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The Good Friday when God saved Bishkek

If you weren’t in a traffic jam for the whole of the Easter weekend, you may have noticed that revolution was sweeping through Kyrgyzstan, a previously unheard of corner of Central Asia.  Matthew and I, and later Baby Tom, have lived in Bishkek, the capital, since April 2003.  Matthew is an engineer, helping pipe drinking water to 500,000 people who fill kettles with brown sludge and nasty diseases from puddles and rivers. 

We’d found the Kyrgyz apathetic and withdrawn, a legacy they learnt under Stalin who taught them that careless talk sent husbands to the gulag for the remainder of a marriage.  Therefore we never dreamed they’d rise up against President Akayev, Father of the Nation, who led Kyrgyzstan as it emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991.  We never dreamed they’d organise protests, storm the White House, loot shops and torch supermarkets.  But it’s amazing what people power can do – and not that many people either – when Akayev pushed their apathy too far and, allegedly, rigged the parliamentary elections of 27 February 2005.

Parliamentary elections are usually pretty boring things with posters of politicians hugging children and speeches no-one listens to.  Their significance in Kyrgyzstan, according to the opposition, was that Akayev wanted to stack parliament with supporters so that he could change the constitution allowing him to stand for a third presidential term.  International news networks made much of Kyrgyzstan’s poverty.  Many survive on a dollar a day, or by begging and looting rubbish bins.  Against that it was becoming more apparent that Kyrgyzstan was not going to be the Switzerland of Central Asia and Akayev, once hailed as a liberal in a region of dictators, was becoming entrenched as head of a ruling family.  It was widely accepted that every shiny and profitable business in Kyrgyzstan was owned by an Akayev and when two of his children gained seats in the new parliament, this was too much.  “How come Aidar, aged twenty-seven, is in government, owns chains of shops and has a different Black Mercedes for every day of the week when we can’t afford a new pair of Nike trainers?” the youth of Kyrgyzstan started to ask.

The Beta Stores

They gave their own reply by protesting, in southern towns and then in Bishkek on Wednesday 23rd March, surprising even themselves by toppling the regime by sunset on Thursday.  I watched it happen – on CNN and from behind a pillar on Ala Too Square – exhilarated by the roars as crowds poured into the White House compound.  But by bedtime we were scared.  Euphoria turned to fear as gun shots ricocheted in the dark and regional experts forecast chaos from drugs Mafioso and Islamic extremists flooding the country from Afghanistan without Akayev in control.  What had the people done?

On Good Friday morning Bishkek was a city in shock.  Intoxicated by their own success the mob had turned on the Akayev’s shiny malls and supermarkets, smashing windows and stripping them of every item.  “This shop belonged to the family, that is why it is ours,” the looters shouted as they stacked cars and set off with food, televisions, office furniture, clothes and huge satellite dishes on their backs.  Someone is even reported to have dragged a freezer cabinet up eight flights of stairs to their tiny apartment.  What were they going to do, bath in it? 

In their hysteria the mob had become indiscriminate and other shops were hit – a clothes chain, Chinese bazaar and Beta Stores, a Turkish supermarket.  Formerly a monument to modernisation, it had been reduced to a blackened and smouldering shell.  People stood on the pavement outside in disbelief.  “Kyrgyz people are quiet, they don’t do this,” locals muttered.  But they had, and would it happen again that night?

As darkness fell we drew the curtains, turned off lights and waited for the looters.  Friends were running for the Kazak border in an emergency UN convoy, but we’d stayed.  We’d waited all day for official advice but none came, only gossip, rumours and panic over the International Women’s Group network.  Then, at five a phone trilled, “the UN are evacuating, are you coming?”  Exhausted by supposition Matthew and I had looked at each other, our brains too tired and overloaded to make a clear decision.  I’d looked at Baby Tom, eighteen months old and grizzling because his Mummy and Daddy were snapping with tension.
“We’ll stay,” I decided.  Driving through the night on hostile roads with a car sick baby seemed less appealing than being looted.  Crucially, we didn’t have Kazak visas and the official advice about whether that mattered in this emergency had been contradictory as well. 

Had we made the right decision?  When Tom fell asleep peacefully in his bed I thought yes but when reports filtered through about street fights, and gun shots started to echo nearby, my stomach went into a spin and I wished we were fleeing with the UN.  Would we survive the night?

Then, God saved us.  The windows in our flat started to rattle and tree branches scratched the glass.  Suddenly a huge windstorm blew in from the Tien Shan mountains which border the city to the south, buffeting our block and gusting across the capital.  It wasn’t the first storm we’d had but I’d seen nothing like this for over a year and its timing was biblical: in God’s tempest, all-night looting didn’t seem so appealing any more.  According to rumour, a mob of 5000 were circling Tzum, the city’s department store, their roars and horses’ hooves pounding the nerves of the people’s army determined to save their shop.  Then came the plagues of wind and hail.  As icy bullets drummed from the sky and wind blew away traditional, conical felt hats, the looters had looked around in fear muttering “Allah!  Allah!”, running away from the Almighty’s retribution. 

All quiet soon after the revolution

That night the city was quiet and with the weekend God sent a blizzard, chasing looters back into winter hibernation.  By Sunday the only two people in the central square were soldiers guarding the national flag, a duty they’d performed motionlessly in teams throughout the revolution.  On Monday, sun shone on the snow and people emerged from hiding to open shops and bring the city back to life.  If you’d just landed from Mars you’d have no idea that there’d just been a coup.  We wondered why the UN was discussing an upgrade to red alert.  Okay, new politicians shoved into prominence were arguing over which parliament should prevail and people were hovering at the edges of Ala Too Square demanding fresh elections, because apart from officials removing Akayev posters from offices, nothing had changed.  But the anger had gone.  It seems revolutions in Kyrgyzstan are like Bank Holiday weekends – all over by Tuesday.  But I truly believe it would have been a lot worse had God not saved Bishkek on Good Friday.

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