Edited by Sabrina Val i and Barent Gordinier
Halida Rakusheva of Bishkek Center for Social Initiatives, Bermet
Moldobaeva, Jana Salieva, Sadyrbek Jesenzanov, Ulan Kerimbaev, IOM
shelter for victims of trafficking, NGO “Sezim”, Bubusara Riskylova, Cinara
Termecikova, NGO Nurzolber in Narin, Intimak for sharing with me his story,
Shaarbek Amankulov, American University of Central Asia for opening the
doors of its library, Gulbarchin Soltobaeva, and Zlatko Zigic, Chief of IOM
Mission in Bishkek.
Last, but not least, the numerous victims of trafficking I spoke with in the IOM
shelter for victims of human trafficking.
O, beautiful liberty, dear and sweet,
Thou heavenly gift where riches all meet,
Actual source of our glory of these hours,
The sole adornment of this grove of ours,
All silver, all gold, and our lives so dear,
Cannot recompense thy beauty so clear.
Ivan Gundulic (1589-1638)
In memory of my grandmothers Mara and Lucija
We live in a globalizing world. Distances and cultural diversity
are not obstacles to us any more. Places once difficult to reach before
are no longer inaccessible. Even the food we like to eat at home can
be shipped to most parts of the world. In a world without barriers, our
curiosity has no limits. The freedom of movement widens our horizons
and shrinks impossibility. In the global world, we can be at home
anywhere. When doing business, when vacationing, when flying,
when resting, the laws are there to protect us and the media speaks
languages we understand.
But, there are others. There are millions of people for whom the
globalized world and technology have brought no changes. Their daily
bread still depends on harvest. Their daily water still depends on rain.
They have no access to the internet and they glean information from
family, friends or neighbors, from newspapers, or from a billboard.
Globalization for them is merely a foreign brand of a soft drink on the
In the vastness of the migrating world, while some people move
freely, others become victims of human trafficking. This book is
about such people. It is about two Kyrgyz women whose problems
are both uniquely Kyrgyz and universal. Their destinies are captured
in a specific moment in Kyrgyz history: following the break up of the
Soviet Union and during the painstaking process of transition towards
democracy and a market economy. Their stories are snapshots of
not only their lives during this period but also of traditional Kyrgyz
society, which has endured dramatic changes affected by the vulgar
materialism and moral erosion in the post-Soviet era.
The two stories, Ainura’s Journey and
and Life Is More Unpredictable
Than Fiction, are based on the testimonies of two Kyrgyz women,
Ainura, a victim of trafficking for forced labor and Gulia, a victim of
trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. They shared their
experiences with me during our meetings in different places, from the
IOM shelter to a shopping mall. They wanted their stories to be heard
in order to contribute to the fight against human trafficking, a crime
that transformed them from ordinary family people into traumatized
victims. Knowing that their stories would be written in English, the
two women also wanted to share with foreign readers details of their
traditions, family values, hopes and fears. Most of all – they wanted to
tell us about the difficult lives of women in a remote and impoverished
Central Asian country.
Ainura’s and Gulia’s mother tongue is Kyrgyz, but we communicated
in Russian, with only occasional help of a translator for Ainura. We
communicated effortlessly. Our determination to understand each
other bonded us in friendship, and we made the most of our limited
vocabulary. The particular descriptions of traditions as well as the
metaphor usage in the two stories were expressed within the limits of
the writer’s freedom.
I hope that the voices of these two women will be heard and will
contribute to the fight against human trafficking.
Marinka Franulovic, Author
Imagine yourself in the position of a victim of
trafficking. You heard about an opportunity – a job that
would pay more, a chance to go to another country, a
start towards a better life.
Perhaps someone you trusted – a family member,
a neighbor, a friend of a friend – offered to help you
get there. Imagine that when you arrived your travel
documents were taken, your every movement controlled
and monitored. Imagine that you were forced to work
in dangerous conditions for little or no pay. What if
you realized that your transport, food and shelter had
become a debt that was increasing every day that you
could never pay off?
What would it be like to be physically, emotionally and
sexually abused while being trapped in this situation?
What would it be like to have no passport or other legal
documents and no money, in a country where you don’t
speak the language and know no one, and are too scared
or don’t know where to look for help? What would it
be like to be treated like a commodity, to be bought and
Brunson McKinley, IOM Director General
Ainura was sitting on a dark and massive sofa as she breastfed
her eight-month-old baby boy during my first visit to the IOM shelter.
