The end

Those of you who have been following my Kiva Fellows blog – and I appreciate every one of you! – have surely realized by now that it’s over. I wrapped up my Kiva work in late May, returned to the United States on June 28th, and have spent the months since in transition to the next stage of my life.

And what stage might that be?

In a few short days, I’m moving to Boston to start a master’s program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, with the aim of training myself for a career in international development. Kiva has shown me beyond a doubt that this is the field I want to pursue. My main area of focus will be human security, which seeks to teach students how to tackle international development problems that span economics, public health, humanitarian relief, conflict resolution, and many other fields without being limited to a single perspective or approach. For my second focus, I’m trying to decide between development economics and humanitarian studies; the latter springs directly from my Kiva work, and especially from my experiences with Nagorno-Karabakh IDPs in Azerbaijan, which have struck me more deeply than anything else over the past year.

I’m sure my next few years hold many international adventures in store – and hopefully, some will involve the former Soviet republics, which I love even more deeply after this past year. If I end up blogging about my experiences again, I’ll be sure to let you folks know.

Twelve months ago, I took a risk. I traded a comfortable job and a steady existence in Philadelphia for a year bouncing between countries without income; I jumped headlong into a field in which I had no experience, into countries and societies where I had never lived, into difficult linguistic environments fraught with frequent hardship and frustration. And it was one of the most rewarding and life-changing decisions I’ve ever made.

Never be afraid to take risks. Never hesitate to take the first step toward your dreams. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

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IMG_2088Sandy Hook, Monmouth County, New Jersey, United States of America.

if I go abroad, I will want it to change me.
if it changes me, it may change what I want to do with my life
which may change what I want to do for grad school
which is why it’s my next step.
that’s just how it happened for me this time.
how so?

(A long pause.)

i keep typing things here and deleting them.
so many ways.
so many ways.
i worked with IDPs in azerbaijan and listened to dozens of people tell me what it was like to have their lives torn apart by war.
i walked into warzones and confronted contradictions and coverups and societies that lie to themselves.
i befriended people i never in a million years would have imagined getting the chance to meet.
and i discovered how passionate i was about sharing these people’s stories, through writing, with the world.
i guess what i’m trying to say is, you’re right.
go abroad.
it changes you.

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Ghosts and sunshine and horror

June 12
Sukhumi, Abkhazia

This is Part 2 of my trip to the disputed territory of Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has declared itself an independent state. If you are currently detained in an Abkhazian police station and are looking for tips on how to wriggle out of your predicament, you should start with Part 1.

The ceiling of the train station in Sukhumi, Abkhazia.

I squeeze through a hip-height hole in the wooden wall that encircles the Sukhumi train station. My left boot sinks immediately into two inches of bird droppings spattered on the intricate tiled floor. Empty eggshells, light as feathers, roll across the wide foyer. A pigeon has tumbled dead from the magnificent triple-vaulted ceiling and lies decaying in a corner.

When we die, we speak of our bodies going to the worms. But when a building dies, it is taken over, inevitably, inexorably, by birds. Why is that? Why is it that birds flock to abandonment – to all our dead places – to the monuments of our own absence?

The birds, too, are what I will remember about the former regional government building, a 14-story tan slab that towers over Glory Park. Now it is a burned-out husk, an empty lattice left open to the elements as, some say, a trophy of the Abkhaz victory over Georgia: the equivalent of the enemy commander’s severed head on a pike. Each glassless window yawns blackly, and hundreds of scissor-tailed swallows dart in and out, wheeling, screeching, hurling themselves into the blue. A den of wasps, all ceaseless buzz and roil.

I sneak in through the back. The building is filled with rotting trash; the courtyards have turned into rubble-strewn jungles. In a bathroom of smashed toilets and fallen porcelain tiles, an ironist has scrawled in wry black paint: СКАЖИТЕ, ПОЖАЛУЙСТА, КАК ПРОЕХАТЬ В ЗУГДИДИ? (“Excuse me, please, how do you get to Zugdidi?” – the unreachable Georgian city just beyond Abkhazia’s southern border.)

I am disappointed to find sturdy, newly painted metal gates barring me from each of the stairwells in the government building – gates I know did not exist two years ago. My hopes for Black Sea views, 14-story roof climbs, and the mother of all urban explorations are dashed. The front of the building is open to the view of anyone passing by, and I skulk behind cover and time my prowls with care. My movements are jerky; my neck darts in and out. I am one with the birds that swoop and scream above.

The facade of the former regional government building, Sukhumi, Abkhazia.

I was, though, able to explore one of the wings pretty thoroughly.

Sweaty and smeared with more bird feces than I’d like, I decide to go swimming. The Black Sea calls to me, draws me hobbling across Sukhumi’s painfully rocky beach and into the water. I slip deeper. My aches float away.

The sun beats down on my upturned face, and I reflect: I am swimming. I am swimming in an internationally unrecognized disputed territory outside the jurisdiction of any state, in a Russian-occupied war zone over which rockets once fell like hail. Holiday-makers spread towels across the round stones as the ghosts of Abkhaz soldiers beat and maim and rape and kill in the streets.

How can both these cities be contained in one? How can Sukhumi still laugh and play? How can an ethnically cleansed city make the disturbing decision to just move on?

The gentle waves circle my neck. I get out of the water. That night, to atone, I listen to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

Beachgoers in Sukhumi.

It is dusk on the balcony of the restaurant Nartaa, and everything to my left is beautiful. A green pedestrian boulevard hugs the shore, densely overhung by tall palms and magenta-flowered bushes in full bloom; far out, a sweep of low mountains curls protectively around Sukhumi Bay; between the two, the Black Sea mutters and shimmers and lobs sparks of reflected streetlamps back to my eyes.

