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TWO KYRGYZ

WOMEN

Edited by Sabrina Val i and Barent Gordinier

Bishkek

2007

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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

Foreword

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

table.

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

7

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

8

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

sold?

Brunson McKinley, IOM Director General

AINURA’S JOURNEY

1. Bishkek

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

traffic rules.

12

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.

13

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

children.

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.

14

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.

2. Uzgen

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

15

imagined, as it was precisely in the bazaar diner that she met her future

husband, Ulan.

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

16

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

water.

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.

17

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.

st

But, there we were - Ainura, the translator, and myself debating the

exchange rate to decipher the amount for which Ainura had been sold

18

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

explained.

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