From the moment we introduced ourselves, the boy, already content
and full, played with his mommy’s nipple. With sincere openness, the
young woman greeted me in Russian. Ainura accepted with a proud
smile my heartfelt compliment of how cute and strong her boy was,
and although I did not ask their ages, she volunteered that he was eight
months and that she was twenty six.
Ainura looked the way young Kyrgyz women from the countryside
usually look; she wore an oversized and over-washed yellow shirt, her
long dark hair was gathered in a ponytail, and her skin was as red as
a ripe Osh tomato, which many southern Kyrgyz families grow for a
living. The harsh Central Asian summer and its uncompromising sun
left on her face merciless and obvious proof that much of her recent
life had been spent outside. Our small talk quickly revealed the limits
of Ainura’s Russian. When our common language reached a cul-de-
sac, we could only smile and gesture. To get to know Ainura better I
needed someone to translate from Kyrgyz to Russian.
If you step out of this Soviet-style building, a place which used to
be a hospital and is now a shelter for victims of domestic violence
and human trafficking, you will find yourself in the center Bishkek,
the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic. Outside, traffic is hectic. Every
day the city’s car population seems to multiply, consisting mainly of
retiree’s from European or Japanese roads and highways. Among the
Soviet leftovers and other oldies, however, speed noticeably expensive
new cars with tinted windows, driven for the most part by paid drivers.
These road sharks often run red lights and generally do not follow
Some may be on the way to the luxurious, newly-opened Vefa Center,
a shopping mall located just two marshrutka (mini-van) stops from
the shelter where we left Ainura and her baby. The brightly painted
three-storey Vefa building has everything to qualify it as a smaller
version of a real shopping mall. A European-style cafe in the atrium
serves elegant desserts along with fine tea and coffee. One may visit a
food court offering a sushi bar, Mongolian barbeque, and Turkish and
Italian restaurants. It also tempts visitors with a movie theater selling
popcorn and showing American movies, and the luxury shops lined
with neat shelves serve as eye candy for the fashionable and carefree
young people who mill about.
The shopping mall is a nice convenience, not only for the new Kyrgyz
rich who no longer have to drive to Almaty for basic designer wear,
but also for the many window-shoppers, who may indulge their eyes,
ears, and noses for free or even come in to warm up a little bit if the
city shuts off heat to apartment radiators in the middle of winter. Inside
the retail shops, attractive salespeople sell $300 shoes, while earning
monthly salaries of (United States Dollars) $50, handling each pair
with the respect one may give an expensive car. No wonder, $300 is
six months’ salary.
Three hundred meters from the $300 shoes resides the IOM shelter.
And there, on a deep sofa, sits Ainura with her son, Ali. Just as the
translator arrives, Ali wets himself. He is wearing no diapers.
Ainura changes his clothes very quickly, washing and hanging them
immediately with such deftness that one wonders whether she is faster
than mothers who use commercial diapers. Ali was fidgety but his
mother was calm, curious and ready to start the conversation with me.
I asked Ainura, a village girl from the south, if she liked her country’s
capital, Bishkek. The question about the city soon brought up
memories of Ainura’s first paid working experience in Bishkek. Ainura
lived here seven years ago when she was 19 after finishing school in
her provincial town. In Ainura’s hometown her aunt, a hardworking
woman, taught little Ainura how to sew. The rural aunt was connected
to an urban aunt who knew that a sewing factory in Bishkek needed
workers and thought this may be a good opportunity for Ainura.
The family agreed that this was the best course, as Ainura would
acquire a solid profession with which she could support herself while
helping her family.
Ainura’s aunt in Bishkek was a busy woman, who worked in a hospital
as a gynecologist. She was married and had her own family: two
small children and a working husband. The Kyrgyz family network is
typically very strong, and the aunt willingly invited her country niece
to live with them. It was only to be for a short time.
Ainura was hired in June to work until September. This is usually the
time of year when Bishkek families avoid the city heat by vacationing
at Lake Issyk Kul or spending time picnicking and barbequing
shashlik amid the cooler mountains of Ala Archa National Park. But
this particular summer, Ainura’s aunt’s family was too busy to afford
time at any of these places. At least with Ainura in the apartment, they
did not have to think about the cleaning or childcare for their small
The aunt’s family lived in a two-room Soviet block apartment. A
two-room Soviet apartment is one of many cramped spaces in a large
gray building, much like a giant bee-hive filled with people instead of
honey. Summer temperatures in the city may reach 40 degrees Celsius
and Ainura, who spent most of her life in open space, did not like
living in this concrete jungle. Such heat only aggravated her and other
tenants’ usual fatigue and frustration. Ainura was grateful to her aunt
and her family for the favor of having her, but she decided that she
much more preferred the rural life of southern Kyrgyzstan than the one
they had in city apartments.
