This week, we traveled across southern regions of Kyrgyzstan to assist in the opening of four Free Legal Aid Centers (FLACs) in Isfana, Kadamjai, Jalalabad, and Bazaar Kurgan.
On Monday morning, our driver arrived at my apartment at 5:45am. Our flight was at 8am, however, we still had to pick up Meder and Elmira, then make the drive from Bishkek to Manas International Airport. The flight to Osh takes only forty minutes, which is a far cry from the amount of time it takes to drive there, given the mountain chain that cuts the northern part of the country off from the remainder in the south. We arrived in Osh, where we met our drivers. The group then split up and headed in different directions. I went with Meder to Isfana, which is his home town. Isfana is nestled in the farthest point from Bishkek and is straddled by Uzbekistan in the north and Tajikistan in the south.
On the way, I could immediately tell the difference between the north and south. In the south, the climate is essentially a desert highland strung with mountains. It was easy to feel the dryness in the air and the temperature was noticeably warmer. As we drove out of Osh, I got to see numerous mountain formations before we descended into rolling desert plains.
Before arriving to Isfana, we stopped in the village where Meder’s father was born and where some of his family still lives. The village is called Bau’u (this is how it sounds, but I have no idea how to spell it!). This village is cooler, greener, and is adjacent to a beautiful mountain. However, it is a challenge to get there. We drove roughly twelve kilometers along a gravel road in order to get to the village, which, though very isolated, still has moderately reliable electricity.
The village is also home to one of the largest oak trees I have ever seen.
Upon arrival, it was clear that a lot of people would be joining for dinner, when those participating would cease fasting. However, as I was not participating in the fasting, my hosts generously allowed me to sit and eat a meal in the late afternoon prior to dinner. The dinner itself was very interesting. The men gathered in a separate room with the walls and floors lined with decorative wool cloth. The floor in the center of the room was defined by a separate cloth layout. A platter of various dishes was distributed throughout the room. We ate and then remained for around an hour before heading onward to Isfana around 10:00pm. We were to stay at Meder’s father’s old house, which he had inherited as the youngest son. Meder’s brother, uncle, nephew, a family friend, and our driver joined us to stay at this home.
The home in Isfana was quite large and was designed to house multiple families. It faces the street and has an outer gate that opens up to a courtyard with an interior driveway and courtyard. I was particularly impressed with the woodwork there. Our plan was to spend Monday and Tuesday night at this home before heading onward to Batken.
On Tuesday, Meder and I spent most of the day at the FLAC preparing for the opening, which was planned for 10:00am on the following morning. I was tasked with setting up the remaining equipment provided as part of USAID’s support to the center. Additionally, we coordinated and planned for the event alongside staff at the government office where the FLAC was located. I got to meet with the president’s representative for the region. He was kind enough to drive me around the town and take me to the local bazaar, where I bought some produce. Below is a picture of the Isfana FLAC prior to our final setup. USAID has provided the furniture, computer equipment, stationary, and air conditioner for these centers. Anyone may come to these centers to inquire about their legal rights, receive advice, and acquire information about available free and paid legal aid. These centers will also provide Skype consulations and encourage the use of the Ministry of Justice online legal aid map, which I have mentioned in previous posts.
On Wednesday, we first attended the opening (which includes a ribbon cutting ceremony, speeches, etc.) for the Isfana FLAC. In addition to helping ensure that the inventory was properly labeled, photographed, and logged, I also was given the task of taking photos for the openings. While various local representatives, residents, and Gary, our Chief of Party, gave speeches and interviews, I bounced around the room trying to take halfway decent photos of these events, as well as the ribbon cuttings and group photos. Of course, my photography skills improved at the following FLAC openings.
After the opening, we packed up and headed to Batken, where we were to stay overnight before the Kadamjai opening on Thursday. It was relieving to make this stop at a hotel, as some air conditioning and running water were much needed by this point in the trip.
On Thursday, we conducted another FLAC opening in Kadamjai, then proceeded onward to Osh. At Osh, I stayed with Meder at his brother’s house near the center of the city. Before dinner, Meder, Elmira, Gary, and I went to Sulayman Mountain, which is the only World Heritage Site in Kyrgyzstan. It is widely held to be of religious significance and is sometimes referred to as “the second Mecca.” Before ascending the mountain, we stopped to see a three-floor yurt, which was quite an interesting sight. Afterward, we began our walk up the mountain. The view from the top is gorgeous. We were lucky enough to make it to the top before the sun went down. Standing at the summit, we watched as the sun set behind another mountain off in the distance. From the opposite perspective, the entirety of Osh was in view.
The next morning, we left Osh to open two more FLACs. Funnily enough, by the time the last event was held, we were noticeably more efficient at setting up and completing our tasks. However, by the time this was clear to me, we had already finished the last event. Though I think everyone was happy to have opened the centers and start them off on the right foot, I also think we were equally happy to end to cycle of traveling on bumpy roads to hot environments, all the while sporting suits. After opening the final FLAC, we immediately returned to Osh to gather our luggage and fly back to Bishkek. This return flight, by the way, was the hottest plane I have ever been on. I kindly named it “Air Shashlik.” Thankfully the flight only took thirty-five minutes.
Overall, the week was challenging in the sense that I experienced very different cultural environments and living conditions, while also having numerous daily tasks to accomplish. However, I think that the experience was rewarding. I have a better understanding and new respect for those conducting this kind of work out in far regions, where aid is often needed the most. I look forward to seeing how operations will turn out at each of the FLACs. Of course, CGP will keep up-to-date and monitor each of them to ensure that things stay on track into the future.