Isfana, Kyrgyzstan: arriving here from there

In January of this year, I arrived in the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital of Bishkek to be officially introduced to the OSCE’s Community Security Initiative (CSI). I had been nominated as the lone Canadian police officer to participate in this hands-on community policing project. Near the end of the orientation, we new arrivals were advised of our postings, with most receiving assignments in and around the southern municipalities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Knowing that I possess a penchant for being something of an exception to the rule, it came as no surprise to me when I learnt of the whereabouts of my forthcoming adventure: Isfana.

While in Canada I would certainly have been hard put to conjure a reasonable guess as to where Isfana lies in the grand scheme of things. I have a large framed map of the world hanging on a wall of my downtown Ottawa loft, adorned with pins marking the many places I have visited on this little blue planet. Isfana had never made it onto my self-styled bucket list!

In the first week of February, in the midst of one of the longest and most severe winters on record – our departure from Osh had already been delayed several days due to severe weather – my Russian colleague, Arsen Boskhaev, and I endured the eight-hour trek on snow-packed roads to this far-away place at the extreme western end of Batken province, on the southern fringe of the Fergana Valley. Set against a backdrop of majestic mountains and bordered on three sides by Tajikistan, Isfana and the nearby villages are largely cut off from the rest of the country. The town has a mixed, mostly Kyrgyz and Uzbek population of approximately 28,000 and serves as the administrative centre of Leylek District. The district is an ethnic quilt of villages where Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik peoples have lived in separate communities since the times of Tsarist Russia. During the twentieth century, Joseph Stalin’s “divide and rule” policy contributed to further reinforcing this divide.

“The principle sources of potential conflict in the district are environmental disputes among residents over access to drinking water or arable land, since both of these commodities are in short supply.

Underlying interethnic tensions erupted into large-scale violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. Clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad resulted in an estimated 470 persons dead, more than 100,000 displaced to Uzbekistan and another 300,000 internally displaced. The OSCE’s CSI Project was launched in November 2010 in response to these events. It was mandated by the 56 participating States to support Kyrgyzstan’s police in taking a community policing approach to dealing with the still-fragile security situation, identifying hot spots and mitigating potential conflict.

Isfana remained relatively untouched by the violence experienced in Osh and Jalal-Abad, as did Leylek as a whole. The principle sources of potential conflict in the district are environmental disputes among residents over access to drinking water or arable land, since both of these commodities are in short supply. But personal disputes can readily take on an ethnic overtone. In fact, such an episode did occur in late December 2011, in the village of Andarak, where a minor physical confrontation between ethnic Tajik and Kyrgyz men rapidly escalated into a community-wide encounter. My colleagues and I dedicated considerable effort to bridging that community divide and restoring calm.

A second security concern in the district is the prevailing shadow economy of fuel and narcotics smuggling – Leylek lies squarely on the route between Tajikistan and Russia. Our task here was to engage the local communities in dialogue and sensitize them to the negative consequences of these illegal activities.

What did we do? First and foremost, we set out to identify and develop relationships with as many key resource persons as possible, in order to assimilate into our new environment, to truly “arrive here from there”.  Inserting ourselves into the daily work regimen of the police was not as simple as we might have hoped.  We needed to prove our own policing credentials. We started by literally “walking the talk”, initiating a regime of joint foot patrols in which we modelled the effectiveness of simply putting oneself out there. We complemented this traditional community policing practice by introducing the CSI-donated Mobile Police Reception (MPR) units, outfitted vans that bring the police to the people directly, even in remote locations.

The breakthrough in building relations with the police came when I donned my ceremonial Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform during the police celebrations on Victory Day on 9 May. This one simple exercise struck a substantial chord that resonated all the way to the Batken Provincial Police Headquarters, where I was requested to participate as a guest speaker in the provincial Local Crime Prevention Center (LCPC) Governance Forum. I addressed several hundred police and LCPC members with an historical account of the Canadian community policing model and the points it has in common with the LCPC concept operating in Kyrgyzstan. Months later, the Batken Provincial Police Chief of Staff informed me that he refers to the main points of that very presentation whenever he speaks of community policing in both the police and public domains.

If we have contributed to a more stable security environment in Isfana and its surroundings, it is because we were able to improve the relationship between governmental institutions and the local population. Bridging this gap is an arduous task in any nation. My experience in Canada as well as abroad has reinforced my belief that a civilian police entity must act as a key pillar in the construction of this bridge. In Isfana, relations between government and citizens typically have a tribe or clan affiliation. Once one becomes aware of these, one can use this knowledge to create a path for dialogue and understanding. Participation in public events and personal activities such as birthday or wedding celebrations proved a good way for us to create conduits for meaningful information sharing. We coupled this with an ongoing appraisal of how the Kyrgyzstan Police engages with both government and the population.

Our engagement has been vastly assisted by our Kyrgyz Community Security Assistant, Erali Paiziev. His knowledge of the unique customs, the local governmental authorities and the influential personalities of the Leylek district have helped us to fine-tune our approach to the point where the District Administrator and the Mayor of Isfana routinely liaise with our team, seeking both advice and extending invitations to participate in a host of activities. On such occasions, enduring contacts have been developed in a multitude of spheres.

One such sphere is youth engagement. Together with our police counterparts, we initiated the highly successful CSI Youth Reach Initiative, under which we have organized numerous police-youth cinema evenings and football matches with multi-ethnic participation – nearly 20 events in the past two months. The public recognition which we have received from the District Administrator and the Mayor for our carriage of these events validates the worth of embedding CSI teams within the communities they service. It was a proud moment for the CSI team when I was named “top goalkeeper” and my Russian colleague “top fan” during the district football championships! It appears that the CSI Project has indeed arrived here in Isfana.