The sewing factory where Ainura worked was located in a suburb of
Bishkek, and she needed to wake up early in the morning to commute
to the factory. Once there, she started her job by connecting selected
pieces of material for patchwork cushions. Ainura loved the final
outcome of the sewing process – the fact that the mending together
of those singularly insignificant pieces of fabric can make something
useful and beautiful. The young woman was always delighted with the
feeling that her hands were such powerful and creative tools.
Unfortunately, Ainura did not see much of the city at all. Her aunt
was strict and limited all Ainura’s movements apart from going to the
factory. The aunt told her young niece that it was better for her not to
go anywhere, because she could find only bad company in the big city
and get into unnecessary trouble. By the end of the summer, Ainura
left Bishkek without knowing the name of its main square.
She did not have the opportunity to see the White House, the National
Opera and Ballet Theater, or any theaters for that matter. Ainura never
even walked through the pleasant, tree-lined Erkindik Park, where
during summer people refresh themselves with ice-cream and popular
fermented drinks. In spite of this, Ainura was happy. She had a job
with fixed hours and a regular, though meager, salary. On payday,
Ainura would go to a little teashop nearby with her colleagues, where
the group would partake in a humble feast of manti (meat-filled
dumplings) and green tea, sharing gossip and the warmth of friendship.
Ainura’s aunt did not ask for rent, and Ainura even managed to save a
little to bring back home to her family in Uzgen. By summer’s end,
Ainura was already back home.
In her village, the young woman did not have a sewing machine,
and her family could not afford one. Upon the dissolution of the
Soviet Union, Ainura’s parents lost their stable jobs at the kolkhoz
(farming cooperative), which sustained them with a monthly income.
Since then, they had remained solidly unemployed. The family land
they owned provided the food they ate, but apart from grains and
vegetables, there was no cash crop from which they could earn money.
The sewing factory near her town had closed as well. Ainura wanted
to work somewhere, and soon after she came home, an opportunity
materialized. Ainura heard about a job in the town bazaar’s eatery.
They needed a hard-working person to cook. Ainura was happy with
this, and she fully expected her family to allow her to take this job.
Ainura’s family did in fact agree, as the young girl needed to learn
how to cook properly since she was already of marriageable age. This
marriage loomed closer in Ainura’s future than she could have ever
imagined, as it was precisely in the bazaar diner that she met her future
While working in the eatery, Ainura noticed that a group of young
men started coming regularly to the cafe, and one of them seemed
particularly fond of her. She liked him and was flattered by his
interest, although his friends were too boisterous for her taste. They
often laughed loudly with each other while exchanging stories and
jokes. The young men soon started teasing Ainura, and with increasing
frequency they offered jokes intended to make her feel uncomfortable.
It was up to Ulan to protect her, and thus the pattern was established.
Ulan would laugh and giggle with along his friends, and when they
crossed the line of expected politeness, which men are supposed to
show near young and particularly unmarried women, Ulan would
immediately step in to protect Ainura’s modesty and dignity.
The young woman was aware that this attention and care directed
toward her was actually Ulan’s design for courting her for affection.
He even went further by bringing Ainura flowers. “Expensive
flowers,” the blushing woman added. I teased Ainura: “You must
have been putting special meat in the dough for that manti you were
feeding him.” The young woman laughed. Most humor is universal -
consistently the same in all corners of the world.
In the bazaar cafe where turnover was relentless, the young woman
learned how to cook well. She made perfect dough for lagman and
her bread was delicious, too. She knew all trouble-shooting tips if
something went awry with her dough, and she knew how to make an
excellent soup from three-day-old, previously cooked lamb bones.
Ainura and Ulan started to date. Every day the young man came to the
eatery, and finally one afternoon accompanied her back to her family
home where Ulan politely introduced himself to her parents. From this
point on the couple felt free to continue their daily ritual of meeting,
as well as spending time in her house together. Every day - from 5 to 6
p.m. - Kyrgyz television aired a Mexican soap opera called The Land
of Lov e, and each day at the same time, while old Soviet black-and-
white television screens were bringing melodramatic Mexican love
stories to her parents and their community, Ainura and Ulan carried
out their own Kyrgyz love story. It was obvious that Ainura and Ulan
were ready to marry.
Ulan’s family was poorer than Ainura’s, and could not pay kalym
(dowry) to Ainura’s family. To get around this, there is an established
practice of bride kidnapping, which has become a common way for
Kyrgyz to get married as no one loses face and tradition is upheld.
