go home; I don’t know why I’m here”. As this is going on the militsia keeps questioning Mahabat and threatening to report us to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreigners because of the “neighbor’s complaints of noise” and the “old drunk man’s (who attacked my friends) alleged story of abuse against him”. They also claim that because the apartment was only agreed to for 10 volunteers having 20 is illegal. Anyone who’s ever been to a Kyrgyz party knows that this “law” isn’t really enforced…but if you’re looking to mess with some Americans it really does do the trick. Anyway…

Mahabat at this point asks the militsia to point out the “really drunk” volunteers. The militsia man takes three ID’s off the top of the pile he has and proceeds to read off names. Once she realizes that he’s just going to go through the stack she stops him. Joe’s, Alex’s, and my name were all read by the militsia as being “really drunk”. Now, Joe is talking to the actually really drunk cop, Alex hasn’t drank all night and is in the room with me, and aside from the beer I was presently drinking I hadn’t drank for about 4 hours at this point. I’ve dealt with the militsia before and although they’re basically just thugs looking for a hand-out I’ve always been able to walk away without losing my shirt in the process. This time, however, Mahabat comes into the room I’m in (where she sees me drinking a beer…to my endless regret) with a Peace Corps security guard and tells us that Peace Corps is sending a bus over to take us all to the head office for the night. So, we all gather our belongings and head out. On the way down the 9 flights of stairs Joe carries on a full conversation with one of the security guards while I speak to anyone who will listen about how much utter bullshit this entire situation has turned out to be. On the bus ride over I try to lighten the dreary mood by cracking some (in retrospect inappropriate) jokes and just generally bitch about our situation. I really didn’t help anyone by doing this, and I think Mahabat was sick of listening to me…but damn man—you would never have these concerns in the 1st world…lessons to be learned, right?

When we get to the Peace Corps head office in Bishkek Claudia (our CD Country Director) is there and all she does is bitch at us when we’re all feeling like the victims of a corrupt system full of corrupt cops and (for once) a situation that wasn’t remotely created by any one of us. We all pass out on the tile floor wherever we can find room and wake up at 7am to have a meeting with Claudia to see what’s going on. She proceeds to tell us that now the embassy has gotten involved, Mahabat has still not gotten her ID back and she needs to go meet with the Embassy staff as well as the militsia and the alleged “complaint-filers” to gather evidence.
We’re all shocked, and when Alex tries to interject by saying “wow, Claudia…I think we’d all at least really appreciate a ‘how are you all holding up?’ question to maybe accompany the undeserved belittling you’ve just delivered to all of us” her response is “Well, I have at least four witnesses who say you were incredibly drunk last night so your word doesn’t mean anything to me right now.” At this point all 20 of us look at each other in disbelief because we all know there’s no way that can be true…

Later that afternoon we all find out that the next day we will all receive “Consideration of Administrative Separation” letters with which we’ll have 24hours to write a rebuttal to.

The next day we all go into Claudia’s office one by one to receive our letter and give our side of the story. Thank God we have nothing to hide because in this situation all every one of us has to do is tell the truth and the story will be rock solid…or so it would seem. When I finally go in for my letter and ‘interview’ my letter has a slight change from everyone else’s letter that basically states that when the militsia arrived I was drunk to the point of incomprehension and posed a security risk. I’m left staring at this in disbelief and I look Claudia in the eye and tell her that is completely and utterly untrue. Her response is “well Peace Corps staff said that you were unruly and they smelled alcohol on you” to which I respond “yeah, I was pissed off and voiced my opinion…my smell? Maybe it’s because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for a week of partying every night and I might have sweated out the limited Gin I had in my system while I was sleeping as everyone else was at the bar.” Then she says “well, I have at least four other volunteers that report seeing you drunk beyond control.” Now wait. Does that number sound familiar? Four people saw Alex (who wasn’t drinking) drunk, and four saw me as well? Hmmm….

