I finished my service in Peace Corps Kazakhstan in August 2011 (the posts you have seen since then have all been retroactive), and moved to Kyrgyzstan to work with a development organization. As in KZ, Blogspot and WordPress are still blocked here in KG, some say because KyrgzTelecom services are provided in part by KazakhTelecom, but I’m not sure. What I want to write about today was important enough for me to go through the hassle of finding a proxy server. I suppose it is appropriate that this is my first post written in the voice of a non-PCV (that is, a Returned PCV).
Yesterday, I wrote the following message about the decision to close Peace Corps Kazakhstan (here in Russian) on Facebook and it was re-posted virally, copied onto a blog post by an oblast-mate I served with who is still there, and then (perhaps inadvertently) quoted in a Eurasianet article as well as by the news portal’s Central Asia editor on his Twitter:
Thank you to every PCV who sought to share their curiosity, open-mindedness, democratic values and professional skills, and for every person in Kazakhstan who welcomed us and taught us so many things we would never have learned at home.
By now there has been a lot of speculation on why the “suspension” is taking place, whether it’s a permanent closure, and what this means for volunteers. I want to say first and foremost that I do not feel Kazakhstan is a more dangerous place to live than most, and that as the official report states, its level of development is indeed impressive among the Central Asian states and PC countries in general. I think the reasons for the closure, including safety/security reasons, should be treated with gravity but also not taken as scaremongering. While there were good reasons for PC KZ to decide to terminate its program, they are not good reasons to think that Kazakhstan is a terrible or backwards place with no security for visitors or volunteers. I will take this opportunity to give an outline of the situation that led to the decision (complete with cited news sources), as well as finally provide some of my personal opinions and reflections on my time in Kazakhstan in light of this news, without the censorship and rules that being a serving PCV previously imposed. Consider it, in its own way, a long-suppressed insider expose of all the issues, but with a decidedly hopeful conclusion.
This Eurasia.net article gives an excellent overview of the terrorist situation in Kazakhstan, which went from absolutely nonexistent to fraught with a series of amateur, botched attacks against state buildings beginning last May. To summarize, Kazakhstan was viewed as the one bastion of safety in Central Asia — a comforting exception to Westerners who cringe at hearing “-stan.” Then came a suicide bombing in western Aktobe this past May, a car explosion in Astana the following week, two October explosions in western Atyrau, and finally a police officer shooting followed by a suicide bomber that killed 8 people in southern Taraz (the first and only, but very tragic, incident to kill anyone other than the terrorists themselves). The first two incidents, which occurred while I was still in the country, were (upon my own survey of local friends and acquaintances) kept hushed and featured only casually in local news as incidents related to “organized crime.” First time I’d ever heard of a gangster trying to avoid law enforcement by blowing himself up, but ok…
The radical group Jund al-Khilafah, a band originating at the Afghan-Pakistan border) has claimed responsibility for at least Atyrau and Taraz, but these terrorists seem pretty woefully inept. The Aktobe bombing resulted in no deaths other than the bomber’s, and in the Atyrau case one of the four identified perpetrators apparently died from having set off one of the bombs on accident. The group says that the attacks are in response to a new October law imposing religious restrictions, the purpose of which, ironically, is to combat extremism.
In conclusion, all of these attacks, while foreboding for Kazakhstan and certainly eye-opening for a public just beginning to wake up to the threat of terror within their borders, have been directed against the state and not at Americans in any way. I do not think they make Kazakhstan a dangerous place to live in with regards to terrorism, by any means. Although, the fact that the Taraz explosion happened one block from the apartment of two PCVs, and occurred during Peace Corps DC’s evaluation visit to KZ, certainly couldn’t have helped PC KZ’s cause.
There have been 5 sexual assaults or rapes this year within Peace Corps Kazakhstan, which indeed ranks it first worldwide among PC countries for such incidents. In a time of growing sensitivity towards the issue (i.e. the debilitating 20/20 special and NYTimes article on PC’s previously incompetent and immoral responses to sexual assault cases, and the subsequent Congressional Hearing and finally installation of new policies, including hiring a Victim’s Advocate), DC thankfully paid special attention to the rash of cases. But it is very difficult to figure out what anyone in PC staff could do, that they are not already doing, to prevent these incidents. The way in which staff addresses incidents once they happen though is of course of utmost importance, and I will get to that shortly.