Although Ainura did not expect any other conclusion to her own
romance, she was still petrified when it did in fact happen to her.
On this day it was very hot and dry as the young woman sat on the
stoop of her home peeling potatoes for dinner. Ainura wondered why
potatoes looked good from the outside but, as she peeled, seemed to
reveal as either green or rotten inside. For some reason, she could not
sleep the previous night because of a barking dog, or maybe it was
something else. Ainura’s long black hair was messy, and she wore
slippers. She was in the kitchen putting the potatoes in a pot of water
when a woman from the neighborhood appeared at Ainura’s backdoor.
The acquaintance invited the young woman to her house as she
explained that her husband was out and she wanted to show Ainura
something. She consented and left her potatoes sitting in a tepid pot of
It was not until Ainura found herself in her neighbor’s house, that she
doubted the real nature of this invitation. Just then, a group of men
burst into the house. “These men wanted to meet you,” the neighbor
said to Ainura. She recognized no one from this group, and she could
not conceal her panic. The men laughed at her and said, “We are going
to bring you to the ‘Pot University’.” This is the coded phrase used
to indicate a bride kidnapping, and now the young woman understood
her situation; she was about to be kidnapped.
The problem was that she could not know where and to whom they
intended to bring her. Even if a girl dates one person, sometimes she
can still be kidnapped and brought to someone else and his family, by
which time her marital fate is for the most part sealed. Ainura did not
know these men and she rightly feared that she might be kidnapped
and forced to marry a suitor other than Ulan, perhaps even someone
she had never seen or noticed before.
Suddenly, two men grabbed Ainura by her armpits and carried her,
while two other men pulled her by the arms and yet another man
gagged her mouth with a towel. The men were aware that Ainura
was too close to her own house and they did not want screams to be
heard. They dragged Ainura into a car, where she was constrained by
five men she had never before seen. Angry and desperate, helpless and
disoriented, the young woman bit one of them with all her might. He
retorted with a stinging slap to her face.
Ainura realized that there was no use fighting them. What could
one woman do against five young men, after all? Calming herself,
emerging lucidity brought Ainura the awareness that she was wearing
an old house shirt and that her brother’s broken slippers somehow still
clung to her feet. Embarrassment overcame Ainura as she realized that
she was not dressed to go anywhere. The young woman comforted
herself with the knowledge that some girls she had heard of had been
kidnapped in their pajamas, and she suddenly knew that she was better
off than some. Moments passed before Ainura saw that she was indeed
on her way to Ulan’s house.
The relief that swept over Ainura was indescribable, and she thanked
God that she was not being brought to someone other than Ulan.
Ainura felt happiness in this moment, and could now anticipate
what was to come. When the kidnapped bride-to-be is brought to the
prospective groom’s house, she has the choice to accept or to refuse.
If she accepts, the bride stays in her future husband’s home. Ainura
accepted, and not long after, she and Ulan were married.
“They sold me for 250,000 tenge (Kazakh currency),” Ainura told me,
just a few of minutes after we met.
“They sold you for 250,000 tenge,” I repeated in disbelief. “How
much is that?” I heard myself ask, immediately realizing how bizarre
it was to ask this of anyone, especially someone who had been sold as
a 21st century slave.
But, there we were - Ainura, the translator, and myself debating the
exchange rate to decipher the amount for which Ainura had been sold
to her second owners. She had no idea what price she commanded
from her first owners, however. It was much less I found out later. Her
first owner had earned a handsome profit from the second sale.
“It is around 300 dollars,” the translator said to me, no less
uncomfortable than I.
“They promised me that I was going to work at a shop in Almaty.
They promised a salary much better than the one I was making at my
diner. Why not go for the better opportunity for my family? Why not
strive toward a better life? I thought about it, and I accepted,” Ainura
Nothing is wrong with looking for a better life for your family, I
agreed. All our lives, day by day, we all search for better opportunities
for our family and ourselves, don’t we? No matter if our son is John,
Jurgen, Je Chan, Janez, Juan or Josko, we all try to find better choices
for them. First, we try to feed them better, dress them better, and
educate them better. Then, we love to see them happy, comfortable,
and confident. After all, we want to see them independent in their jobs
and in harmony with their families. But how many of us, with that
intention, will end up on a tobacco farm as slaves?