But I, forever contrary, am gazing right instead. In the foreground, I look down on a sliver of the Nartaa courtyard, each group of diners lost in its own world. In the middle, an enormous rubble-strewn lot slowly returns to the wild. Look right: cranes tower, and shards of the bombed Hotel Abkhazia pierce the sky. And behind it all, the skeleton of the government building looms over Glory Park, its terracotta facade lamplit against the flat purple mountains and the peach after-sunset glow.

I leave the restaurant to stroll along the boulevard. A line of beautifully restored buildings with intricate brickwork faces the sea. Souvenir sellers and cotton-candy vendors have set up shop next to a homemade carnival game, in which a heavyset woman blows up brightly colored balloons, sticks them into a lattice of cubbyholes, and sells darts to children passing by. Above it all, an enormous Abkhazian flag leers floodlit from the roof of the ferry port. Seven green-and-white stripes, one red canton, seven white stars and a hand upraised (to welcome friends; to ward off enemies; to float uncertainly between the two in a Caucasus filled with shades of gray).

Is it necessary, is it healthy, for life in Sukhumi to go on – for the carnival to continue as it always has? Or is it dishonest to act as though nothing has transpired? At what point does one turn into the other?

The question has followed me down to the waterfront, and it’s plain it won’t let me alone anytime soon.

I sit watching the flag flutter in the wind. Balloons pop like gunshots. I jump every time.

A collapsed house in Gali. As one of the most heavily Georgian areas of Abkhazia, Gali was extremely hard-hit by the Abkhaz ethnic cleansing campaign of 1992. Much of the region remains abandoned, its former inhabitants either dead or unable to return.

The marshrutka sputters to a stop in a brown-dust square in the center of Gali. Ah, Gali. Friendliest little town in Abkhazia – and such a hospitable police force too! An itinerant pig roams the square, snuffling at tufts of weeds that have taken root amid the last shreds of asphalt. Cows wander the town freely – “freely,” in practice, meaning that they plant their hooves in the middle of the road and stare uncomprehending at the soldier convoys that bear down on them at top speed. Not for the first time, I reflect on the stupidity of cows.

The road between Gali and the border is among the worst I’ve ever seen. And this coming from someone who’s been through the Tunnel of Death. Everything north of here is smooth and newly paved – jarring in itself, considering how many bombed-out buildings line the route. The Russians have been assiduously rebuilding Abkhazia’s infrastructure in their battle for hearts and minds. Gali, though, is Abkhazia’s gateway to Georgia, and one of the few towns to have remained majority Georgian after the ethnic cleansing. As such, the fact that the new pavement dead-ends at the city limits seems fraught with subtext. Why bother going further? Why would anyone want a connection to the enemy, when everyone’s best pal Russia is just to the north? Why waste precious reconstruction funds on a town full of Georgians?

In honor of the road, I reason, I should try to hire the worst taxi driver in Abkhazia to get me through it. So that’s what I do. My chauffeur for the evening is a doddering old man of dubious hygiene whose first act is to remove the taxi light from the top of his car and turn it over and over in his hands, bewildered, as if he had forgotten he drove a taxi. He approaches every one of the road’s sixteen thousand potholes with a chelonian delicacy that suggests either his car or his hip will shatter if he moves any faster. Not once do we break 20 kilometers per hour. He speaks to me every so often, grabbing my wrist (while driving) and dribbling a tapioca mush of consonants into his lap through barely parted lips. His mouth does not form a single recognizable word for the duration of the ride. I nod and smile.

Door slams, red line is crossed, passport is inspected by the glowering Kalashnikov soldiers behind the fence – and with an anticlimactic lack of arrest, I am through. Just before the long Inguri River bridge that divides Abkhazia from Georgia, I am picked up by an old man in a horse-drawn cart who insists (insists!) on taking me to the border post. My teeth rattle inside my skull as I watch the slate-blue Inguri slip by below. It’s a milestone: today marks the first time I have crossed the boundary of a disputed territory, a quasi-independent region outside the jurisdiction of any state, by means of horse.

But with the life I lead, I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The horse cart that carried me back into the internationally recognized world.

Posted in Georgia, Grand Tour of Disputed Territories of the Former Soviet Union, Personal Travels, Stories of Places | 1 Comment

How to Not Get Arrested in Abkhazia

June 11
Gali, Abkhazia

This is Part 1 of my trip to the disputed territory of Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has declared itself an independent state. The less alarming Part 2 can be found here.

The Abkhazian national flag.

Abkhazia is a land of ghosts and sunshine and horror.

Beachfront war zone. Bullet-riddled seaside resort. Russia’s newest, most exotic fun-in-the-sun destination; Georgia’s greatest tragedy, land of 20,000 graves and 250,000 refugees. A place where terrible things have happened, and a place with a disturbing capacity to forget. Tiny, proud, independent and subservient both at once, Abkhazia is a land riven by contradictions.

Once, Abkhazia was called the Soviet Riviera, a region of porches strung with grapevines, of breezy seaside promenades, of bustling beach resorts backed by lush green mountains that tumbled into the sea. That was before the war. In 1992, years of tamped-down ethnic tensions between the Georgian and Abkhaz populations exploded into an orgy of murder and violence and ethnic cleansing that left its villagers dead and its cities devastated by rocket fire.

Today, life goes on: goes on, in fact, with disturbing ease. Russian tourists flock to Abkhazia’s beaches. New buildings rise next door to fire-scorched shells. The capital, Sukhumi, is cloven in two, half holiday destination, half bombed-out war zone – a place of haunting pain and of blithe ignorance of all those who suffered. How can a place so rent by doublethink survive?

That’s what I am here to find out.