My response to this line of questioning is “well Claudia, those ‘four’ are lying because I was in a room with Erin, Alex, Kelly, Kristen and Amber almost the entire time the militsia were present and you haven’t (at this point) interviewed any of them so who might these “four” mysterious liars be?” Her response “well, I’m not at liberty to say at the moment.” Interesting strategy, I must say…it would almost seem as if she was trying to turn us all against each other to get the response she was looking for, wouldn’t it? Luckily we were all planning on telling the truth so I wonder how that strategy worked out in the end…

As soon as my interview was through I went back to the Resource Center and typed up a full page in which I refuted every single one of the claims made against me, as well as everyone else, giving detailed time descriptions, names, and events as I clearly remembered them. I also apologized for my vocalized anger directed at the militsia (while we were on the bus and I was surrounded by only my peers and Peace Corps staff…how exactly is that a “security risk?”) and explained that it wasn’t due to drinking but brought on by the unfair treatment I felt we’d had by the militsia as well as the absurdity of the entire situation…what exactly did we do wrong?
I’m now back at site and all of our (20 fucking AdSep letters…unbelievable) letters and rebuttal’s are making their way to Washington where Peace Corps as well as the American Embassy in Kyrgyzstan will make a final decision. Because Joe, Alex, Kelly and I all had ‘extra’ lines we all felt like our futures in the program were more on the line than the rest (though an AdSep letter is absolutely serious and never to be taken lightly, so technically 20 people’s future is in doubt) so we had every volunteer that was there that we could find (volunteers at the party that live in Chui Oblast, where Bishkek is located, went back to their sites because they would have their interviews and receive their letters later) and had them sign our rebuttal letters verifying the veracity of our version of events and asserting their witnessing our behavior as not being remotely what the charges are that have been leveled against us.

Now we’re all on site-restriction which means we can’t leave until Peace Corps either says “okay, you’re clear” or “come to Bishkek, we’re sending you home”.
When I left for Peace Corps I never imagined I’d find myself in this kind of situation. I’ve been in-country now for almost 9 months and I finally feel like I’m starting to do the job I set out to do in the first place. I’ve got two successful English Clubs up and running, I ran a tremendously successful winter camp for my local youth, as well as youth in and around Talas city paid for with a PEPFAR grant from Washington, I’ve just begun work at a new school with a new counterpart who has the greatest “go-getter” attitude out of all of the other Kyrgyz teachers I’ve come into contact with, and I generally finally just feel like my service here has some direction. I can speak the local language, I’ve got great community contacts, my host-family situation is stellar and I can honestly say that for the first time since coming here I can easily see myself here for the next 1 ½ years remaining on my contract. Now all of this is in jeopardy due to a drunk man who attacked my friends, then called the cops who tried to collect a bribe and decided that they’d further fuck us when we wouldn’t comply. Also, for all their preaching to us during our training, Peace Corps hasn’t got a single one of our backs. Claudia seems much more concerned for her job and the political wrangling involved in covering this incident up, and the press that might follow, than the well-being and support of her volunteers that have all just been through a fairly traumatic occurrence at the hands of corrupt cops and a broken system in a 3rd world country we’re supposedly welcome in.

Oh, and for the record, when the neighbors of the apartment we’d rented were interviewed they all said that they didn’t even know Americans were in their building, and not a single one of them called the cops or complained at all. Also, when the drunk man was contacted (sober) he apologized profusely and regrets ever exacerbating a situation that he admitted was completely his fault. Alex has decided to press charges against him for assault…which Claudia tried to talk him out of because of the “time and work it would take.” Thanks for supporting us Claudia, it really means a lot.

Now I’m sitting in limbo waiting for an answer. Will I stay or will I go. If I’m cleared, will I even want to stay? If I’m not, and I’m sent back home…what then? Time will tell. I promise another blog post to conclude this as soon as I find out!

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