So, Ainura accepted the offer and agreed to leave for Kazakhstan with
her two-month-old baby and the other people who happened to share
the same destiny. There were more than thirty people all together,
crowded into two marshrutkas, with carpets and blankets laid out
in the place of seats. The minivan’s interior resembled that of a yurt
(circular, domed, portable tent) rather than that of a van. It was obvious
that the 20-hour journey to the north would be a very uncomfortable
experience. But what is a little bit of suffering for the hope of a better
The initial start of the van’s engine brought the passengers the
optimism of movement. Riding in a car, like a bird flying in the sky,
there is a sense of an aim, the physical participation in one’s purpose
and destiny, and the emotional rush of going somewhere. These
travelers left behind their families and stepped out of their everyday
struggle for survival, and not much more than that, they thought. These
people possessed not much more than their own bodies. They were
united in their belief that they had nothing to lose by trying their luck
in another country. This is what they thought. When there is not much
else left in one’s life but one’s own existence, then one’s physical body
becomes their only property. Slavery is about ownership, about buying
and selling a human being for the purpose of forced and unpaid labor.
It is not new, but an ancient practice, mentioned in both the Bible and
So there they were in two marshrutkas embarking upon the
two-day journey to Kazakhstan. Many of the travelers did not have
documents. Ainura had her own passport, but her two-month-old
son was not yet officially registered. Who would have thought of
Ali’s birth certificate when a better future was knocking on her door?
Furthermore, the man who was in charge, the recruiter, had said that
everything would be all right. With or without a document, it should
be fine, Ainura reassured herself. To avoid any possible problems,
the recruiter explained, they would travel by night and no one should
worry; it was their job to bring the people safely to Kazakhstan.
They had successfully brought many others, after all, so they would
successfully deliver this group as well.
Ainura’s family was not happy with her decision to go to Kazakhstan,
and they had valid reasons for this. They had certainly heard of people
going abroad to earn a fortune. They had even witnessed some people
returning to their region and building huge houses. Compared to the
traditional houses, these new constructions looked like eagles among
sparrows. These returnees drove expensive cars too, but they did not
get this fortune by selling things in a bazaar stall, the job promised to
Ainura. One does not become rich by being a local market merchant,
even in America, where all people are rich simply from breathing
They were also opposed to Ainura’s plan to depart with such a young
infant. It would be better to wait until the boy grows up a little bit,
they countered. Ainura always respected her family’s opinion. This
time, however, she felt that she did not have a better choice. Relations
with her family had recently become very strained, and Ainura felt that
with some distance, a mutual peace might be reached.
The first night, they drove a long way from the south of the country
to the north until the van stopped just before dawn. Pulling into a
secluded brush, the travelers were instructed that they were to wait out
the day. The journey would resume with the next nightfall.
Ainura’s fellow travelers were all offspring of the Soviet generation
that had adopted the lifelong habit of not asking too many questions.
Their parents respected submissiveness. The Soviet era taught
them too well to respect authority, meaning in concrete terms not to
question it at all. The State did not encourage creativity and everyone
understood where those with too many ideas would finish. The most
acceptable social behavior was to be quiet.
Most parents of the poor and deceived Kyrgyz travelers, who sat in
the two overcrowded vans on their way to Kazakhstan, were once
employed by the Soviet kolkhoz, which told them what to plant in their
land, how much of a certain crop to sow, and generally what to do
and how to do their work. In return, uncertainty did not exist for these
workers; a salary was given for their work, education was provided for
their children, free medical service was offered and even solicited to
them, and a livable pension awaited them in old age.
We had better return to our protagonists, who knew what they had
left behind, but still did not know to where they were headed. Dusk
surrounded them as they completed their rest stop, still scattered
around the white marshrutkas. Some of them squatted, resting on their
hind heels as they crunched and chewed sunflower seeds. Some of
them shared stories about their families and what they would do with
money they would earn in Kazakhstan.
Although it was a varied assortment of people in their prime working
years, the group delineated itself by sex: men stayed with men and
women stayed with women. The travelers’ crinkling white, “made in
China” plastic bags were filled with nuts and golden yellow, brown,
and dark blue raisins, dry and sweet, to stave off hunger. The road
ahead was long, and it was very cold outside. February in the north
was much cooler than in their southern province, where almond and
apricot trees were already blooming in whites and pinks. The smell
of spring, of which they no longer thought about, was only found in
The sky in the north, which they did not think about either, was wide
open and nearly flat like the steppes of Kazakhstan, which lay not far
ahead. This landscape was new to most of them, and although the vast
sea of grass, which was covered by snow this time of the year, would
open up to them after they pass the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, they would
not see it. Why not? First, it was already dark outside, and second, the
van’s windows were covered with thick, colorful curtains. Last but not
least, however, the travelers were so excited by the idea of crossing
the border and its ensuing procedures that observing the landscape was
probably as remote to them as the true nature of their fate.
