Two Kyrgyz Women by Marinka Franulovic - HTML preview
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woman had finally arrived, but she would have to wait for the next day
to understand where she really was.
A woman approached Ainura and showed her a narrow corner divided
from the rest of the room by a curtain. A few colorful blankets thrown
on the floor marked an apparent sleeping area. Ainura spotted a wood
burning stove boiling a pot of water with which she immediately
saw herself washing Ali’s clothes dirtied along the journey. A rusty
samovar for tea sat on a table. Ainura needed to wash her baby’s
cotton diapers if she wanted to have them ready for the next day. After
she had washed and hung everything, she went to sleep holding her
son. Most of the night, Ali kept his tiny hands over his mother’s face.
She leaned him near her breast to allow him to nurse whenever he
wanted. They slept soundly; they did not even dream.
At 5 am, an authoritative voice announced to the roomful of sleeping
women that they were to be ready for work in an hour. Aside from
Ainura and Ali, five other women lived in the hut, the space between
them divided by curtains and thin mud walls. Ainura was shown to a
bag of oats in the corner and told to prepare breakfast: porridge for six
people. The young woman was quickly put in her place when the voice
reprimanded her, saying that though she was new, she now shared the
same shoes as all the others.
The women of Ainura’s hut were all in their thirties and forties. Ainura
was the youngest. Awakened too early and not interested in porridge,
the two women who arrived with Ainura suspiciously looked around,
their eyes revealing disappointment. The two women were separated
from their husbands and added that they had left their families behind.
Still, they only murmured to themselves, “It’s okay.” They were
prepared for simple conditions, and the place where they were brought
was worse than that. They certainly did not expect milk and honey,
but they expected to be paid a salary four times higher than what they
were earning in Kyrgyzstan. This was why they did not complain.
Two other women spoke with loud voices. They had been brought
to the farm involuntarily just a week before, and they could not say
too much to the newcomers about what lay ahead. The other sleeping
women, who arrived with Ainura, did not stir. Ali also slept. It was
cold in the hut and Ainura needed to light the fire. She picked up sticks
of wood off the floor and lit them. Then, she placed the hot coals
inside the samovar. The hut had no running water, but Ainura was
used to this. The young woman always considered cold running water
a privilege and hot running water a luxury.
The winter morning light that modestly shone into the hovel revealed
to her that she had come to a very basic place, even more humble
than her home in her village, crowded with her siblings, parents and a
husband. She accepted the mystery of life and never asked more than
the days were ready to give. Having grown up with eight siblings,
Ainura learned early on how to split her wishes and expectations into
nine equal portions. Not much else was left. From the modest income
from which her family survived, Ainura always expected very little, if
anything at all.
Soon the man to whom the autocratic voice belonged introduced
himself as the farm’s owner. He immediately started explaining what
the women were expected to do. In his early sixties, he was much older
than they were, and only this fact, without anything else, immediately
brought him significant respect. All the women had been brought up to
respect and trust older people – old people are wise and evenhanded.
This attribute made them listen without questioning. The owner lead
the women to the land they needed to prepare for the young tobacco
plants, which needed to be planted in one month’s time. He calculated
how much time this job was to take for each of them, and that each
was responsible for a large portion of land.
The man reminded the women that he was the owner of the farm and
they were on his land to work hard. His house was near their hut and
he watched everything going on in the field from his window. The
man asserted that the land did not know breaks and pauses; the grass
grew every day equally so there were no Saturdays and Sundays off
for them, just working days.
Ainura heard Ali crying while the owner talked. The baby had
awakened and he was wet and hungry. She wanted to go inside to
change and feed him, but the man ordered Ainura to wait until he had
finished his instructions. The owner further admonished Ainura to have
her baby tasks done every morning before 6 am, when all laborers had
to be in the field.
The women understood that their working time was from dawn to
dusk. Lunchtime was from 1 to 2 p.m. Ainura had been appointed to
prepare lunch for herself and the five other women with whom she and
Ali lived. She also needed to clean up after her hut mates, feed Ali and
wash his non-disposable diapers, which were always wet or soiled as
she could not change him between the morning and lunchtime. Could
this be done in just one hour? Ainura never considered preparing food
a chore. She gained much experience at her eatery, and preparing food
was a simple task for her. If one is already happy enough to have food
to eat, what a small job it was to prepare it.
Six thousand tenge, or approximately $40, was the monthly food
allowance for Ainura’s hut of six women. Ainura was told to buy food
from the small kiosk on the main road toward the village. They were
selling food in transparent plastic bags: sugar, flour, potato, oil and
eggs. With a weekly budget of $10 to feed six, Ainura would not need
to shop often. The tobacco farm was not far from the village center.