The Abkhaz War, like so many others, began in the dying days of the Soviet Union. As the Communists in Moscow were hemorrhaging political power and losing control over their citizens, ethnic and regional conflicts all over the USSR – conflicts that had for 70 years been kept in a chokehold in the name of “Soviet brotherhood” – began to flare once more.

Abkhazia’s war did not begin so differently from Transdniester’s. In 1989, in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, nationalist factions were gaining power and demanding full independence from the Soviet Union: a free Georgian state for the Georgians, with Georgian language and culture reigning supreme. This left Georgia’s Abkhaz minority predictably uneasy, and a collection of Abkhaz political and social leaders requested that Moscow allow their home region to secede from Georgia and become its own political entity. This move sparked dueling Georgian and Abkhaz student protests which, god knows how, managed within three years to start a war. It’s a story of unchecked brinkmanship, furious intransigence, and leaders blinded by an ideology of blood: the sort that recurs again and again all over the world and loses none of its tragedy in the telling.

Yet the Abkhaz War stands out, thanks to that most awful of 1990s phenomena: ethnic cleansing. The Georgians went first: in August 1992, they recaptured the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi and rampaged through the streets with automatic weapons, destroying Abkhaz cultural monuments and perpetrating violence against Abkhaz civilians as they went. But it was the Abkhaz who raised ethnic cleansing to a horrific art. Aided by brutal paramilitaries from Chechnya, Abkhaz soldiers began to systematically sweep into ethnically Georgian villages, mow down their defenders, and round up every Georgian civilian who remained for an assembly line of torture, rape, and murder. (Read the Wikipedia article if you feel like throwing up a little in the back of your mouth.) By the end, between 13,000 and 20,000 Georgians had been killed and a further 250,000 were forced to flee their homes.

Today, Abkhazia is trapped in a gray area between illegitimacy and sovereignty. It has declared itself an independent nation, but only a handful of countries recognize its claim; most of the world considers it part of Georgia, but Georgia has effectively given up trying to get it back. Its situation was further muddled in 2008, when Russia used it as a willing pawn in its five-day war against Georgia in exchange for expanded occupation by Russian peacekeepers and de facto annexation by the Kremlin. Now, squeezed between a hostile Georgia, a suspiciously friendly Russia, and its own fading claims to self-determination, the region huddles uncomfortably between peace and war.

The end of Georgia. Rukhi, located in no-man’s land, is the last tiny settlement before the Abkhazian border.

Getting from Georgia to Abkhazia is an arduous four-part process. Step one, a marshrutka from the small city of Zugdidi, Georgia to the Abkhazian border; step two, a kilometer-long hike across the no-man’s land that divides Georgia from Abkhazia; step three, another marshrutka from the far side of the border to the Abkhazian town of Gali; and step four, a bus from Gali to the capital Sukhumi, through which all foreigners must pass upon arrival. Minus the sometimes long waits for the next bus to depart, the border-crossing process takes four and a half to five hours all told.

If everything goes well.

Which it did not.

You’d think that, if I were planning on having a problem, I’d try to have it at the border, where there is a ready supply of both Kalashnikov-toting soldiers and cops itching for bribes. But no, the border crossing is strangely smooth. I first stop at the Georgian police hut to register my exit from the country and inform them of my exact travel plans. They rudely shunt aside a man with an Abkhaz passport to shower me with friendliness and chat me up about America. (“What state are you from?” they ask me. “Pennsylvania,” I say. “From the city of Philadelphia.” “ROCKY!!!” explodes a hitherto silent man in the back.)

After that, I take off walking across no-man’s land, passing farm fields, a jointly run Georgian-Russian peacekeepers’ post, and finally the broad Inguri River that marks the southern boundary of Abkhazia. I once again present my passport and Abkhazian entry permit to a bevy of camo-clad soldiers with absurdly large firearms on their backs. They take down my details, keep the permit and hand the passport back. “That’s all.” Bam. I’m in. I hop on a Gali-bound marshrutka that, after an hour of clattering and cow-dodging through Abkhazia’s lush flatlands, deposits me on Gali’s main square.

I step out of the marshrutka.

I cross the street.

“Young man! Stop right there!” bark three Abkhaz police officers. Instantly, they have me surrounded.

This, I sigh to myself, is not how I thought my first thirty seconds in Abkhazia would go.

“Show us your documents,” they snap. I hand them my passport. Inside, it occurs to me, are an absurd number of entry stamps proving my many trips to hostile Georgia – probably enough to qualify me as a collaborator with the enemy. And no Abkhazian visa. “Where is your visa?” they demand.

“I was just going to Sukhumi right now to pick it up. I’ve been here for only two minutes. You just saw me arrive.”

“Empty your pockets,” one of them orders.

Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. So the cops are just back-alley muggers here? Can’t you at least try to be subtle? Yet the cop zeroes in not on my wallet, but on a ragged slip of paper I am carrying with me. “What’s this?”

I unfold it. It is a rough map of Zugdidi, Georgia that the owner of my hostel drew for me, showing how to get from the hostel to the point where the marshrutka to the border departs.

The cops don’t like this at all. At all. “This is Sukhumi!” they keep saying. “Where in Sukhumi is this?” It is clear to them that I am a spy, a spy sent by Georgia in the guise of a bumbling American to sabotage their whatever-it-is that-needs-sabotaging. My treasonous intent becomes still clearer when they search my bag and discover my giant Nikon D40 with the 200-millimeter lens.

“Turn it on,” they order. “What are you taking pictures of?”

Three hundred things. That is my answer. Three hundred photos currently on my memory card – everything from Moldova onward. And standing there in the park, they make me go through every single one, with running commentary, to find out exactly what sensitive things I’ve been photographing in Gali. YOU JUST WATCHED ME GET OFF THE BUS, I consider reminding them, but think better of it.