Ainura sat in the corner of the bus and breastfed her two-month-old
baby. She disappointedly found that the commercial diaper, which she
put on her infant boy before the journey, was full and as inflated as a
bloated tick, and stale-smelling urine had started to seep through his
pants. The young woman had only one other unused diaper for the
coming night and she had to use it now. Although Ali slept well most
of the way, Ainura could not, perhaps because of two men near her
age, who sat beside her talking and laughing loudly. One of them tried
to tease the young woman about traveling without a husband, but after
realizing that Ainura’s older cousin journeyed in the same marshrutk a,
he quieted down.
It was bitterly cold in the van, and some people smoked near the
broken window. Though Ainura wore heavy woolen socks, knitted by
her mother, the young woman’s fingers, ears and the tip of her nose
burned with cold. Somebody spoke about a man, whose wife had
died during delivery. Another man offered comfort by saying that the
widower should be fine, as he could find another wife, maybe even
two. This man joked that he himself had two wives, and if one were
to die, the second would throw a party. The man laughed loudly at his
Two women in their late-thirties shouted at Ainura, berating the young
mother for her stupidity in taking a small baby along for such a long
and difficult journey. “How will you work with that little boy on your
breast?” they demanded. Ainura answered calmly that the recruiters
told her it was okay.
Deep down Ainura was not sure if her journey to Kazakhstan for
work was a good idea after all. She felt comfortable leaving her three-
year-old son with her parents; two of her sisters had children of the
same age and everyone had promised to help. But Ali was too small
and needed to be with his mother. The young woman knew well how
unlucky she had been with her husband, and that she had no time for
self-pity. Ainura had heard plenty of stories of other women with the
same misfortune and simply accepted her own, along with the added
responsibility of providing for her children.
Not long after Ainura and Ulan married, he started to drink. Even
in the diner where she worked, the young woman noticed that her
husband loved repeating toasts with his friends. She noticed that Ulan
loved to stand up with the vodka glass more often than the others.
Swallowing a few more shots, Ulan became much funnier and more
elaborate with his never-ending toasts.
At first, vodka was just a supporting tool needed for the verbal feast of
toasting. Toasting was about celebrating the wonderful fruits of life:
endless happiness, long life, and evergreen youth and health. Ainura
was not gifted at this. The real master of toasting was Ulan, whose
affinity alcohol brilliantly triggered. Some time passed, however,
and the transparent liquid called vodka managed to wipe out the
importance of all those flattering wishes, leaving Ulan with only one
concrete desire: to drink.
Ulan soon spent his days getting exceptionally drunk. Once inebriated,
he became jealous. As in classic French movies portraying human
passion run amok, which Ainura had never seen herself, drunk and
mad Ulan was consumed by the passion of jealousy. He accused
Ainura of flirting with men she had never talked to and blamed her for
directing attention toward men she had never seen. In the insanity of
jealousy, Ulan even forbade his wife to go down to the stream, where
the young mother would wash clothes and get drinking water for her
Ainura managed the cafe by herself at the very same time that she was
taking care of their first born, a son who looked so much like Ulan.
Whenever he was sober and felt guilty for usually not being sober, the
young man loved daydreaming about a better life. Additionally, Ulan
enjoyed making promises about the good jobs he was about to get and
assurances of how good their life was about to become. “If” sentences
were his favorite. In reality, Ulan never worked. He disliked any field
labor and never wanted to tend cattle.
“Nobody is getting rich by working,” he liked to say, and, in the world
of Kyrgyz Post-Soviet moral relativism, this was true. Ainura did not
go further in explaining how Ulan treated her after the accusations of
infidelity and I did not ask her anything more about that.
“Worst of all was the horse,” she said. “I could not forgive him for
selling my father’s favorite horse.”
Everything started with Ulan’s talk about some business in Bishkek
in which he wanted to get involved. Although he did not explain
many details to her, he said that it would bring in a lot of money.
Ulan asserted that in order to go to Bishkek to start this new venture,
he needed money, which they did not have. Ainura’s was making
just enough at the diner to cover her family’s food and rare clothing
purchases at the bazaar nearby. Ainura could not save anything.
So there was no money for Ulan’s life-changing plans, and yet, his
musings of a dream job in Bishkek became constant.
Not much later, Ainura’s father’s horse disappeared. Ainura’s family
assumed that the horse had run away or that it had been stolen, but
soon after its disappearance, Ulan drunkenly confessed to Ainura that
he had sold it to start his business in Bishkek. Ainura was furious in
her disappointment; she vowed to divorce Ulan if he failed to return
her father’s horse. By then, however, it was already too late; someone
else now rode his favorite Ak. With tenuous optimism and flimsy
promises, Ulan made his way to the capital. The young man returned
from Bishkek a few months later, with neither horse, nor money. What
Ulan did succeed in bringing back to his family in Uzgen was an even
stronger reason to drink more than ever before.