The main road to Almaty lay behind it, and the sound of traffic was
the only noise the workers seemed to hear constantly. The owner had
forbidden everyone from going to the village because they had no
documents. The man further warned the workers that Kazakh police
would beat and imprison them if they attempted. He reminded the
workers that they were to speak only Kazakh if they were to meet
anyone not from the farm.
The land, covered by snow for most of the winter, was hard as a
walnut shell by early spring. There were neither tractors nor any
other mechanical help available at the farm. All the necessary digging
needed to be done by the hands of the young women. Needless to say,
neither workboots nor workgloves were provided for the workers,
either. Instead, garbage bags were used to cover the workers’ miserable
shoes, the same shoes they wore when they arrived at the farm. Other
trafficking victims from the shelter had later told me that their shoes
would be taken from them each night before going to sleep - insurance
against nighttime escape attempts.
The rough and impregnated land demanded much backbreaking
labor to transform its tough clods into the sand-like ground suitable
for planting. It seemed that not only did the land not appreciate the
workers’ hard work and efforts, but it defiantly remained as tough
and inhospitable as its owner. Like cream cheese on hard dense
black bread, which the workers never had for breakfast, every March
morning the land was covered with snow and an icy frost which, in
turn, froze their hands.
The farm laborers soon shared their stories with each other about how
and why they came to the Kazakh tobacco farm. Ainura learned that
most of the workers, as in her case, were promised other jobs, but
instead were brought to the farm. One of the girls was from the city,
and she was even the closest to Ainura in age. Her name was Altanay
and she used to live in Osh. She spoke Kyrgyz differently and even her
Russian was good. Altanay was much more educated than the others.
As in Ainura’s case, she had been promised a job in the Almaty store,
but instead she was brought to the farm. It was clear that she was
going to have the hardest time working in the field since she never
lived in a village. And she did. Altanay worked very slowly, and from
the way that she held tobacco plants everyone could see that she had
never before worked the land. The owner’s henchmen started calling
her “White Hand,” a pejorative reserved for people who were useless
at work. They took every opportunity to insult her and to make jokes
to make her ashamed. After two weeks on the farm, Altanay was gone.
Nobody knew where, but they all suspected why.
The women’s first month on the farm was coming to an end. Most
of the snow had already melted, and big crows on the trees became
noisier than the traffic. The reward for hard labor sometimes comes
as an even harder task to complete. This was true for the following
stage: transplanting young tobacco plants into the prepared ground.
Transplanting required a different kind of labor, where the women
had to hunch over most of the time. Vastly difficult and monotonous
work lay ahead. Indeed, young tobacco plants are not rice seedlings,
and dry Central-Asian land has no tropical softness. Freshly awakened
from winter dreams and well pampered by the hands of Ainura and the
other women, the soil greedily fed itself with the rays of the spring sun
and the warmer air. Equally fertile and anonymous as the women who
worked on it, the land was ready to return the given effort. The planted
tobacco plants sprouted fast, along with all the unwanted grass and
weeds, which needed to be pulled. There was more work to be done
every day, and the women’s salary had yet to be mentioned.
With the increase of amount of work, new workers were needed for the
next stage of tobacco farming. Soon, two new women arrived, one in
her thirties, always with a young girl of nineteen, as if an inseparable
twin. They shared a hut next to Ainura’s. The two new women from
southern Kyrgyzstan met in a private car, which they thought headed
towards a well-paid job at Dordoi Bazaar in Bishkek. When they woke
up near the tobacco farm after a long night’s drive both thought they
were still in Kyrgyzstan.
Ainura remembered the beautiful voice of the older woman, which
floated through the thin mud walls of their hut during late evening
hours. But Ainura was too busy with the work she was expected to
perform on the farm, and she was unable to socialize with anybody
else. She gave her rare free minutes to Ali and no more time was left.
The newly arrived farm laborers were used to working the land from
their prior lives. They were all village people who led simple, rural
lives, which they had shared with their family and cattle. The farm
owner had good reason to be satisfied with them; his hard land was
rapidly cultivated and the green lines of young tobacco plants were
already giving an early promise of a generous harvest.
The afternoon sun in March and April was incredibly harsh, and
Ainura decided that this heat was the worst part of the work in the
field. She professed to me her profound dislike for the landscape
around the tobacco farm, and how she now appreciated how much
more beautiful her own country was, with the mild springs weathers
and cattle and blooming trees scattered over the hills. At the tobacco
farm, everything was flat and dusty.
