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

expeditiously traded.

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

the police.

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

tobacco farm.


“She is uncomfortable now, because here, in the shelter, no one is

pushing her to do anything; she cannot get used to this freedom,”

Kurmajan explained.

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

at all.

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

and leisure.

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

throughout history.

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

modern slavery?

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

shopping malls.

7. Home

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.

November, 2006.