I don’t think anyone expected, upon signing up for Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, that it of all places was going to have the highest rate of volunteer rape and sexual assault worldwide (if you were a girl who signed up for PC KZ last year, you had a roughly 8.3% chance of being raped). I will refrain from naming the myriad countries on other continents that I would have slated to receive this truly mortifying honor, because I’m sure those stereotypes are equally misguided. At my PC Close of Service conference in June, I sat with several of my fellow female volunteers on two beds in the dingy but familiar hotel room at our PC conference “sanitorium” and sobbed. We cried out of anger, out of fear, out of sadness, at the injustice of losing one of our own group members to a rape “MedEvac” just two months before we were all supposed to finish. It was supposed to be a time of celebration, but as I went back to site I found myself clutching my pepper spray (which, by the way, I highly recommend every female volunteer) in fits of paranoia. News of the incidents that happened after I left continued to shock and appall me — two sexual assaults in the South just hours from where I used to live, and another rape again only weeks ago, just in time to contribute to the perfect storm of PC DC’s visit this month and ultimate decision to pull out of KZ.
The situations varied, and I’m sure none of them were things that have not happened before in the U.S. or anywhere else…but the overall effect still weighs down the hearts of those of us who lived in and loved Kazakhstan for two years and know that this is something that our local friends and coworkers are as shocked and disgusted by as we are. Of course, cultural and environmental elements undoubtedly contribute to the risk — gender imbalance and discrimination were the hardest things I had to deal with daily in KZ (I wrote a post about it early on in my service, when I had just moved to the capital of South Kazakhstan oblast, ostensibly the most conservative region in the country). Alcoholism and domestic violence are sadly widespread. I witnessed a bride-napping two months into my Pre-Service Training in country (none of us could write about it due to PC’s veiled censorship on blogs — only write about happy things! Let this post be some catharsis for those two years), and helped advocate for a gang rape victim with my NGO mid-way into my service, when her 3 rapists were set free after having bought off the village judge.
I can give a piece-meal and one-sided view on Peace Corps’ reaction to the incidents, without going into a lot of detail about the incidents themselves. In one of the incidents, PC reacted as soon as possible, sending someone to find the volunteer and keep her safe, then providing transport to PC KZ headquarters the next day (one issue: in KZ, everything is very far. The furthest volunteers are 48 hours by train from HQ…and we never fly). In another incident, PC apparently put the volunteer on an alcohol contract because she had had a few beers before the assault occurred. This strikes me as completely inappropriate and meriting of a letter to the Victim’s Advocate (who was apparently contacted but disturbingly and uselessly, could not get the decision reversed)/Congress/whomever, as a volunteer should categorically never, ever be punished in any way for being the victim of an incident (a philosophy PC KZ was unbelievably bad at embracing while I was a volunteer, though my plethora of examples of this are unrelated to sexual assault. But I could write a book about this topic alone). In a third incident, PC let the volunteer return to her site to prosecute, at her own request…though I personally was very worried at the possibility of retribution, given that when people in the community know where you live and you have put their son/family member/etc. in jail, they can threaten you to make you drop charges (this is what happened in the aforementioned case my organization worked on, in which the victim was in fact kidnapped and raped again after charges were filed, as an intimidation tactic to drop the case).
At least two of the five sexual assault incidents occurred in taxis. The risk is pronounced — get in a car, get driven to somewhere where you have nowhere to run and no help in sight, get beaten until you can’t fight back. Cabs are one risk that is truly more pronounced here than at home — in Kazakhstan, often the only way to get from one place to another is in a “gypsy cab,” sometimes shared without your consent by other passengers as regular drivers pick up strangers on their way from one destination to another to make a little extra gas money. To you, this may all sound insanely dangerous — to us KZ PCVs, it was one of our primary modes of transport. Late at night especially (“late” being after 8 pm in the winter), when marshrutkas (little public min-vans) and busses stop running, it’s gypsy cab to the rescue. Most drivers are male, and many of them drive drunk. It is often hard to tell in the 3 seconds that you open the door and bargain for a price, who is really intoxicated. By the time you’re in, it’s often hard to get back out. I once passed a driver in Almaty nursing his beer at the wheel. And, one of my most memorable completely drunk drivers was the illicit married boyfriend of my first director in the non-existent organization I was first placed with when I moved to Shymkent…so essentially, a known acquaintance that my boss had solicited to drive us home from work on a Tuesday night. She didn’t apologize for the incident and pretended like it didn’t happen. Needless to say, my stay at that “NGO” was short-lived).