Not much time had passed after Ainura’s arrival at the tobacco farm
before she awoke to the fact that life and work at the farm was true
hell. This was when the beating started. One morning a man who lived
in the hut behind the women refused to go to work. Apparently, he said
that he was sick and needed to rest. Four men were sent to beat him.
Ainura heard the man’s screams in the early morning as Ali suckled
her breast. The baby’s eyes were closed. Ainura had just been musing
that the infant grew as fast as the young tobacco plants.
When the cries first came from the neighboring hut, the other women
ran to peek through the window. The beaten man’s hut mates later
recounted that the henchmen had continued to kick after he had fallen
to the floor. When they finally did stop, the man remained on the floor
and showed no signs of movement. From where he lay, he was no
doubt able to see the world from a wounded frog’s perspective, and
his torturers were furious birds with long beaks ready to tear apart
vulnerable prey. They loudly threatened not to pay him since he was
lazy and a bad worker. This taunt came at the time when the workers
still hoped that they would be paid for all they were suffering.
The semi-conscious man was then dragged out to the field, thrown
down, and ordered to continue working. The other laborers watching
silently understood clearly that this had been done to warn them; the
owner wanted them to remember well what would happen if they too
dared to refuse his orders. The man was barely able to walk the day
after, so he was given a task of washing the owner’s son’s tall black
jeep. As the field work increased, the beatings occurred daily.
Every two hours while out in the field, Ainura had to return to the hut
to feed Ali. The bosses complained that she was leaving the field too
often. “Baby can wait, work is more important,” they would reprimand
her. Ainura had much milk; if she could not feed every two hours, her
breasts would swell to engorgement. At the same time, her shirt was
muddy and sticky from the combination of dirt and milk trickling from
her, encouraging a new round of humiliating taunts from the men.
The owner’s henchmen made no secret that they were losing all
patience with her, as the infant kept her from working enough. They
even claimed that other workers had complained about the baby’s
crying at night. The young woman knew this was untrue, because Ali
slept well most nights. During the daytime, however, the infant did
cry. Left on the floor for most of the day, without his mother to see or
other voices to hear, usually wet and hungry, what else could a baby
do but cry? An untended baby does not hide its desperation.
The owner’s people were soon after her all the time.
“Who could think of bringing such a small creature to a foreign
country if you intended to work seriously?”
“Where is her husband?”
“What decent woman goes so far without a husband alongside her?”
“Does she have parents? Does she have relatives?” These were just
some of the reproaches directed constantly at Ainura.
Finally Ainura replied to the men that the recruiters in Kyrgyzstan
told her they had no problem with bringing the baby. She foolishly
added that they had promised her a job at a store, and that no one had
ever mentioned a tobacco farm to her. For this defiance, Ainura was
brutally pushed back and forth among the henchmen, until she finally
hit the floor, hurting herself badly.
One evening, after Ainura had finished her afternoon work in the field
and had already started preparing dinner, the owner entered her hut,
accompanied by a man she had never before seen. “This man wants
to talk to you,” announced the owner before disappearing, leaving the
young woman, her infant, and the stranger alone. She placed a tea pot
on the table and took Ali to feed him. To maximize the time she had in
the hut, the young woman fed her baby constantly while she was close
to him. She was able to breastfeed and walk, breastfeed and cook,
breastfeed and eat, and breastfeed and dress or undress. This was just
the way how things were for them.
The man spoke Kazakh with an accent, and Ainura guessed that he
was Chinese. She could not know what this man wanted from her, but
he was obviously somehow connected to the owner as he was far too
much at ease standing amidst the surroundings. He did not resemble
the henchmen, however, and this was already promising. Without
introduction, the stranger directed questions about Ali: “How old is
he? Where is his father?” With his short, fat fingers the man pinched
the baby’s cheeks and commented on how strong and good looking
the infant boy was. He expressed some compassion by acknowledging
how hard it must have been for her to work and to take care for such
a little baby. His conclusion was that the difficult situation on the farm
would not bring any good to either of them.
The stranger finally revealed his intention with the offer: “Let me buy
the boy, I will pay you handsomely.”
Although the man’s bid was made matter-of-factly, he added that
he understood if Ainura needed some time to make her decision.
The stranger closed the meeting by advising Ainura to act as a good
mother and do what was best for herself and her son. He urged the
young woman that her only reasonable decision could be to sell her
son to him in exchange for money, which would bring her more good
now than an infant boy. Ainura squeezed Ali closer to her breast and
replied that she needed no time to think. She would never sell Ali and
he should not come again to ask.
