Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Brief Update

I hope to be posting more frequently over the next couple of weeks.

Busy good-bye days. I leave Minnesota (my home for the last 10 years) on August 31st, 2004.

Saturday August 21st I received confirmation that I fly out of Philadelphia (my birth city) on September 17; with a layover in Turkey (the country where my parents met); and I arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 19th (my 30th birthday). Nice bookends.

Part II of Little Boys & Indians is nearly complete.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Little Boys and Indians (Part 1: Buried Years)

In the spring of 1979, just four months shy of my fifth birthday, my father unearthed a ceremonial spearhead while roto-tilling our garden in New Florence, Pennsylvania.

“WHAT-THE-HELL IS THAT?” He cut the engine to the Toro and knelt down to retrieve the object that had just soared past his face.

The spearhead was about four inches long and approximately two and half inches across. From its base, the stone bowed outward like a bowling pin and about two-thirds up it tapered to a sharp point.

He turned the stone in his hands and used his thumbs to push away the dark earth clumped in its obsidian grooves. The midday sun reflected off the spearhead and dappled and danced over my father’s face.

At the time, my dad was a counselor at a Pennsylvania state-run rehabilitation center. The “rehab” employed a man by the name of Paul Moynihan whose hobby happened to be Indian artifacts. “Found this in the garden,” My dad handed the stone to Paul, “damn thing nearly took out my eye.”

Paul received the stone like it was the Holy Grail, “You found THIS in your garden?”

“Yup. Sort of looks a like giant arrow head, but more rounded—thought you might know what it was.”

Paul explained to my father that it was a ceremonial spearhead, the work of an expert craftsman and probably had taken quite some time and skill to carve. The fact that the stone was perfectly edged lead Paul to believe that the artifact had been buried alongside the body of powerful chief so that he could hunt on his journey into the afterlife.

“Remind me, where you’re living these days?” Paul handed the spearhead back to my father.

“New Florence.”

“Conemaugh River runs through there, don’t it?” Paul raised an eyebrow, punctuating the question.

“Sure it does, about half mile from our house.”

“Any fields being plowed down close to the river?”

“Yup, a farmer I know owns some land down in the Bottoms.”

“The Bottoms” consisted of 400 acres of forests, fields and marshlands, known mostly to local hunters for its abundant population of white-tail deer that grew fat off the river delta’s rich vegetation. For a child going on five years old The Bottoms represented a dark, cool mysterious nether-world where tadpoles could be scooped from car-swallowing mud puddles and chin-dripping red raspberries were plucked at will.

A few days after the meeting with Paul, my father obtained permission to walk the farmer’s fields.

The entrance of the dirt road leading into The Bottoms was only a few blocks from our house. Once on the road, we walked mostly in shadows, mottled by the leafy light of May’s easy breeze. Rain had fallen the night before and the dark, fecund earth seemed rich with life and possibility. Tangles of trees, vines, and briars threatened us from both sides and I walked down the middle of the path, imagining that we were archaeologists sent on an expedition through the jungle with hopes of discovering a lost city.

“Dad, what if the Indians see us?” I kicked a rock down the road with my tennis shoe and spun around to see his answer.

“I don’t think there’s any Indians back here anymore.” He held out his hand and I took it, “My buddy at work tells me that spearhead we found in the garden is probably six hundred years old.”

We walked a few more paces holding hands while I contemplated how long six-hundred years was.

I pulled my hand away, crossed my skinny arms in front of my chest, and looked up at my father inquisitively, “But what if they’ve just been hiding in the woods…what if they are waiting for us?”

“Hmmm…” he raised a hand to his face and massaged his chin pretending to ponder my question, "I think I see what your getting at—What if the Indians like small blond headed boys, like yourself, who ask too many what-if questions.” He laughed and tousled my hair with his hand.

“Daa-ad!” I smiled back, then turned and kicked another stone down the trail.

Around the second bend, about three quarters of a mile down, the road widened and the yellow sunlight glowed over the great expanse of the farmer’s fields. The corn had been planted only the week before, but you could already see green rows of germinating seed push their way from darkness into light.

We stopped at the edge of the field, “Now, we have to be careful,” my father instructed, “This field was just planted—see the corn growing already?”

I nodded in the affirmative.

“Paul said that the plow turns up the earth and in the process sometimes it reveals artifacts that have been buried for hundreds of years…” My dad looked out at the field, sensing its potential, “Now, I don’t know if we are gonna find anything out there today, but it just rained last night and I think this might be the perfect time to try.”

I looked at the field. It seemed to go on forever. My eyes widened.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Minor Frustration!

To any of you who blog. I suggest writing your thoughts in a word processor and then doing a cut & paste. I was in Blogger, working on an entry for over an hour and then lost it--it was completely my fault. Oh well. Let me sum it up for you in less than 50 words. 48 days til I depart. Lots to do. Time Flies. I'm 10894 days old. In life, try and avoid having to say "Wish-I-Had-Done..." Enjoy the time you have.

There. This time around it only took me about a minute. I hope to post a short-story (non-fiction) about hunting arrowheads with my father in Western Pennsylvania back in the 70's & 80's sometime soon. I've been writing but not posting. Trying to find time to read a bit too. Just finished an intriguing novel, Any Human Heart, by William Boyd (NY Times Book Review).

On the Academic front, just started reading Kyrgyzstan: Central Asia's Island of Democracy? written in 1999 by a Scottsman named John Anderson.

Oh yeah, I also wanted to point people to this link containing breathtaking photos of Kyrgyzstan.