“Stand right here,” they say. “We are taking you to the police station.”

Five minutes later, I am in the back of a camouflage-painted police jeep clattering through the broken back streets of Gali. Somehow, I am not freaking out. I am cool as a cucumber, in fact, thanks to a peculiar blend of confidence, naivete, jaded familiarity with the cops in the post-Soviet world, and a touch of temporary insanity.

You are being detained on suspicion of espionage, I remind myself, in a disputed territory under the jurisdiction of no recognized state, outside the reach of any U.S. embassy or anyone who can help. Does this mean nothing to you?

Nope. Still calm. Still completely insane. All I can think is, I wonder how this story ends?

An officer herds me through a heavy steel door that swings shut behind me with a tremendous shriek and clang, then marches me to the farthest office at the end of the longest, dankest corridor. I am brought face-to-face with the Gali police supervisor. Words are exchanged in Abkhaz. The officer leaves. The supervisor stares flatly at me across his desk, then returns silently to his paperwork.

A minute passes. Two. Five. The rifle-toting soldier at his side is likely being paid good money to intimidate me into submission, judging by his convincing performance and clear commitment to his work.

Finally, the supervisor looks up.

“Show me your photographs,” he orders.

I sigh – and I cannot decide whether my sigh is one of relief or of irritation. Okay. One more time. Out comes the camera. Out come the three hundred pictures. And once again, I am called upon to explain every single move I’ve made since Moldova as the police supervisor analyzes each word. On balance, it’s probably good I hadn’t cleared out my memory card the night before; my dozens of tourist snapshots establish me as human, as a not-a-spy, as just some traveling fool who, given all the choice in the world, decided to go on vacation in effing Abkhazia instead of somewhere nice and sane like Tehran.

They’d said this would be the end of it. I should have known that wasn’t true – because now comes the bureaucracy. The soldier takes my passport and meticulously notes every personal detail therein, questioning me in depth on every Georgian entry stamp I have and my exact movements within Georgia since I arrived. My bag is searched yet again. I am called upon to re-explain the map I’m carrying. The soldier painstakingly writes down every word.

And then he disappears for an hour and a half.

There is no explanation. There is no one else in the room, no one in the adjacent offices, no clues to be found. I have been left alone in a back office of a police station with bars on the windows, in a disputed territory outside the reach of any embassy, waiting for the authorities to decide my fate. And I am getting really bored. Somehow, I feel it would be in poor form to pull out a book and start reading; I decide instead to pace.

Finally, he comes back and presents me with my passport. “That’s all. You’re free to go.” The steel door shrieks closed behind me.

The three policemen who detained me are eating lunch on a bench in front of the station. They recognize me instantly, and their faces light up. “Happy travels!” one of them calls out. It is clear they’ve entirely forgotten that I am an international spy.

I raise my hand, hesitantly, and wave. And then I set a new land speed record power-walking back to the square where the marshrutkas wait. Forget exploring. Forget everything but my ride out of here. I am so done with this goddamn town.

Posted in Georgia, Grand Tour of Disputed Territories of the Former Soviet Union, Personal Travels, Stories of Places | 4 Comments

Moldova and its best friend Transdniester

June 7
Chișinău, Moldova

Moldova is the only country in which I have had my seat on a train sold out from under me by an unscrupulous conductor before I even got on.

Moldova is also, however, the only country in which an unknown man has entered my train compartment, sat down on a lower bunk, whipped out a gigantic accordion, and given an impromptu one-man show as the engines switched outside. One song! Two! Three! Four! Five! Out onto the train tracks once the crowd got too large! Backup singers appearing spontaneously! Dancers whirling in circles on the jagged gray stones of the trainyard!

So, you know, it all evens out.

He stood out on the platform and played us a march when the train finally began to move. Keep on rocking, random Moldova man.

Moldova. Moldova. I’ve got to be honest here, I don’t have a lot to say about Moldova. I was browsing online travelogues and discovered a blog post about the place that ended memorably: “Have you ever been to a country that just felt a little blah?” Okay, so “blah” is a good description of my experience… but I also think it’s not quite fair. Throughout my three days there, I saw hints of a vibrant local culture, a scruffy, delightful disrespect for order and logic, and a love for music and wine and dancing and life. If I were to really commit to the place, to get to know its people and to dig in deep, I would probably have a blast. But for short-term visitors who are looking for a quick flash-bang-wow, there’s just not a whole lot there.

Except for Transdniester!

Transdniester: a long, green, awkwardly shaped sliver of Moldova, and the first stop on my Disputed Territories Grand Tour. In Soviet times, it was a part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic heavily populated by Russians, who had been imported to manage the region’s factories. When Moldova declared its independence in 1991, the Moldovan nationalists, giddy to be free of the Soviet yoke, began passing law after law enshrining the Moldovan language, the Moldovan ethnicity, and Moldovan culture as the only legitimate trappings of the new state. The Russians hadn’t signed up for this; as far as they were concerned, they were Soviets, not Moldovans, and they were watching this upstart government strip away fundamental parts of their identity one by one.

At the same time, the Moldovan economy was, unsurprisingly, tanking, and life was every day becoming worse than it had been under the USSR. So the Russians reasoned that – since everything that was wrong in their lives could be attributed to Moldova’s independence – the correct answer was to secede from Moldova and rejoin the Soviet Union. They readopted the Russian language, reused the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Moldavian SSR as their own, and created their own currency, the Transdniestrian ruble, to replace the defunct Soviet one. It didn’t seem to trouble them one bit that the Soviet Union did not exist anymore. Its fall had been but a fluke, you understand; when the world was ready, the USSR would rise again and welcome Transdniester back into its fold.