Ali was three months old at that time. He had already given her his
first smile and he waved with his arms when she was close to him. The
infant always turned his head towards her, and he could recognize her
voice from across the room. Ali was all she had in the world at that
moment. He was more important to Ainura than she was to herself,
more precious to her than the destiny of the planet. He was her future
and her present, even when it was impossible for her to imagine that
she would ever have any of either.
Twice before he left the man repeated, “You should not be selfish. You
should think about what is best for your child.”
Ainura later learned that this man’s cruel mission was not always
unsuccessful. She knew there were other tobacco farms with Kyrgyz
workers nearby. She also knew that women on these farms were
raped by local men. The women lived in fear and gave their babies
away. Isolated from health facilities and far from their families, this
seemed like the normal solution for such births. This baby merchant
would appear soon after the delivery, and the newborns would be
Village men came to Ainura’s hut at night, too. They tried to come
inside their rooms by pushing through the plastic-covered windows.
Sometimes the women feared that the fragile hut walls would fall
apart from the bumping and pushing of the local men. Ainura knew
well why the local men were after them. It was apparent to her that
the farm owner was using them without mercy, and the village men
wanted to use them too.
These tales horrified Ainura and she soon began to fear for Ali’s safety,
especially when she had to leave him alone for longer periods of time.
Ainura began taking him out to the fields, where she worked with him
on her back. The young woman thought she could tend the tobacco
plants with one arm as she held Ali with the other. At least this way,
Ainura could nurse the baby if he cried. Her hands were dirty but her
milk was sterile. Now with his mother all the time, the boy was finally
As the work in the field became harder, the owner and his men
gradually turned more vicious. Since their arrival, none of the workers
had yet to receive payment, and any hope that they might faded with
each passing day. The owner and his people were changing as well,
becoming more ruthless in their treatment of the laborers. Even the
language they used towards them had evolved from general shouts to
pointed threats of beating and even murder.
Only the tobacco plants lived carelessly, growing quickly, straightening
up and opening their long green leaves to be closer to the sun.
Naturally, the plants were oblivious to the suffering of those who were
taking care of the fields with their own bare, withered hands. Like the
strong wind across the wide-open steppe, more and more terrifying
stories rushed past them, shaking the souls of the unfortunate Kyrgyz
laborers. They were no less vulnerable to this wind than the rare steppe
trees rooted in the dry ground. These horrific tales were meant to scare
them and to assure them further that the most terrifying story of all
was the one they were living out together.
Ainura heard of an entire Kyrgyz family, six people from three
generations, brought to Kazakhstan to work. Together they had looked
for a life better than their miserable day-to-day survival in their
Kyrgyz village. Before departure this family sold all they had. Once
they arrived in Kazakhstan, this family lived in captivity for more
than four years. Their children no longer went to school, they were
forced to work in the fields with their parents, and their elderly had no
hospital when they fell ill.
One day, instead of salaries, the owner brought a small black and
white television for the worker’s hut, which was placed atop the
wooden board serving as their table near the samovar, where Ainura
hung the clothes and the cotton diapers of her baby. Suddenly, instead
of their own fears and darkest worries, the television set brought them
the magical world of Mexican soap operas. The ups and downs and
convoluted intrigues of the imaginary rich Mexican family and their
servants displaced the momentary problems of being prisoners on
the tobacco farm. The show started at 6.30 p.m., and as soon as they
finished their long day in the field and took off their dirty shoes, the
workers could not wait to indulge themselves in the dramas of all those
Robertos and Gabriellas, whose lives seemed, in all their complexity,
far more dire than their own.
In the beginning the laborers watched silently, often too tired to talk.
After some time, they started making comments or even trying to
guess what was going to happen next. All those well-dressed ladies
from palatial homes were genuinely unhappy with their unfaithful
husbands, evil sisters, deranged mother-in-laws, and dishonest
servants. Just after two weeks, the interesting and unpredictable
destinies of the screen characters became much more important than
their own. The Mexicans lived such exciting lives, so rich and real to
the workers that the actors could have easily stepped out of the screen
and into the communal area of the women’s hut, ready to take up the
plot-points of their destinies.
Ainura rarely had time to sit down to watch the serial without doing
something else at the same time. She was usually busy preparing
dinner or washing clothes. Sometimes she sat down to breastfeed Ali.
She was convinced that he liked to watch the program too. The infant
seemed to recognize the theme music as well as the Russian male
voice dubbed over the original Spanish voices.
