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Witness to Revolution

Surviving the April 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan

Jia Tolentino gives a demonstration lesson to a class of 8th graders at the village school in Sasyk-Bulak in the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan.

I’m in a safety education session held in an orphanage where the children speak Russian, and their heads are shaved to prevent lice. It’s my first week in the Peace Corps. I’m exactly halfway across the world from America, in an icy and mountainous corner of Central Asia. The long history of this country’s conquest—Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the Qing Dynasty in the 18th, then the Russians in the 19th—is written in the faces of its people, who used to be red-headed Siberians, but now appear uniquely Asiatic.

A Peace Corps staffer comes into our classroom and announces that we’ll all be going home early today. Just as a precaution, he asks us to please refrain from leaving our houses for the rest of the afternoon and evening. “Nothing to worry about,” he says. “But please don’t leave your houses.”

We go home in herds on the tiny minibuses that constitute public transportation in Kyrgyzstan. The dust floats off the road in the center of the village and drivers speed past in cars older than we are—older than this fledgling republic—with steering wheels placed indiscriminately to the right and to the left. This country is a crossroads: The cars are from Germany, the alcohol is from Russia and the religion is a loose form of Islam transmuted from the Middle East. In the last century, the Kyrgyz alphabet has been changed from Arabic to Roman to Cyrillic script.

At dinner, I can’t understand the conversation so I watch the small TV for news. There are people gathering in the capital city square. My host brother speaks English, and I ask him what’s going on. “The president is bad,” he says.

I’m awakened a few hours later by gunshots from the TV and then screaming. My heart beats fast. I hear another round. When I walk into the living room, the family turns off the TV. The brother tells me that it’s nothing. They’re trying to keep me from being afraid.

In the morning, I go to language class. The other volunteers saw the news, but no one knows what happened. At the morning tea break, our teacher receives a phone call from Peace Corps and tells everyone to meet in an hour with two days’ worth of clothes and our passports.

With our bags, we climb into vans and try to use the map on the back of our textbook to see if we’re crossing the northern border to Kazakhstan. We’re all giddy with alarm, making frantic jokes. We see the airport loom suddenly, but the bus turns left into a hidden maze of barracks.

This is the base where U.S. missions to Afghanistan start and finish. It’s about 20 miles from a Russian airbase, a fact that pleases no one. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host this uncomfortable combination.

Tolentino inside a yurt, a traditional home in the region

At a barbed wire gate, American soldiers ask for our passports and check our names off a list. I head to a building that, inside, feels like the newest sports bar in a midsize town. Listless soldiers play pool or poker and stare at photos of their children. The soldiers next to me, 20-year-olds from Kansas, tell me that Afghanistan was their first time out of the country. We receive an orientation, which is interrupted when the soldiers clutch their guns and shout for us to evacuate in a single-file line. “Head to the adjacent tent, now. Now. NOW!”

Once in the tent, absolutely nothing happens. All the soldiers leave. The adrenaline rush subsides. People pull out their laptops. The Kyrgyz government had blocked the Internet briefly, but it’s running fine now. We see that last night wasn’t a protest; it was a coup. The capital city is in flames. The former president is running for his life. Fifty people are dead.

I think about my host family’s mute, blank faces as they turned off news footage of their nation’s capital burning, about the two decades of corruption and rising commodity prices that drove their country to desperation.

A millennium ago, Silk Road outposts in Kyrgyzstan had running water, bountiful gardens and palaces. Now, it’s a land of subsistence farmers, and water must be drawn from wells. Since that brief flowering, Kyrgyzstan’s history has been bleak. Dwarfed between Russia and China, an independent nation only 20 years old, Kyrgyzstan and its citizens have tasted freedom and democracy only in these flashes of revolution.

I watch the news footage of my new home and take comfort in the fact that the Kyrgyz, like all of us, are clutching opportunities when they find them, striking out in hope that they can keep afloat on the tides of empire, conflict, goodwill and fear that have brought us all to this place.

Tolentino in the hills of Kyrgyzstan