“Together with our police counterparts, we initiated the highly successful CSI Youth Reach Initiative, under which we have organized numerous police-youth cinema evenings and football matches with multi-ethnic participation – nearly 20 events in the past two months.

Many in Kyrgyzstan, nationals and internationals alike, have an impression of Isfana as a cold and distant place with limited public infrastructure. I, however, have come to know this as being more fiction than reality. The charm of Isfana lies not only in its abounding natural beauty but also, and more importantly, in its wealth of genuinely committed and openhearted people. These folks are the reason the CSI Project has experienced the success it has here and this international team can with utmost certainty attest that it is in fact the warmest location in Kyrgyzstan. On a final note, it goes without saying that a particular pin on a faraway map will occupy an extraordinary place in the heart of one Canadian police officer.

Author: Darren Kowalchuk Date: 29 November 2012   UPDATED: 14 August 2014

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Turning around Suleiman-Too

When I first arrived in Suleiman-Too in July 2011, mistrust of the police was so strong, you could practically reach out and touch it. This was one of the districts in the city of Osh worst hit by the clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that had devastated southern Kyrgyzstan the previous year.

I had come as an international police advisor to join the OSCE Community Security Initiative, dubbed CSI. Our task was to help local police reconcile the community. Our work needed to start from the ground up, and it needed to start with people’s hearts. We set up a forum for residents and police, but progress was slow.

On 4 April 2012, the Chief of the Suleiman-Too Police Substation entered our office to announce that three days prior, a 19-year-old girl of one ethnicity had been raped by four men of another. Three had been caught, one was still at large.

Was this the spark many were dreading, which would rekindle unrest?

Our first fears were allayed when the media, which picked up the story that same day, refrained from mentioning the victim’s or perpetrators’ ethnicities.

And as things have turned out, the shock of this hideous crime led to a series of hopeful events that are turning this community around.

A helping hand

The girl who had suffered the attack lived with her grandmother and sister – her mother was seeking employment abroad. She had sustained visible bodily injuries, and was surely in need of psychological care.

I called a friend who I knew could help: Angela Morales, head of an Osh-based NGO, who specializes in counselling victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She has worked with women in Kyrgyzstan for years and understands the cultural cues that need to be respected when approaching such a sensitive topic. She readily agreed to meet with the girl, provided she was willing.

The Substation Chief promptly welcomed the offer. He asked the neighbourhood inspector to pass it on to the girl, who accepted. She was surprised and grateful to learn that the police had proposed the assistance!

Changing mindsets

Violence against women is all too prevalent in Kyrgyzstan. Despite legislation to protect women’s rights, complaints are routinely ignored by the police. There is a widespread sentiment among men in Kyrgyzstan that the treatment of wives by their husbands is a private matter. One in four women suffers physical abuse in the home, according to an April 2010 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. The same report indicates that anywhere from 35 to 75 per cent of all marriages in the country are the product of bride kidnapping, a brutal traditional practice whereby a man abducts a woman and coerces her to marry him.

I had often reflected on these matters, but the incident with the 19-year-old girl pushed me to action. If gender-based violence was going to be taken seriously in this community, I would have to try to change people’s mind-sets.

Since coming to Suleiman-Too, I have made it part of my daily rounds to visit the Local Crime Prevention Centres (LCPCs) in the district. I received their endorsement to organize a workshop on domestic violence and bride kidnapping. Akchach Zholdosheva of the Centre for Gender and Psychological Support agreed to assist me.

Forty community and police representatives gathered for the workshop on 10 May. It started on shaky ground, with several participants voicing the opinion that bride kidnapping was a legitimate cultural tradition. But we reviewed legal provisions and after much laboured discussion reached consensus that it was a form of abuse.

We distributed information materials explaining where victims of domestic violence requiring legal counselling, psychological counselling or emergency housing could go for help. In the month that followed, the crisis centres Aruulan, Ak- Jurok and Meerban received more victims than ever before, with seven asserting that their LCPC had referred them.

The community takes up the torch

Shortly after the workshop, the Osh City Police Press Secretary, Zamirbek Sidikov, approached our office with an idea. He wanted to raise public awareness of domestic violence, and had thought of setting up billboards throughout the city. Could we assist him? We jumped at the chance.

My fellow International Police Advisor, Sergey Sizov, and I informed the crisis centres. They were thrilled, particularly because the idea came from the police. Sergey and I realized our role should be limited to that of intermediaries and mentors. This was an independent police and community initiative.

The mayor’s office provided six billboards free of charge for two weeks, a printing house agreed to print the signs without costs, the city lighting company hung the billboards at no charge, and the traffic police managed the safety of the whole operation.

The billboards hung in prominent places in Osh from 17 to 31 October 2012. Printed in Kyrgyz and Russian, they included contact information for the crisis centres, the police, and the State Department of Social Development.

The impact was indisputable. The Aruulan crisis centre reported that the number of visits from victims rose from 19 in August to over 100 in November. Thirty-four visitors asserted that the billboards had alerted them to the possibility of receiving assistance.

Another result of the campaign was that the police resolved to create a separate police register for gender-based violence.

 “I am content simply to be one part in that greater movement bringing new trust to Suleiman-too.

What impressed me most was the way the district came together to see this project through. No costs were incurred throughout the process and local people built respect and appreciation for one another. In a community which two years prior was torn apart through conflict, partnerships were being fashioned out of mutual concern for their fellow residents’ well-being.

Change was never going to be overnight in Kyrgyzstan. Change is never that fast anywhere. But undeniable progress is being made. I see it every day in my work, in the attitude of my counterparts who are more appreciative of what has been achieved, in the public’s more positive view of the police. I am content simply to be one part in that greater movement bringing new trust to Suleiman-too.