Also, the “blame the victim” mentality is unfortunately not nearly as taboo here as in the West. If you would like to see something really depressing and can read Russian or are willing to Google translate, here is the KZ domestic news article about the Karaganda oblast rape this month. Of course there were the wonderfully indignant comments defending the PCVs right to trust someone in her house to not rape her, but by my comment count it’s 7 to 4 critical comments-supportive comments, with one of the 4 being an acquaintance of the PCV. Some of the more joyous $0.02 include: “Why a criminal case?! The fact that the party continued, and even at the house of the American girl, means that she was ready for the logical ending to the night…” or “Raped? Why invite drunk men home? Why? With only one goal…” “Guy, who was accused of rape! Counter that she raped you, in your helpless state (an aggravating circumstance for her…)” or “Hey you America, with us in Kazakhstan it’s after all like this: if she lay down alongside, she gave it up.” Finally, perhaps my favorite: “Peace Corps Volunteers are trainees of the CIA. This is a known fact. In a couple of years, she will be a member of the CIA or NSA. I would not be surprised if the rapist turned out to be someone in a public office associated with state secrets.” Which brings me to:
Government Pressure/Thinking PCVs are Spies
My amazing friend Alex, a current PCV and documentary filmmaker in western Aktobe (same site of the first terrorist act this year), wrote an insightful post on being accused of spying in a front-page edition of the October 20th Aktobe Times. Of course, the logic itself seems ludicrous — PC is in KZ (as indeed, in every country it works) at the invitation of the President/government itself, our presence is visible and broadcasted, and we are explicitly not allowed to engage in anything remotely political. From the minute we arrived to staging in Washington DC, we were put under what I like to call the “PC PR veil”….do not talk about politics, religion, or other issues that may be viewed as propagandizing or sensitive in any way. Do NOT start a revolution (one girl in our group actually got in a public fight with our Country Desk Officer as it was apparently her mission in PC to do just this…and got sent home our first day in-country. Why they even let her get on the plane is beyond me).
The paranoia in communications, it turns out, is pretty justified. For the months, even years, leading up to this decision to close, PC KZ had been having myriad problems with government suspicion and push-back. In Akmola oblast (region/province), home to the grand capital of Astana, the teacher counterparts of the newest group of PCVs were forbidden by the oblast Ministry of Education to come down to Almaty to attend Peace Corps’ “mandatory” counterpart conference. The volunteers went up to their new sites to work with counterparts who ostensibly were not informed of their duties, and to schools who received negative pressure from the Ministry for the fact that they even accepted volunteers. Several northern oblasts had been riddled with negative articles from various local media sources in the past years, deriding PCVs as unqualified to teach, or as poor influences on Kazakhstanian youth. But this trend is not really “recent,” if by recent you mean in the last year or so.
Here is an embassy cable, now public and on the glorious intra-webs, on the framing and jailing of a PCV in East Kazakhstan in 2009, right before my group arrived to KZ. This poor guy unwittingly followed a local “friend” for a tour of a mine that his town was famous for, and was left there holding a mysterious bag that had been handed to him, with authorities “coincidentally” waiting to catch him red-handed. The bag actually contained explosives, and he was sentenced to two years in a Kazakhstan prison (not a place you want to be). While the case is no longer sensitive because he is safely back home, it was solved internally and kept under tight wraps when it happened so as to avoid a public diplomatic fallout that would jeopardize his release. I find the last section of the cable the most fascinating, as it states that the US Ambassador had a meeting with Nazarbayev about the PCV, and that in the end the KZ President “sided” with his liberal advisors in letting the PCV go free, instead of with the Committee for National Security (KGB successors), who were in all likelihood responsible for the framing. Which helps explain why we can be here at the invitation of the President, but still fall victim to other forces that would seek to discredit us. Another preceding cable on the same topic mentions that a KZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs official admits “there are ‘some in the government’ who want to know how long [PC’s official agreement with the government] is valid for, and how Kazakhstan can terminate it.”
