Tuesday, August 12, 2008

An Unexpected Greeting

A few days ago we arrived in Jalalabat in South Central Kyrgyszstan. It is a town of about 90,000 people that is widely spread out, and the only real center is a block or two of restaurants around the Bazaar.

Lara wanted to watch to Olympics on TV at our guest house but I was feeling a bit hungry so I went out to get some food. I popped into one restaurant but the only thing they had was an omlette which didn't excite me too much at 9PM. I crossed the street to a second restaurant and poked my head in the window. Two police officers were eating at a nearby table but otherwise the restuarant was pretty quiet. They were playing music however, and the last few days we've been hit by a number of "music" charges on our bills and I didn't want to pay to listen to bad rap.

I started to walk down the well-lit street ( a rarety in Kyrgyszstan) away from the restaurant. There was a large Kyrgyz man walking in the opposite direction. In one hand he held some roses. The other hand formed a fist, and with no warning he punched me in the face. Pain and surpise made a dizzying combination that dropped me to the ground. The man kept walking. Dozens of passers-by passed me by, completely ignoring what had just happened.

I got up, somewhat dizzy and immediately ran the 10 meters back to the restaurant where the police were having their meal. They wanted nothing to do with a bleeding tourist who spoke only English, but a lady who had seen the whole thing got involved and shamed them into getting up. We quickly caught up with the man who had hit me and two other police officers who were walking down the street joined the discussion. The original officers went back to their meal and the new officers marched me and my assailant to the police station a few blocks away.

My lips were mangled but none of my teeth were loose and I didn't seem to have a broken jaw. I was a bit shook up though and the whole experience felt very surreal.

At the police station it quickly became very clear that the police had no idea what to do. They had two main problems. The first of these was a logistical; nobody spoke English and I didn't speak Russian. The second problem is that in countries like Kyrgyzstan the police do not see it as their job to enforce the law.

In Canada we take it pretty much for granted that if somebody breaks the law and is caught doing it the police will at least make an attempt to punish them. Our RCMP even investigate members of the government from time to time. Of course transparency international rates Canada as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Kyrgyszstan rates near the bottom, tied with Zimbabwe. One result of this corruption is that the most flagrant law-breakers are generally government officials and well-connected people. Police officers who try to enforce the law in Kyrgyszstan won't last very long in their jobs.

The police in many countries exist only to protect the well-connected. Generally that means that police officers just sit around all day and harass people for bribes ( a constant complaint that we heard about from many people). However even the most corrupt government needs to maintain some law and order or things will degenerate to the extent where there is nothing left to plunder. It is in maintaining that law and order that there is an overlap between the police in a place like Kyrgyszstan and the police in a place like Canada.

For these reasons a local person would never have bothered to talk to the police. However, as a tourist one often receives much better treatment than the locals, especially since tourism is such a great source of money for many countries. Given that I had just been attacked by somebody who obviously didn't like foreigners I felt I would be doing a service to other tourists and to Kyrgyszstan by at least attempting to get him locked up for a while.

When we arrived at the police station the two police men who had brought me to the station wanted to leave me and my assailant together while they went off to find somebody who knew something about police work. While I am quite capable of defending myself ( I took martial arts for a couple of years) I really didn't think this was a very good idea and eventually they clued in. Nobody was the least be concerned about my injuries. After about half an hour an officer showed up who spoke some English and I was escorted to the police chief's office.

The chief explained through the English-speaking officer that if I wanted to press charges I would have to come back to testify in one or two months. If I didn't press charges they would hold the man for two weeks and make sure he was punished. This had a vaguely sinister feel about it, but given that I wouldn't be able to come back to testify there was little else I could do. The police put me in a van and drove back towards my guesthouse. I had visions of my assailant being taken into a field a shot.

With 5 officers in the van we drove to the door of the guesthouse and I said "Right Here". The officer who spoke English just smiled and nodded and they kept driving. "Stop!" I said. He nodded again. They drove on. Now *I* had visions of being taken to a field and shot. It would serve me right for helping them a criminal.. Luckily it turned out that the officers simply didn't understand that much English. They turned around and took me to my guesthouse.

The owner of the guesthouse who spoke better English explained to me again that the police would hold my assailant for 2 weeks and then they would have let him go. Given that my assailant's hand was bleeding from hitting my face and that it had happened on a crowded street this was pretty lame, but what could I do? After a few minutes the police left.

The next day Lara and I walked out to get lunch and we saw the guy who attacked me walking around with a bandage on his hand. Apparently it was too inconvenient to hold him at the police station. When I pointed him out to Lara she yelled at him and he ran the other way, obviously keen to avoid another confrontation.

Nobody I talked to about this incident was surprised, least of all over the actions of the police. In Kyrgysztan people can commit small acts of violence like this with impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that the police have no interest in this type of thing.

Despite this incident and the general air of lawlessness, I still feel pretty safe here. I believe that the attack was essentially random and probably alcohol-fueled. However, I also know that if somebody does want to harm or rob us there is little protection to be found from local law-enforcement. When you are travelling in out of the way places you are responsible for your own security. It pays to be cautious, even on well-lit streets with lots of people around.

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