Since 1992, then, Transdniester has been a state in limbo: claimed by Moldova, affecting independence, recognized by almost no one. Now, it’s a magnet for illegal arms sales and organized crime, a lawless zone riddled with corruption in which the cops turn a blind eye to anyone who will give them a cut.

And the border guards: oh, the border guards, spectacular in their corruption! They are what make Transdniester special. At some point, it became a ritual that every single non-CIS foreigner who tried to enter Transdniester would be taken into a back room and shaken down for a bribe; it was a rite of passage for the hardcore traveler, and it was different every time. Some border guards would ask the innocuous question “How much foreign currency are you carrying into Transdniester?” (your answer corresponding strangely well to the size of your requested bribe). Others would discover deeply consequential inaccuracies in your paperwork; still others would make up laws, create situations in which you had broken them, and charge you fines to avoid being locked up. And those who were bored with the game would just grin and bark “And now you give me present!”

This would be okay (in a manner of speaking…?) if Transdniester were easily avoided. But oh no, go take another look at that map; it’s basically the entire eastern border of Moldova, which means almost every major transport route to Ukraine and Russia has to go through Transdniester first. Can you imagine? What a gold mine! Just picture those border guards poking their heads into every compartment of a 20-car train and extracting a bribe from every single passenger. You could buy a big-screen TV by the end. What a life, what a life!

And I, cackling and masochistic, was kinda looking forward to the adventure.

DSC_0059 (2)
The national emblem of Transdniester. Why yes, that is a hammer and sickle!

One of the best Transdniester articles on the Internet is “Of Myth and Legend,” Tamara Sheward’s very funny 2010 travelogue of her trip to the region. In fact, you should probably be reading that article instead of this one, because my experience was… anticlimactic.

And I prepared so carefully, too! I combed through my bag the night before and took out every potentially confiscatable item; I left behind everything I owned that mentioned the Moldovan enemy; I spent almost a half-hour agonizing over how much money, and in what currencies, I should put in my wallet to minimize the bribe I would have to pay. (I would try to get away with just seven bucks, I decided – seven U.S. dollars hidden amid a smattering of undesirable Ukrainian hryvnia and Moldovan lei.) I literally put a $50 bill in my sock to tide me over in case something went wrong.

But alas! The online rumors are true, it seems: sometime within the past year, the Transdniester border guards cleaned up their act big-time. As soon as our marshrutka pulled to a stop at the border checkpoint, a customs official – young, nattily uniformed, regrettably lacking an AK-47 – climbed in and collected the passports of all non-Transdniester nationals. And then five minutes later… he gave them back and walked away. What? Wait! Come back here! Didn’t you see I had a U.S. passport? Don’t you want to call me into a room for special questioning? Aren’t you going to make up a nonexistent document and charge me a “fine” for not carrying it? I’ll help you come up with something! You didn’t even threaten to destroy my passport unless I handed over the contents of my wallet!

Come on, Transdniester. Not living up to expectations.

We all filed out of the marshrutka and into the hornet-infested registration hut, in which we all had to hand over our passports again and declare the purpose of our travels. “Tourism,” I told the officer. “Yes, tourism. To the cities of Tiraspol and Bendery. And then back to Chișinău tonight.” The officer scrutinized my passport, then my face, then the passport again. He shuffled papers noisily. He laid my registration slip out on the desk and started going through it line by line. My pulse quickened. This was it! Almost go time! I’d finally get to lose those seven bucks burning a hole in my pocket!

The marshrutka driver picked that moment to come up behind me and place his hand on my shoulder. “He’s with me,” he said meaningfully. “And we’re running late.” Hurriedly, the border guard stamped my registration slip and shoved my passport back through the window. And that was all.

Into Transdniester, then, without incident – not even a little tiny one. As the marshrutka pulled away, I pressed my face to the back window, watching the registration hut recede into the distance as sad piano music played. All I wanted to do was bribe you, Transdniester. Why have you forsaken me? A single tear slipped down my cheek as the camera faded to black.

The House of Soviets in downtown Tiraspol, with obligatory Lenin.

So what about Transdniester itself? Well, I hate to say it, but Transdniester itself was also kind of blah. The capital, Tiraspol, is often described as a surreal Soviet throwback frozen in the 1980s, with Lenin-worshipping  iconography, streets named after famous Soviet leaders, and slogans emblazoned everywhere about the glory of labor. And so it is… but the thing is, that describes every other small city in the former Soviet Union as well. If you don’t have a lot of experience around these parts, the detritus of the former Soviet state is utterly fascinating – but by the time you’ve seen your sixtieth Lenin statue, that sort of stuff just passes beneath your notice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went. I had a particularly interesting time ferreting out evidence of the region’s international isolation (its potholed roads and overgrown parks and shattered fountains, its lack of a single ATM due to international sanctions, its train station with one functional track and four that have been taken over by nature) and stumbling across the scars of Transdniester’s 1990-1992 war with the Moldovan nationalists. But all in all, it’s one of those places where the story is a lot better than the execution.

So I guess I don’t have a lot to say about Transdniester either. Sorry. Don’t worry, though – the rest of these disputed territories are proving a whole lot more interesting….

Posted in Grand Tour of Disputed Territories of the Former Soviet Union, Moldova, Personal Travels | 5 Comments

Belarus and other such dictatorships

June 3
Minsk, Belarus

The Bernardine Church of Hrodna, reflected in a broken window.

My post-fellowship travels have begun! And what better way to celebrate my newfound freedom than to go vacationing in a KGB dictatorship?