By the by, this case is very personally relevant for me, because it is actually the whole reason I was sent to Southern Kazakhstan in the first place — I was originally placed in East Kazakhstan, in the very same oblast capital in which this PCV was tried, as part of a plan (unbeknownst to me) to help restore PC’s reputation in the area. At the very last minute, literally a week before I was supposed to leave to my site, I was told that the NGO originally planned for me received threats from the government on what would happen to them if they took in an American volunteer. The placement was dropped, and PC did not have a reliable back-up…so I went to an unchecked organization in South Kazakhstan that ended up not being a real org (it had no office, no staff, no materials, no projects, and one aforementioned “director” who registered it under her name to win government tenders. When asked where all the projects were that she listed on her application for a PCV, she stated simply “well, we will start them once you win us money!” Sadly, such orgs are not all that uncommon in the NGO landscape in KZ). It ended up being the best thing that could have happened though, because I was able to proactively find and start my partnership with what I think was undoubtedly one of the best NGOs in the country, and ended up having a wonderful, rewarding and productive service…but you never heard the struggles in the beginning of it all, because I never was able to write about it here.
More recently, a PCV I served with had personal digital information taken from him and re-posted on a KZ internet site in an unfair light. Community members and then Peace Corps found out, and it was enough of a security and potential PR issue that he left his service early. And it wasn’t just him; such tactics have been used to target local NGO leaders, as well, including even cell phone hacking and manipulation of mundane pictures through re-posting with demeaning captions.
Hope for the Future
Word on the street is that PC KZ is “suspending” its program, which has been done before (e.g. Georgia in August 2008 during the violence, less than a year after which the program was re-opened). So does that mean it will open again? Given all of the reasons above, I highly doubt it. The backlash of not “phasing out” the program and leaving quietly, like in Estonia or other countries who “grew out” of Peace Corps in terms of development levels but still looked fondly on the program, will likely be significant. Volunteers in Kyrgyzstan were shot at and had their buildings burned last year, and still the program stay put (and apparently is still going strong, though now limited to 3 northern oblasts of the country). Many view this as a strange juxtaposition, but I hope the above serves to shed some light on the unique issues PC KZ was facing. The KZ news article about the withdrawal has already garnered significant commentary, most of it again negative, ranging from ridiculous (“the Americans were responsible for the terrorist attacks”) to true and terrible (“Their government did not rape but killed one of our citizens in their country.”).
I am certainly sad the program is ending, and it is hard to talk about the ramifications of the decisions with all of my local friends and coworkers, who are certainly upset about it and have really become my second family over the last two years. Though the institutional problems were rather enormous (beginning with, I always say, lack of any kind of volunteer quality control and a practically barrier-less process of recruiting that promotes quantity over quality), our KZ office staff was nevertheless wonderful and fought through thick and thin to support what was a very challenging program in an exceedingly large and geographically dispersed country. To those members of our local staff who have been there since the program started (expatriate staff have to abide by Peace Corps’ 5-year in-and-out employment rule), thank you so much for your dedication to the mission of PC in your country and for helping thousands of volunteers gain an experience that undoubtedly changed everyone one of us forever.
Overall, I am hopeful and whole-heartedly believe what I wrote in my original post. Kazakhstan has more than enough talented, motivated and progressive young people to make progress on the three goals of Peace Corps (helping countries meet their need for trained workers, bringing American culture to local people, and educating America about foreign cultures), even without PCVs in the country. If I were the US Embassy Public Diplomacy Department (and I have already told them this), I would invest all of our money into exchange programs. Exchange programs like FLEX (high school), UGRAD (university) and MUSKIE (grad school) create many alumni who are both patriotic citizens of their country, excellent ambassadors of their experiences in American culture and education, and initiators of positive change and reform in their communities. Let’s not forget that the exchange is still alive in this direction, even if it has been discontinued in the other.
And to the young people I worked with in my two years as a PCV: you are the pride and joy an future of your country. It all lies with you, both the opportunity and the responsibility at this brink, in which the political future is uncertain (Nazarbayev just dissolved parliament and called emergency elections), and society is also rapidly changing (for example, Kazakhstan just reached 6.7 million internet users, an astounding 41% of the population, compared with 200,000 users in 2001). Every young man we educated about human rights, gender equality and sexual health through our work at the Youth Volunteer Leadership Center “Dostar” is a young man who I am convinced will grow up to have healthy attitudes towards women and never engage in the kind of actions above that have so traumatized us. Every time we stand up for our rights or educate another person about theirs, we help make our countries better, safer and more prosperous to live in.
The conclusions of this post are rather parallel to the conclusions of my service. Though things were difficult and the challenges of every day life for those close to me were often overwhelming, it was still one of the happiest, most rewarding periods of my life. Challenges make us stronger, more appreciative of our blessings, and give us skills and resolve that we never knew we had. I believe that Kazakhstan too will come out of its transition stronger, thanks to the talent and dedication of the change makers that already exist within it.