This was the rare time for the mother and her child to watch each other
without having threatening eyes search them. Ainura could see his two
small eyes growing up fast, completely unaware of their captivity in
the rickety cage of tobacco farm life. Only for those tiny eyes, and the
well of love they momentarily offered, could the young woman feel
that she was a true and irreplaceable queen to her infant. It is terribly
hard for a mother to deceive her child. Ainura felt the heavy load
of guilt for his misperception of her. Ali’s helplessness made things
worse. There was no way to explain to him that his flattering smiles
were ill-placed, and that his unabashed happiness, which seemed
to flow from some other planet, where gaiety and cheerfulness still
existed, were inappropriate. This guilt sat in Ainura’s chest and hurt
her with every movement, never allowing the young woman to forget
the absolute truth that she alone had brought Ali to this place.
Ainura did not want to talk any further about her last days on the farm.
She only said that it started to get very hard to take care of her baby
and work at the same time. It was late April and as the days became
warmer, the farm owner’s demands and aggressiveness grew. The
Chinese man returned to ask if she had changed her mind about selling
her baby. She could not recover her nerves from the fear that someone
may come to steal her son. New people appeared on the farm, and she
did not know them nor like how they looked. They either followed the
owner or stood and watched the laborers. Who they were and what
they were looking for, Ainura could not guess. What the young woman
did know, however, was that harvest season was about to start and
more workers would soon be needed.
One day, the realization possessed Ainura that she could no longer
stay at the farm. Not a single day more. She could not continue to toil
in the field while caring for Ali. The pressure was too great and her
decision to leave was final. Ainura approached the farm owner and
told him that she was going to leave. The work on the farm was not
the job she had been promised by her recruiters in Kyrgyzstan and she
wanted them to let her go. Although she was there illegally and feared
that corrupt police officials might bring her back, Ainura declared that
she would run away and report the owner and what he was doing to
Instead of replying, the farm owner called several men to punish
Ainura. The henchmen appeared, and mercilessly beat the young
woman. Then, they brutally raped her. This occurred as Ali slept in the
corner a few feet away, wrapped in colorful sheets. Was he sleeping
and dreaming his baby dreams, unaware of the horror inflicted upon
his mother? Or was he absorbing everything into his evolving brain?
With anger swelling deep inside her chest, the young woman pointed
to a visible scar on her face, just above her eyebrow.
“Afterward, I was sold for 250,000 tenge to a lady from Almaty. I was
sold for 250,000 tenge!” she repeated twice, as if she could not believe
her own words. “I was treated on the farm the way people treat their
horses or sheep, and they also sold me that way.” Ainura recalled this
rationally, with neither tears nor anger. I felt she did not want me or
anyone else to pity her. Her message was simple: she had bad luck in
life. Ainura accepted her cruel fate.
Four weeks after Ainura departed the shelter for her village in
southern Kyrgyzstan, I met two women rescued from slavery at the
very same tobacco farm where Ainura had been held. I met them at
the shelter while sitting on the same massive armchair where I had
spoken to Ainura just a few weeks before. I realized that they were the
two women who Ainura had mentioned - the ones promised a job at
Bishkek’s Dordoi Bazaar.
The younger girl sat nervously, repeating the same jittery movements
first with her right hand, then with her whole body. The name of the
older woman was Kurmajan, and I realized that she was the woman
with the beautiful voice Ainura had mentioned to me. I was delighted
to meet the woman who was inspired to sing during her captivity.
Kurmajan had a calm voice and a steady optimism, which certain
people inherit. Kurmajan spent her time in the shelter painting and
trying to explain to 19 year-old Gulya that once they get home after
six months of close sisterhood, she will have to continue her life on
her own. Gulya, an orphan from her early childhood, could not accept
this sudden change of circumstances. She had never before been so
close to anyone in her life as she had become with Kurmajan at the
“She is uncomfortable now, because here, in the shelter, no one is
pushing her to do anything; she cannot get used to this freedom,”
A few days deprived of cigarettes made Gulya nervous. “She cannot
live without cigarettes anymore,” Kurmajan added. Gulya started
smoking the tobacco leaves since the first time that she was supposed
to dry them, and after that the purpose of her life centered on finding
an available moment to smoke.
They both remembered Ainura well. Kurmajan, the 35 year-old
woman, was happy to find out that Ainura had been saved as well, and
that she was already home. Apparently, Kurmajan and Gulya were
there when Ainura was beaten and raped, and they had worried about
the young woman’s fate after her disappearance. Ainura’s example
served as a cautionary tale of what not to do: renounce work, mention
police or threaten to escape.