I spent the first days of June in Belarus, a country that, until a week before, had been a mystery to me. I knew it mainly for its dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, whom Condoleezza Rice had once placed on her own personal Axis of Evil. That was all I knew; that, and that its capital, Minsk, was supposedly an unnerving Soviet theme park in which KGB officers prowl amid an endless procession of Stalinist facades. But something about that image didn’t sit right with me. It made Belarus sound like a country steeped in fear and devoid of life… and if I’ve learned one thing over the past year, it’s that life, small-scale, determined, happily banal, perseveres in the most unlikely of places. So I bought a train ticket north and left Ukraine to go fill in a blank spot on my map.

Minsk makes Stalinism look good. No, I never thought I would say those words either.

Like Ukraine, Belarus has spent most of its existence as a borderland between empires. And as such, Belarus, like Ukraine, has been crushed by history. Belarus was directly in the path of the Nazi steamroller during World War II, and its cities were largely razed to the ground. Eighty percent of the buildings in Minsk were reduced to rubble. One-third of the entire population of Belarus, and four-fifths of its Jewish community, was killed during this one war. To visualize this, imagine a third of your friends dead. Imagine a third of your extended family, dead. Which ones will they be?

I’ll give you a moment to try to grasp that.

The shrapnel-maimed Holmsky Gates of Brest Fortress: a photo of Belarusian history.

Nor is it all sunshine and roses now. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Belarus was the richest of the newly independent Soviet republics. Twenty years later, it’s one of the poorest. The economy has gone into freefall multiple times since independence, and the Belarusian ruble is close to worthless, with an exchange rate of 8,300 rubles to the dollar. Thankfully (?), the inflationary episodes have been so frequent that prices haven’t kept up; at many restaurants, you can get a not unclassy meal for around 30,000 rubles, or roughly $3.50. It’s kind of nice… until you consider the elderly people who toiled all their lives to amass a 30,000-ruble nest egg, only to watch their life savings turn into barely enough money to buy groceries for the week.

RICHES. RICHES BEYOND MY WILDEST DREAMS. (Actually, less than 40 bucks.)

And over it all hangs the specter of Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-inspired dictator cut from cruel cloth. Lukashenko is the sort of president who orders an opposition politician to be beaten to the edge of a coma, and then, when he wakes up, dispatches the KGB to brazenly abduct him from his hospital bed, ripping out IVs, wife screaming, and to spirit him away to an unknown prison. The police do prowl in Belarus, both secret and otherwise. In Minsk, I watched a cop round on a babushka, a 70-year-old woman selling herbs (without a permit, I think) out of a tattered canvas bag, and whack her bag with a nightstick, scattering scallions across the tiled floor. “Clean it up and get out!” he barked.

It seems impossible – to us, at least – that anyone could remain unaffected by this, could find a way to live a normal life without concerning themselves with politics or the police. Is it possible for a Belarusian to be truly happy? I think many Americans, immersed in our rhetoric of democracy and freedom, find that hard to accept. It’s easier for us to imagine citizens of a dictatorship as wretched, paranoid people, speaking in whispers, faces drawn, always afraid, forever monitored by secret police officers waiting for an excuse to take them away.

I’ve spent most of my past year living in dictatorships, though, and in the process I discovered something I once found it impossible to believe: Life goes on. Ordinary people have an amazing ability to ignore the most repressive of political conditions and to survive, even thrive, in the process. The streets of Minsk are alive with pedestrians, and the nightclubs bustle, and everything is new and shiny, and women sell fruit at the market and buy groceries for their families and hold hands with their boyfriends as they stroll down the street. So what – they say – if our president is arresting protesters and beating dissidents in jail? Who wants to be a dissident? Why can’t those people just work with the hands they’re dealt, like the rest of us? Just stay away from politics, stay home whenever the young people have a protest scheduled, and nothing can stop us from living a normal life.

Fishermen on the riverbank in Hrodna.

But how can you just ignore this? sputters the American part of my brain. How can you live with such brazen abuses of power? How can you call that living, when every day you have to gamble that your out-of-control government won’t turn its eye on you? (I imagine this part of my brain as a tiny candlelit room in which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sit at a table, peering sternly over their spectacles at me and making occasional abusive remarks about George III.)

Natural questions, all. But I think it speaks volumes about American privilege, the fact that many of us can conceive of no more grave responsibility than to stand up against our political oppressors. Many of the people I’ve met in the developing world would, I feel, be skeptical. What about buying food to feed your family? What about giving your children an education? What about finding a stable line of work to ensure your children will lead a better life? In a country where politics is a volatile and dangerous game, what is more important: to fulfill your responsibility to support your family, or to go dabbling in political pursuits that could get you killed?

And there’s another thing, too – one that did even more to break my poor American brain when I discovered it was true. Many people genuinely like and appreciate their dictators. I had multiple Tajiks tell me, unprompted and in the privacy of their homes, how grateful they were to their oafish despot Emomali Rahmon for ending the horrific 1990s civil war and reuniting the Tajik people. As far as they are concerned, Rahmon brought security and stability to Tajikistan; far from standing in the way of their normal lives, he was the one who made normal life possible again.

And in wealthy, oil-soaked Azerbaijan, where the GDP is skyrocketing, Baku is a city ascendant, and dictator Ilham Aliyev has propelled the country onto the international stage… who’s complaining? I met some of the discontents who have been left behind, but almost every other Azeri I talked to seemed thrilled by the Aliyev-driven renaissance. We are accustomed to thinking of dictators as rulers who have no interest in their people, whose only concern is to accumulate power and retain it forever; we can’t wrap our minds around those like Aliyev, who, even as they jail dissidents and monitor Facebook profiles and disperse protesters in increasingly violent and nasty ways, are working to make the majority of their citizens’ lives better. As far as many Azeris are concerned, Aliyev is the man who has repaired their gas lines and repaved their roads and rebuilt their cities and resettled the country’s IDPs in houses he gave away for free. And in so doing, he has bought their wholehearted support.