It was getting dark. The travelers were asked to resume their places
in the minivans. They were now near the Kazakh border. Most had
neither passports, nor any other documents, but they were assured
that everything was going to be fixed for them. The recruiters did not
use gentle persuasion in their instructions to the passengers. On the
contrary, they directed with such authority that the passengers could
Many of Ainura’s fellow travelers had neither an understanding of the
legalities of crossing a border, nor an idea of the correct procedures for
this. Most of them had never traveled before. They understood only
that the marshrutkas passed green storage containers on the Kyrgyz
side of the border, and drove through to the better-looking Kazakh
side. The minivans were flagged to one side, the driver and recruiters
got off and the travelers were to wait for one man to inspect the
marshrutkas. When he appeared in Ainura’s van, this inspector asked
nothing, but neither did he seem happy to see them. Soon thereafter,
the driver and the recruiters returned and announced that all was fine
for they had paid for all the passengers. The recruiters informed the
people in the van that much money had been needed for their passage,
and that soon it would be their turn to work very hard to pay them
Although this land on the other side of the border did not differ much
from their own, it was visible that money had arrived in Kazakhstan.
The travelers concluded that their northern neighbors were just much
luckier than themselves. The Soviet Kazakh who lived exactly the
same life as their Kyrgyz counterparts, in the same Soviet country
where they all had lived, who resembled them and spoke basically
the same language, suddenly became rich while the Kyrgyz remained
poor. Where was the justice in this? Why did Kazakhstan have oil
while Kyrgyzstan had only mountain peaks? Was it their fault that
everybody dearly needed the former and nobody the latter?
The travelers resigned themselves to adjusting to their new
circumstances. The atmosphere in the van suddenly relaxed as
the border disappeared behind them and all aboard now chatted
and laughed openly. The recruiters even employed humor in their
demonstrations of how to change hard Kyrgyz words into softer
Kazakh ones. One recruiter reminded that in Kazakhstan from now on
the workers must only speak the Kazakh way.
Ainura’s baby had become restless after the border crossing. Frigid
cold had filled the van as they waited at the border and she had a hard
time soothing the crying infant. As night grew darker she knew that
soon he would fall asleep. All the way to Kazakhstan Ainura did not
notice anything strange about her recruiters, nothing amiss about the
way they behaved, nothing out of the ordinary about the things they
said and the promises they made. The young woman even became
more optimistic about her future job. Ainura knew well that she was
hard-working enough to cope with any possible obstacle and the job
she expected at the bazaar stall should not be difficult.
Most of all, Ainura loved the idea of working for a salary. Although
it was small, she was happy with the pay she had received at the
sewing factory and she was no less happy with any other payment she
had earned in the past. Ainura’s best childhood memories were from
the time when, together with her relatives of similar ages, she spent
weeks picking up walnuts, and then, on Saturdays received payment.
The walnut trees had previously belonged to the kolkhoz and they
had collected the nuts for the factory. They were paid and also were
allowed to keep some nuts for themselves. The children enjoyed
picking up the huge nuts as they easily filled their bags and baskets.
The children from the village, mostly her relatives, joked and laughed.
They sang together and their work was good play. Ainura played the
komuz (stringed instrument) and everybody sang.
Autumns were beautiful, the sky was blue and her favorite grape,
kishmish, hung ripe in the vineyard at this time of the year. On
Saturdays, when they were paid, the children would go to the bazaar to
shop for sweets and clothes. They had the feeling that they were truly
rich and could buy whatever they wanted. Ainura’s five brothers and
four sisters always had food to eat. Her family never had cattle to tend,
but they owned their own land. They grew up watching sunflowers
bloom, digging up their own potatoes, and harvesting their own wheat.
Since the Ainura’s mother had stopped working at the school, and the
kolkhoz ceased managing their crop, the land was all Ainura’s family
The two vans arrived in Almaty by early morning. The city was
inhospitable and cold. Remnants of old snow lay in patches
everywhere, either collected in heaps or pushed over along the
sidewalks. The enormous city billboards showed expensive products
which were not sold even in the most expensive stores in Osh, the
southern capital of the Kyrgyz Republic. Juxtaposed with old Soviet
apartment buildings, some posters featured expensive, dream-like
interiors, similar to those Ainura had seen before in the Mexican soap
The destination to where the travelers were being taken was far from
the city center. The recruiters first escorted them to an office-like room,
which, they explained, was an agency giving out individual work
permits. Ainura was told to give her passport to the agent. In return,
she was given a piece of paper and was informed that it was a valid,
six-month work permit. The young woman was given some papers,
which she signed without reading as she held her two-month-old boy
with one hand and her bag in the other. From this point on, many of
Ainura’s fellow travelers were placed into different cars, which had
been waiting in front of the agency, and were driven away.