The two women remained on the tobacco farm up to the end of the
harvest. They had seen some workers disappear and new ones appear.
They witnessed the tobacco leaves reach full-size and then become
ready for the harvest. And they were there to harvest it. Kurmajan
explained the procedure required to dry mature tobacco leaves. They
had to tie the leaves on a string, one by one, as if they were beads of
an enormous necklace that would never be completed.
The women knew that Ainura had been sold, but they did not know
to where and to whom. Kurmajan was shown a photo of Ainura
to confirm that she was the same woman we were talking about.
Kurmajan immediately declared that Ainura had put on weight from
the last time that she had seen the young woman. Thanks to this twist
of fate, I was able to learn more about Ainura’s last days on the farm.
Nursing her infant and hard labor had emaciated Ainura to the point
of becoming a living skeleton. The body of a breastfeeding mother
surrenders much nutrition to the nursing child. What her body retained
for herself, Ainura’s mind could not accept. She grew silent within her
shrinking frame. When the conversation was directed toward her, she
felt detached. Isolated by her own confusion, Ainura knew that she
was losing her mind. She knew she needed to leave the farm in order
to keep her sanity, and this is what she desperately needed to take care
of her small baby.
“We wondered what had happened to her. Where did she go and did
she manage to survive?” Kurmajan wondered.
5. The Mountains
Ainura’s new owner was a businesswoman from Almaty. She
was well dressed and drove an expensive car, which brought them
all up to the foothills near Almaty, where her parents lived. The first
words the lady in the flashy car offered Ainura was a reminder that
she had been purchased for a large sum of money (US$300), and that
the young woman should be grateful for having been rescued from the
infernal tobacco farm. “Now,” she added, “you are going to live with
my elderly parents and take care of them, their land, their 225 sheep
and five cows.”
Although Ainura’s family in Uzgen never had cattle, she quickly
learned to tend sheep and cows while also performing any tasks the
land required. Did she have another choice? Ainura had been removed
from the horror of the tobacco farm, and she was thankful to God for
His mercy. But, she was well aware that she was once again enslaved.
Ainura considered herself fortunate to be in the mountains and not still
on the tobacco farm. She thought about all those people with whom
she had worked and who still toiled there. It was hard to imagine
being there during summer. She supposed that the place would have
been unbearably hot. “How long are they going to keep them?” Ainura
truly pitied the laborers. During her long hours alone with the elderly
couple’s cattle, between the open sky and endless grass around her,
Ainura had enough time to blame herself for coming to Kazakhstan.
The young woman faulted herself for daring to seek anything better
than the village life she had shared with her parents. Why had she
thought that there was more to life than the small eatery and a drunken
Ainura was never in the habit of expecting things to turn out well. She
had grown up with hardships and sorrows, and life was difficult for
everybody she knew. Experiencing adversity does not indicate failure;
it is just the way life is. Ainura did not believe that those who seek
something will always find it, and that those who knock would always
be let in.
I tried to imagine Ainura in the hills among the birds and sheep, with
her baby boy nearby. The rich summer grass in the Kazakh mountains
is ideal feed for cattle. There was no steppe dust up there as there
was on the tobacco field, where daytime temperatures were now over
40 degrees Celsius. Just thinking about the tobacco farm under such
temperatures motivated Ainura to milk the nine cows very efficiently.
Ainura also easily learned to make soft cheese the way they wanted.
Soon, the young woman started calling the parents apa (mother)
and ata (father), and they took care of Ali when she was with the
cattle. They treated Ainura and Ali well. Ainura spoke of the couple
she worked for in the mountains with such gratitude that I could not
help myself imagining an idyllic picture of Ainura in the Kazakh
Mountains. Happy endings are what we need after all? But no matter
how strange and unexpected our universe is, and no matter what we
would like it to be, Ainura’s story was not destined to have storybook
Apa and ata had treated Ainura and her baby well in terms of neither
beating her nor harassing her, as was the case on the tobacco farm.
For the work Ainura performed, she was given food to eat and a place
to sleep – but nothing more than that. The two old people were slave
owners after all. If Ainura had mentioned that she wished to return
home to Uzgen, apa and ata would not have failed to remind her
that she still owed them 250,000 tenge. Her duty was to work for full
repayment. Ainura had hope that she would do this, and that one day
her job would be finished and the couple would let her go home. Apa
and ata enjoyed buying presents and clothes for their grandchildren,
but never once during Ainura’s six months of captivity did they buy
anything for the young woman or her baby, nor did they offer her any
pocket-money for her work. Ainura did not lament this fact, and she
relayed this detail only after I specifically asked.