We could argue – and we would be entirely correct – that sentiments like these stem from dictators’ tight control over what gets reported in the media, and that their citizens wouldn’t be nearly so supportive if given full information about the awful things their rulers do. But would we be missing the point?

I am playing devil’s advocate, and for that I apologize. It’s certainly not my intent to defend these dictators – nor to claim that dictatorships don’t have significant negative impacts on their citizens – nor to suggest that most people there are leading fully self-actualized lives. And I’m aware that, these being dictatorships, the perspectives I got from my in-country hosts might not reflect what they actually feel (though in most cases the non-political conversational context, coupled with their emotion and unprompted spontaneity, has led me to trust their words).

Really, I’m just doing what I do: trying to dig into people’s heads, people with values and lives far different from my own, to understand what makes them tick.

The national library of Belarus.

Posted in Belarus, Personal Travels | 8 Comments

War Zone Microfinance

March 3
Füzuli region, Azerbaijan

It took me quite a while, but here it is: Part 1 of a two-part series on my experiences as a Kiva Fellow conducting microfinance work with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan. This was meant to go up on the Kiva Stories from the Field blog, but it was turned down because Kiva, having been burned in the past, did not want to touch the Nagorno-Karabakh controversy with a ten-foot pole. Now that my affiliation with Kiva has ended, I’ve received permission to put it up here. Please link, please share, please help to raise awareness.

The manager of Komak Credit Union’s Absheron branch raises one hand off the steering wheel to gesture toward the jagged white peaks to our west. I know what he’s about to say, and it sends a chill down my spine.

“That is the Lesser Caucasus,” he says. “That is Nagorno-Karabakh. Every one of those mountains is occupied by the Armenians.”

Map of Azerbaijan
A map of Azerbaijan with the occupied region of Nagorno-Karabakh marked (click for full view). Füzuli is the green-bounded region in the southwest that has been riven in two by the frontline; its Armenian-occupied capital, Füzuli (Fizuly), and its acting capital of Horadiz are both visible.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous, majority Armenian region of the Caucasus that sits within the borders of Azerbaijan. Since 1991, it has been occupied by Armenian forces, the legacy of a destructive ethnic war between the two nations that left the region in ruins. Hostilities ended in 1994, but the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies remain exactly where they were at the time of the ceasefire, transforming the frontline into an insuperable and deadly barrier that divides Nagorno-Karabakh from the rest of Azerbaijan.

Eighteen years later, the conflict remains a suppurating wound. Over 800,000 Azeris, nine percent of the country’s population, were forced to flee their Karabakh homes due to warfare and ethnic strife; Azerbaijan has more internally displaced persons per capita than any country in the world. Those Armenians who remain in Karabakh live amid vast fields of rubble, the unreconstructed remains of a region where both ethnicities once lived in peace. The ceasefire is constantly breached, turning villages near the frontline into ghost towns menaced by snipers. Fourteen percent of Azerbaijan’s territory remains occupied, and Armenia’s economy has been all but crippled since 1993, when its long borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan were closed.

For four months, I worked in Azerbaijan with a Kiva field partner called Komak Credit Union, which devotes itself to providing microcredit to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Its name in Azerbaijani, Kömək, means “help.” It was founded in 1999 by a group of 20 IDPs who had been forced to flee their homes near the Armenian-occupied city of Füzuli; to this day, nearly all of its employees are IDPs. Every person in the car with me right now has had their life ripped apart by war.

And now they have agreed to take me back to their former home region to show me what life is like next to the frontline.

Due to security concerns, this is one of the only pictures I could get of the Füzuli region of Azerbaijan. The Armenian frontline lies not far beyond the low row of hills to my left.

As soon as we cross into Füzuli, we run into minor chaos. The main east-west power line serving the region has toppled over in spots, and workers struggle to neutralize the threat of the downed cables while righting the massive telephone poles. Last night, I am told, a ferocious thunderstorm swept through the area, and the combination of high winds and snowmelt-sodden soil simply plucked a dozen poles right out of the ground.

My mind races, looking for a narrative. Perhaps this is a legacy of Soviet times? Perhaps this is evidence of the unchecked decay of Soviet-era infrastructure, a trend I had observed in countless other places in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan? I quickly dismiss that thought. Unlikely; far more likely that the Soviet-era power line would have been destroyed in 1993 as two ferocious armies swept through; far more likely that this iteration was new, erected with typical solidity by Azerbaijan’s independent government, and that only nature had brought about its demise.

Perhaps the only narrative here is that of Füzuli’s stolid, timeless earth violently upturned: of an orderly row of poles uprooted by awful forces that had spun out of control.

Komak Credit Union’s Füzuli branch, located in Bala-Bəhmənli, a small village that has become a regional focal point now that the main population centers of Füzuli region have been occupied. This tiny storefront handles over 35 percent of Komak’s loan portfolio; 100 percent of the branch’s clients are IDPs.

We stop briefly at Komak’s Füzuli branch office, a minuscule storefront sandwiched between a butcher shop and a purveyor of mobile phones, then hit the road again. Our borrower visit has begun.

Komak was founded here in the Füzuli region, and I am convinced this is still where it does its most important work. Violent fighting swept through Füzuli several times in 1993, reducing its towns to rubble and displacing its inhabitants several times over. By the time the ceasefire came, most of its population had lost everything there was to lose. Many Füzuli IDPs, like Komak CEO Aydın Hüseynov, are former urban dwellers forced to flee their cities and learn subsistence agriculture to survive (see Yelena Shuster’s KF11 blog post in which she shares Aydın’s story). Even today, the IDPs of Füzuli are among the poorest people in all Azerbaijan. There is not a life in the region that has not been shattered by war.

