I want to talk a little bit about where I live.
Bishkek is Kyrgyzstan’s capital and home to about 825,000 of the country’s five-and-a-half million people. I can walk across the majority of the city in less than 2 hours, and its streets are a combination of new construction sites, marble-faced Soviet buildings, and jumbles of cars disobeying streetlights. For Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek is fairly expensive, and is one of the few cities in the country that hosts international restaurants and American-style (and American-priced) shopping malls. Often, volunteers who come into the city will sit in coffee-shops for the majority of the day, mainlining the free-wifi and planning nights out in the city’s growing club and bar scene, sometimes asking themselves “where are we right now?” In Bishkek, there are some places that feel incongruent with the rest of this country.
That is not the part of the city that I like (although a big part of my life too, there is no denying.) My favorite parts of the city are the parks – long stretches of shaded boulevards and hidden statues leftover from Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet past, lined in trees that are have begun to drop golden leaves. And, of course, my apartment – a similarly gold-colored building right in the heart of Bishkek’s center, quiet despite its location on one Bishkek’s main thoroughfares. After years of seemingly constant movement, its nice to be able to build a home for myself at this end of the world.
As an urban Peace Corps Volunteer, there are many things that are not a part of my life that are strong features in other volunteers’ experiences. Volunteers in villages, even the smaller cities in other parts of the country, are both much more visible as American volunteers, but also see much more of Kyrgyzstan’s culture and family life than I do. Other volunteers have witnessed an “at-soi,” or horse slaughter, for a funeral of a revered member of their community. They often witness Kyrgyzstan’s gender inequity first person as they see it play out in their host families, or consist of diets almost exclusively comprised of a variation on boiled sheep and some sort of carbohydrate (noodles, rice, potatoes, sometimes all of them together). Many volunteers spend a majority of the day “chai yich-ing” and many of their nights “guesting,” a Kyrgyz tradition of hospitality that can last hours (sometimes days).
These are things that I experiences the edges of, being in the city. I brush past them, see them, acknowledge them, but they are uncommon in my daily life. Bishkek tries very hard to be modern and cosmopolitan, with its gleaming storefronts and neon-lit nightclubs popping up between traditional Kyrgyz restaurants and old women bundled up on street corners selling fresh fruit and bloody fish. That is the Bishkek that makes itself most known to me, and it makes an interesting walk to work everyday, wrapped up against the increasing cold.
I left home this morning to head into work, amazed by the perfect weather and how the sun was hitting the garden in my building, focused on the things I wanted to accomplish today. (I often feel like my life here is a to-do list growing longer by the day without the satisfaction of crossing things off.) I was distracted, coming onto the street, by shouting. On the opposite corner, in front of a bakery consumed by fire a few weeks ago, I assumed a car accident had happened. Not uncommon in Bishkek, there was a silver sedan facing the wrong way on a one-way street, half of its tires raised on the curb, and a crowd of people milling around and staring at a commotion I couldn’t quite see.
The shouting continued and suddenly I saw a woman – a girl that couldn’t be more than 20 – screaming, kicking, clawing with gloved hands, lifted above the heads of the surrounding crowd. Her limbs gripped and wrestled by several young men in leather jackets, the girl was pulled and pushed into the waiting car. The crowd made room, the young men slammed the doors shut on the silver sedan, and the tires squealed as it jumped the curb and sped the wrong way on a one-way street. A group of university-aged girls in jewel-colored winter coats huddled crying on the corner, the older women hefted their purses and shopping onto their shoulders and turned to leave. The men in the crowd milled around, lighting cigarettes and talking.
I stood in shock. I had just witnessed a bride kidnapping, less than 100 feet from the gates of my apartment building. It happened in less than two minutes, and I couldn’t even articulate what I had just seen. I have very rarely felt this helpless in my life, so lost for words on explaining what had happened so close to my home and the rush of emotions that followed. The crowd began to disperse, and I was left staring at the spot where this girl had been – her terrified face, pink with exertion and screaming – at the forefront of my mind.
I am not the first volunteer to witness bride kidnapping or feel it acutely in my service – another volunteer had a host cousin taken off the streets of our village, and yet another came home to find her sister had been taken in the short time she had been away from site. I had written about bride kidnapping before, but I never thought that I would see it so plainly in front of me. I wrote that “it was something that I hope to learn more about in the coming two years,” but never, I imagined, like this. I had talked about it walking the very same street home with friends yesterday, as bride kidnapping was profiled by a Japanese photojournalist this past week in Newsweek. I have heard it brought up over the past six months in jokes among expats in Kyrgyzstan, among my Kyrgyz colleagues. It is not a joke, it is not funny, it is not possible to ascetically describe it in clinical, statistical terms and hauntingly beautiful pictures. It is painful, raw, and jarring.
I don’t know what happened to this girl after the car drove away. I probably won’t ever know. I won’t know if this was a violent kidnapping or a consensual, ceremonial kidnapping. I won’t know which of the young men planned to start his life with her. I won’t be able to stop thinking about it, to stop imagining what comes after. And, I don’t think, no matter how long I live in Kyrgyzstan, it will be something that I will be able to understand.