The young woman had lived with them for half a year, during which
time her baby boy must have grown. Seven months since her arrival
in Kazakhstan, Ali was still squeezing into the identical, but now
adjusted, clothing Ainura had bought from her village bazaar. The
young woman resorted to tailoring the clothes, and her sewing skills
came in very handy.
When the daughter of apa and ata bought Ainura, she held the young
woman’s passport, as if it was a dog license, and kept it in her Almaty
apartment. During the six months Ainura spent with this family, there
was not one mention of her release. Also, there was not one word
about her previous tobacco farm owners. The young woman could not
know the nature of the link between her two masters, if there was one
What Ainura did understand was that she was needed for work. She
also understood clearly when to bring the cattle back from pasture,
and how to milk cows every day. With her chores finished, the young
woman achieved tranquil invisibility, finding a bit of peace in her
slavery. Maybe this was why Ainura was touched by my eagerness
to talk to her; she was not used to such interest in her. She was also
unused to having the warm running tap-water that she had in her
shelter room, as well as the luxuries of commercial diapers, soaps, and
other necessities that she had only seen in television commercials.
She enjoyed watching Indian movies with romantic love stories,
music, dance and happy endings. No less than these movies, she
adored Jackie Chan in action, as well as all those kung fu masters, who
always delivered justice in the end. Although justice did not show any
signs of coming to Ainura, some luck did arrive in the end.
Ainura had met a Kyrgyz man during her time at the tobacco farm.
He was a traveling salesman, who sold tents in Kazakhstan. His tent
business thrived in the summertime, as most people with sheep and
cows had to move to higher pastures, where the grass was still green
and good for grazing. This is the nomadic summer migration, old as
time itself and not much changed today. The traditional wooden yurts
have been replaced by plastic tents made in China. The tents, quick
and easy to assemble, are much uglier than traditional yurts, but much
less costly in terms of upkeep, time and effort.
Ainura saw this man again when he came to solicit his tents to apa
and ata. The young woman begged him to help her return home.
Well aware that neither she nor her son had any documents, the man
gave his word to help. Ainura would later learn at the shelter that he
regularly returned enslaved women back to Kyrgyzstan, always after
the harvest on the farms had been completed. She never would find
out why he was doing this.
Fortunately, the day of Ainura’s and Ali’s escape came. She re-entered
the country exactly as she had left it: as a thing. I will not detail the
inhumanity and misery of her escape, but I will tell you that the
moment Ainura stepped onto Kyrgyz soil; she wanted to kiss the
ground of the country that gave her no more than poverty. No matter
how hard and poor her life had been before, she was happy to be
6. The Shopping Mall
It was the last day in Bishkek before Ainura’s return to her
village in the Uzgen region. The scene outside was vibrant and
sunny, like the works of the great Russian landscape artists. The tree-
lined Sovietskaya Street was filled with the optimism of the morning
hours as shops opened and people busily made their way to their
destinations. I decided to bring Ainura and Ali to the recently opened
Vefa Center shopping mall – the first of its kind in the country. She
accepted my offer to go out, with the same pleasure a women from
any part the world would if you only mention only two words: coffee
No matter how spiritual we strive to be, life is in fact made up of a
materialistic reality. But how has the greed and moral breakdown that
fuels slavery persisted into the 21stCentury? How can one sell another
person’s life as a means to obtain material objects? Cynics would
say that the human soul, with all its weaknesses, has evolved little
So there we were, sitting in the coffee shop situated in the atrium
of the shopping mall. Shopping malls are indeed cathedrals to
materialism. Butterflies and flowers hung from the ceiling, resembling
an over-sized mobile that spins above an infant’s crib – none of which
Ali had ever seen before. The baby’s eyes darted all around. Colorful
and noisy with lots of moving objects, the mall’s interior was hermetic
and artificial, like that of a television screen. I wondered what that
screen showed to the freed young mother and her eight-month-old
son. Ainura confessed to me that she had had no idea that such a place
existed in her country. She was glad to see it before her departure for
the much less developed south.
One could immediately notice that Ainura did not belong in this place.
She in no way resembled the girls from this newly-established crowd
of Kyrgyz mall girls, who had successfully turned the mall’s marble-
tiled floor into a fashion show catwalk. Ainura, who was obviously not
comfortable with idly sitting, gestured that the mall girls clearly had
an excess of time to just hang around like that. After all, they did not
come to the mall to shop, but to waste time with style, pride and grace.