How do you speak to someone who has suffered so much? How can I, a privileged American who has never known tragedy, just drop in on a man whose entire life was destroyed and ask him how often he makes repayments on his loan? I am uncomfortable. I review my questionnaire, coming up with ways to dance around painful topics while still gently drawing forth the information Kiva wants me to collect. Delicacy, delicacy above all.

I am not prepared for a bone-rattling handshake and a kiss on the cheek.

Fariq is a bear of a man who leaps across the muddy patches of his yard with sprightly energy, chattering so enthusiastically that my translator, laughing, has to hold up a hand to make him stop. Yes! he beams, he is an IDP! He and his family had to flee their native village in 1993 when the Armenians swept through; thankfully, they were able to return a few months later, following a successful counteroffensive by the Azerbaijani army. But in the interim, their house had been burned to the ground and everything they owned destroyed. For years afterwards, he and his family lived in squalid temporary housing, too poor to even begin rebuilding their lives – until the early 2000s, when the government of former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev provided him with a house and a new plot of land. He discovered Komak not long after.

Fariq has used this, his fourth Komak loan and his second funded by Kiva lenders, to buy a cow and a calf for his dairy business. (“And then the cow made more cows!” he chortles.) He proudly takes me out back to show off his animals. His stable, which is nothing but lashed-together branches with a corrugated tin roof held down by bricks, has collapsed, a casualty of the same damaging storm that uprooted all those telephone poles along the highway. He brushes it off: “We will rebuild it! We always do!”

Fariq is grateful to Komak for giving him his first loan on nothing but trust – an act especially meaningful to IDPs, many of whom lost all records of their creditworthiness when they had to flee. He is grateful for his astonishing 6% annual interest rate, a Komak hallmark designed to encourage Füzuli borrowers to build businesses in their depressed home region rather than moving to Baku for work. He is grateful for his tailored repayment schedule, which compresses his loan into four large quarterly repayments to help him manage his seasonal agricultural income. He is very, very grateful for every last thing, and he pumps my hand over and over again to tell me so. “Without Komak, I would have been just a subsistence farmer,” he tells me. “But these loans have helped my family so much. Thank you. Thank you.”

Komak Credit Union borrower Fariq, pictured with one of the cows he was able to buy with his two Kiva loans. His collapsed stable can be seen in the background.

The branch manager points the car southwest. We are going to Horadiz. We are going to the end of the road.

The land has become bumpy and green – such a contrast from arid, pancake-flat central Azerbaijan. To the north, a row of foothills press in, driving the road closer to the river. I know that just behind them rise the towering cold peaks of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. From this perch, I look south across the narrow green floodplain that lines the river Araz, the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, backed by a sawtooth row of snow-covered slopes. Armenian soldiers out one window of the car, Iranian border guards out the other. I have the sudden thought that I am descending into the maw of a great beast, a gleaming row of white-capped teeth on each side.

If that is so, then Horadiz, I reflect, must be square in the gullet. Horadiz was once a major rail junction but is now the end of the line, the farthest west town in Füzuli that remains in Azerbaijani hands. It was designated the temporary capital of the Füzuli region once the former capital became inaccessible. And what a strange place it is, a gleaming showpiece of a city with beautiful government buildings, immaculate houses, luxuriously landscaped parks, and even a state-sponsored center for muğam, Azerbaijan’s rich and dramatic national folk music. All, it is plain, were built in the last ten years, built to replace a city that had been nearly razed during the Armenians’ brief occupation. Horadiz is not a town, but a symbol, a defiant fist raised within sight of its former occupiers. It is protected from sniper fire by nothing but a low row of hills.

I have no pictures. The one time I pulled out my camera, my Kiva Coordinator and the branch manager traded worried glances, then gently suggested that if I was going to take photos, I should confine them to times when no other cars could see us. Swiftly, I put my camera back in my bag. What had I been thinking? This is the frontline of a war. Every suspicious person is a spy. One would have to be a fool to take pictures here.

But perhaps, sometimes, a fool is what I become. How else to understand the effects of war but by traveling to see them firsthand? How else to raise awareness of Azerbaijan’s IDPs but by taking you with me to see this tortured part of the world?

A map hanging in Komak Credit Union’s Füzuli branch marks the lost city of Füzuli as a beautiful butterfly. The frontline itself is not pictured; no Azerbaijani maps will mark it for fear of legitimizing it as a genuine boundary, and thus legitimizing the Nagorno-Karabakh region as something separate from Azerbaijan.

The title of this post is an exaggeration, or maybe it is not. Füzuli is on the frontline of a frozen international war, yet at the moment, life peacefully trundles on. Thanks to microfinance, government support, and their own unfathomable internal strength, many Füzuli IDPs have been able to build semi-normal new lives. Yet only a few kilometers from their homes, soldiers trade potshots, landmines lurk in the soil, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis stare each other down through the sights of their sniper rifles.

The Nagorno-Karabakh War never ended. Its ripples reverberate across the region, its victims still struggle to rebuild their lives, and its echoes haunt me wherever in Azerbaijan I go.

Chris Paci is a roaming Kiva Fellow (KF16 and KF17) who has completed a four-month stint in Azerbaijan. While there, he worked with three diverse field partners: Komak Credit Union, which lends primarily to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Nagorno-Karabakh War; Aqroinvest Credit Union, which focuses on both IDPs and Azerbaijan’s rural poor; and VisionFund AzerCredit, Kiva’s newest and largest field partner in Azerbaijan. Join the lending team Supporters of Azerbaijan and make a Kiva loan to an Azerbaijani IDP borrower today.

Posted in Azerbaijan, Grand Tour of Disputed Territories of the Former Soviet Union, Kiva Fellowship, Official Kiva Posts, Stories of People, Stories of Places | 1 Comment