One of the recruiters showed Ainura to the car waiting for her. She
got in as she was directed, and understood immediately that she was
now to follow the instructions of the driver. Ainura and her new
traveling companions were exhausted from the two-day journey and
had not thought to question anything or anyone about how it was
now unfolding. Still, she was disappointed when she realized that her
cousins were not in the car, and that they had not even said goodbye.
The driver did not say much. Of the three other travelers, Ainura was
familiar with only one from their journey in the marshrutkas. The
others were brought from somewhere else. They did not say too much
and it was mostly silent in the car. Everybody was waiting patiently
to see their final destination. Looking from her window, only now did
Ainura’s eyes behold the endless sea of Kazakh grass, so different from
the fields around her home in Uzgen. To anyone who stood here and
looked at the sky, it would seem clear that the Earth stood still while
everything in the sky passed by on its own. A few centuries before,
people still did not accept that the Earth was round. They envisioned
an Earth as a flat surface framed by sharp edges over which one may
fall into the abyss of space. The flat world of the steppe inspires in
one’s senses that particular perception of a flat world.
Ainura and the other passengers were driven through the Kazakh
steppe with no idea of where they were headed. They could not have
had the slightest idea what deception lay ahead. As the car moved on
through the steppe, they presumed that their destinies were moving
toward something as well. The car finally rolled into a village and the
driver revealed that they were about to reach the tobacco farm where
they were all going to work. It was Ainura and Ali’s third day on the
road, during which they had been squeezed amidst other contorted
travelers. What tobacco farm was this driver speaking about? With her
little baby on her chest, all she could think of was arriving somewhere,
somewhere to lie flat and rest in a horizontal position. Yes, she heard
some weak complaints from the other passengers about where they
were really brought after all, but the thrill of arriving somewhere was
a relief for their tired bodies.
4. The Farm
Not long after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan
underwent land reforms which transformed some government land
into private farms. Ainura, her infant, and her fellow travelers from
southern Kyrgyzstan were just arriving at one of these private farms.
Some of these private land owners had worked the land during Soviet
times. They were various professionals who worked for the kolkhoz,
who knew well how the land breathes, sleeps and delivers. These
planters usually had ten to fifty-year plans, and they hoped to see their
grandchildren working on their farms.
But a new type of farmer emerged after the Kazakh Land reform with
the sole purpose of getting rich quickly. They wanted no, or minimal,
labor costs with the maximum yield, a wish made sometimes possible
by enslaving others. Some of the world’s most spectacular architectural
treasures were built by slaves, and no one is embarrassed to appreciate
them. Some of these new land owners in Kazakhstan may earn money
by using foreign workers for free, and they do not seem embarrassed
by this either.
Still not knowing what the near future would bring to her and her
son, Ainura was now on her way to meet one of these new farm
owners; one determined to make his fortune, no matter how. At this
very moment, one of his new workhorses could be seen arriving: a
physically stiff and exhausted woman holding an infant, possibly
herself too tired to ponder if the tobacco farm would indeed bring her
a better life. Ainura was completely unaware that she was now among
thousands of other Kyrgyz people who go each year to work in Kazakh
tobacco fields. Many of them, like Ainura, had been promised one job,
but were trafficked involuntarily for another. Some victims are literally
kidnapped and brought to such farms where conditions are extreme.
Many Kyrgyz people from the south of the country are familiar with
work on tobacco plantations. If not specifically familiar with how to
harvest tobacco, they generally know how to work the land and are
well at home with soil under their nails. During Soviet times, tobacco
was part and parcel of Kyrgyz farm culture and proud farmers boasted
of their superior quality tobacco. Legend holds that Winston Churchill,
a connoisseur of fine tobacco, enjoyed the flavor of the Kyrgyz cigar.
He could not have imagined that the Kyrgyz tobacco industry would
eventually disappear as fast as the smoke of his cigars. Not even the
Kyrgyz Tobacco Museum still exists.
Ainura was at her destination now, close to the mud brick huts where
she and Ali would live. She carried her baby and the bag with their
belongings. She could think of nothing but resting. The night she was
last able to lay down was now many kilometers behind her. The young