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 ind