It is very likely that Ainura’s mother and the mothers of those trendy
girls shared a similar life in the former Soviet Union. People here tend
to reminisce with nostalgia about that time. Ainura’s mother had been
a teacher, and if the mothers of any of those fashionable girls had also
been teachers, it is likely that they would have taught their children
from the same books and spoken the same language. Why is the life
of their children so different today? Why is it that after fifteen years of
independence, the same generation of girls is divided between those
who know the reality of the digital revolution and the reality of the
When the waiter brought us the bill for our tea and cakes, I paid
without checking the prices on the menu. I trusted the waiter as Ainura
had trusted the recruiters who had promised her a better future. As we
chatted, Ali sat on the red leather armchair near me. The coffee shop
where we sat was empty. Kyrgyz people are still getting used to the
idea of drinking coffee for pleasure, and this concept is even harder to
grasp if the coffee is significantly overpriced.
“Can you imagine that tomorrow you will be on your way home?” I
asked Ainura while holding Ali’s hand to help him sit more steadily.
I wondered how all those eight months in captivity had affected him.
Ainura drank her Coke and ate her cake very slowly. Her eyes shone
with hope and relief. “I am already there in my mind and I can’t wait
to see my older son and my family,” she replied with the happiness of
a child who can now find its way out of a dark forest.
Sitting with Ainura in the cafe made me believe that the shopping
mall was a perfect place to add a cube of sugar to her bitter story.
Perhaps this is why only here, and not in the shelter, Ainura opened
herself to me, and brought up happy memories from back home. She
remembered how her husband had courted her, but also that she should
stay firm in her decision not to let him back into their home.
The day before Ainura and her son were to go back home, I wanted to
tell her something memorable, maybe even make a toast in order to
show my gratitude for the time she had spent with me. With her glass
of Coke, she wished all the best to me and my family, and I replied in
kind. With the warmth of the Southern Kyrgyz, she invited me to visit
her in Uzgen, and then we said goodbye. Even goodbyes are easier in
A week following our goodbye, I called the NGO worker who
had accompanied Ainura and Ali from Osh to their village in the
Uzgen province. I wanted to find out about Ainura’s return home. I
considered going there myself, taking Ainura up on her courteous
invitation, but I quickly realized that a foreigner’s presence in her
home would be intimidating. I would no doubt intrude on the crucial
intimacy of this family reunion.
Ainura and Ali arrived in their village at night after traveling all day
in a car hired by the shelter. It takes nearly 14 hours by car to get from
Bishkek to her village, which is near the city of Osh. It rained heavily
that evening, and all the village roads were muddy. Autumn in Central
Asia – usually very dry and sunny – had announced its arrival with an
early October storm.
Ainura’s family had previously learned of her misfortune in
Kazakhstan; they knew that she had been kept involuntarily and that
she had not received any money for her work. This was all they knew.
They wanted to help, but they did not know how, so they were left
waiting. According to the NGO worker, Ainura’s family had no idea of
the nature of Ainura’s abuse, and that they had decided to approach her
disappearance with the patronizing “we told you not to go anywhere”
attitude. For Ainura, after eight months of being treated as a slave, to
be treated as a naughty child would seem even sweet.
After hugs and Ainura’s mother’s tears, the family arranged su
aylantmay. This is a Kyrgyz traditional ritual, where a family greets
returning family members coming home after long time away,
coming home from a long stay in the hospital, or returning after any
other unfortunate event. Before Ainura was let back into her house,
her mother – this may be performed by any other older woman from
the family – had to fill a chyny, or Kyrgyz teacup, with water. Ainura
had to spit into this three times. Her mother then made three circling
motions with the cup around Ainura’s head, and then poured the
water out of the chyn y. Just as this water disappeared into the soil,
it is believed that all evil and misfortune that had come to Ainura
disappeared as well. The chyny used for this ritual was then left on the
floor, near the entrance door, and turned upside-down. All that was to
be done before Ainura stepped in the house and the chyny had to stay
this way, in front of the house, for three days.
The most common advice given to Ainura in the shelter was that she
shouldn’t share with her relatives the details of her captivity. Why?
Because nobody would ever understand what she had gone through.
It would be much better for her if family did not know about the
harassment and the torture. In the end, Ainura may even be blamed
for all her misfortune, adding another obstacle to her recovery. After
all, it would be better if all Ainura’s pain and sorrow were to disappear
with the water recently poured from the chyny in front of her parent’s
The wetted soil would be dry shortly, and back on the north it will
soon be covered with new snow.
LIFE IS MORE