For any of those interested in following U.S. Foreign Policy, I found the following article in The New York Sun on Tuesday, July 27, 2004

U.S. Military's Plan of 'Lily Pad' Deployment Taking Shape in Kyrgyzstan

MANAS AIR FIELD, Kyrgyzstan - U.S. Air Force Captain Dale Linafelter was dumbfounded when he first found out he was being deployed to the Manas air base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. "I'd never even heard of Kyrgyzstan," said Captain Linafelter, the flight safety investigator at the base, which hosts the largest number of American forces in Central Asia outside Afghanistan.

He wasn't alone. Very few of the more than 1,150 American servicemen at Manas, a dusty, long-abandoned Soviet bomber base, could have found Kyrgyzstan on a map before they arrived here, said the base chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Stan Giles.

"Some of them still don't know where they are," Colonel Giles joked. "You know, there's an old saying: War is God's way of teaching geography to Americans."

Yet it is in places like Kyrgyzstan - a mountainous Muslim country bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China - that the future of the American military is taking shape.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks and combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon is planning the greatest shake-up in America's overseas military deployment since the end of World War II. While the full details of the plan will be disclosed only later this year, one thing is already clear: the days of the massive "small-town USA" bases in places like Germany, Japan, and South Korea are over. Replacing them will be a global network of what Pentagon planners have dubbed "lily pads" - small forward bases in more remote and dangerous corners of the world that can act as jumping-off points when crises arise.

"This marks a new epoch in American force posturing," said the director of a Washington clearinghouse for strategic intelligence,, John Pike. "It's one of only a half dozen similar reposturings since the American Revolution. It's a very significant change."

The deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, Andy Hoehn, said in Washington that defense officials will be presenting their redeployment pro posals to President Bush within weeks. Mr. Hoehn said he expects the changes to start taking effect in late 2005 or early 2006.

The strategy, experts say, is to position American forces throughout a so-called arc of instability that runs through the Caribbean, Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. It is in these parts of the world - generally poor, insular, and unstable - that military planners now see threats to American interests.

The Pentagon believes that spreading American forces through a large number of small, flexible bases within this arc would better position the military to strike faster at remote hotspots. The American military presence in these areas could also act as a stabilizing factor, preventing them from becoming hotspots in the first place.

"We don't know exactly where the next threat will be. It could be Iran, North Korea, China, or other parts of the world. This redeployment is designed to allow us to quickly respond to any of those challenges," Mr. Pike said.

The American military presence in Kyrgyzstan provides a glimpse of what's to come.

Unlike the big garrison bases that have traditionally housed more than 80% of American forces overseas, the Manas air base is small, simple, and largely isolated from the surrounding community. There are no families, schools, fast-food chains, or department stores. Contact with local villagers and access to the nearby capital, Bishkek, is strictly limited. Postings here rarely last longer than three or four months and accommodations consist of eight-man tents.

Initially set up as a temporary staging ground for incursions into neighboring Afghanistan, today the base serves primarily as a strategic airlift hub and launching area for air refueling missions - exactly the kind of "lily pad" Pentagon planners are envisaging.

About 10 flights a day depart from Manas, either C-130 Hercules planes ferrying troops and supplies to bases in Afghanistan or KC-135 Stratotankers refueling American planes over Afghan airspace.

American bases abroad cannot be named after individuals, but unofficially this facility is known as the Peter J. Ganci base, after a New York fire chief killed when the World Trade Center collapsed.

Whether the base is having the kind of stabilizing effect military planners are hoping for still isn't clear.

Kyrygz officials credit the presence of American forces with helping deter attacks from Islamic fundamentalists based in the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

One terrorist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is believed to be responsible for a string of attacks that left 47 people dead in Uzbekistan in April, launched incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000 that the military repelled only after taking heavy casualties.

"There haven't been any incursions since we got here," said the Manas base's public-affairs officer, Captain Jason Decker. "It's not why we're here, but we're happy to make it a more stable world."

Still, radical Islamic groups have condemned the Kyrgyz government for cooperating with the Americans, and in April four men were jailed for plotting to blow up the base. Captain Decker says two other terrorist attacks on the base were averted in the last year. Earlier this month, the Kyrgyz government also arrested six people, including four government employees, for allegedly spying for Islamic terrorists abroad.

The presence of American forces has also increased tensions between Central Asian countries and former imperial master Russia. Seriously concerned about the presence of American troops in its backyard, Moscow has been pressuring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan - all of which host American forces - to ask them to leave. Last year, the Kremlin convinced the Kyrgyz government to allow the Russian Air Force to set up its own base less than 70 miles from Manas. The Kant base marked the first foreign deployment of Russian forces abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is home to Su-27 fighter planes, Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, and Mi-8 helicopters, which conduct training exercises in Kyrgyz airspace. Captain Decker said there have been no contacts between the American and Russian forces.

For ordinary Kyrgyz, the presence of the American base is less of a political issue than an economic one, said a senior Western official who has spent the last seven years living in Bishkek.

In poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan, the presence of even a relatively small number of American troops can have an enormous impact. The base employs more than 500 locals, paying them up to 10 times the average monthly wage of about $100. The base is pumping about $156,000 a day into the local economy and last year accounted for 5% of Kyrgyzstan's entire gross domestic product.

"The general attitude among people here is that they'll take it for what it's worth," the Western official said. "The advent of the American base has actually helped to create something of a middle class in Bishkek."

And there are no signs that American forces will be abandoning Manas any time soon. In fact, the Air Force is spending $60 million this year to replace the base tents with more permanent buildings constructed from shipping containers.

"This is not any kind of indication of moving to a permanent base," Captain Decker insisted. "On the other hand, we're not leaving tomorrow. Our mission is going on until the global war on terrorism is done, until the Kyrgyz government doesn't want us here or until America decides to send us home."

By Michael Mainville Special to The Sun