Dispatch from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan—By Products of a Revolution

Expeditions in developing countries always involve some uncertainty. But my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan took this to a whole new level. I arrived in Kyrgyzstan on April 6th for a ski mountaineering expedition into Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains to work on a story about glacial recession. (Generously supported by the Hans Saari Memorial Fund!) Here’s a piece written the day after, in the aftermath of massive looting.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan “By Products of a Revolution.” 

Dschenis Guldana, administrator of Narodni grocery store in downtown Bishkek, surveys the store’s gutted aisles.

“There’s nothing left. It hurts,” she says, unwilling to even guess the value of what’s been lost.

Outside, the sidewalk is littered with shattered glass and the remnants of what hundreds of looters that laid siege to the city the night before didn’t take. This is the by-product of revolution.

“[The looters] thought that the store belongs to Bakyiev’s siblings. It doesn’t. It belongs to some Russian guy.”

Less than twenty-four hours ago, Narodni’s shelves were full of groceries and Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakyiev was in power. But yesterday afternoon a coup, tried of the corruption and personal interests plaguing Bakyiev’s administration, ran Bakyiev and his constituents out of the capital. To date, 76 were killed in the overthrow, many by snipers rumored to be from abroad. By early evening the opposition had declared victory, appointing Deputy of the Social Democratic Party, Rosa Otunbaeva, as the interim leader.

As night fell, hiding the black smoke rising from burning cars and government buildings, gunfire continued to rattle downtown Bishkek. Crowds of men gathered in the streets well past the ten o’clock curfew. U.S. citizen Ann Piersall watched from her apartment as a mob used rocks to smash the store windows. Then, with a thick metal pole, they rammed the store until gaining access. Soon, the streets filled with men and boys carrying stereos, planters of fresh flowers, skis and snowboards, refrigerators—anything and everything. Even clothing racks and display cases were taken.

But despite the damage Guldana, like many other Kyrgyz, welcomes the change.

“I hope it gets better and then I’ll be glad about the situation.”

Tokon Akilob, a Kyrgyz national wearing a traditional black and white kalapak hat, draws a careful distinction between the looters and the revolutionaries:

“It’s completely different people who are going to stand up for their rights and who are going to loot.”

He blames Bakyiev for the political turmoil and the poor and uneducated for the looting.

“As soon as they put a new government in, it will be normal and fine.” Then he adds, “There is no revolution without looting.”

The next evening a citizens militia approximately five hundred strong patrols the streets. The people are ready for change.

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