AN EYE OPENING 48 HOURS IN KYRGYSTAN

( ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT CHANGE.ORG)

BY JENNIFER RAWLINGS

          I reported to the flight line on Ramstein Air Force base in Germany very early on a cold April’s morning in 2007. Three other (male) comedians and I were on our way to Afghanistan to entertain the troops.  The sun was just peeking over the horizon as we walked up the broad metal steps of the C-130. The back cargo doors were wide open as the loadmaster stacked the camouflaged duffle bags of the soldiers; piled in rucksacks of the other comedians and then of course my huge suitcase, which stood out amongst all of the sensibly sized bags. The loadmaster flashed me a broad smile as he strained his back securing my bag. Even in a war zone a girl likes to have her wardrobe options.

          We were not flying directly to Afghanistan. The military travel orders had us staying the night in a tiny country in Central Asia called Kyrgyzstan. As the lumbering C-130 approached Manas Airbase I took note of the landscape’s sharp dramatic mountains with jagged gray edges towering over flat desert patches that were sprinkled with palm tress.

                 I spent two nights at Manas Airbase. One night on the way to Bagram airfield and one night one the way back from Afghanistan.

           As civilians in Kyrgyzstan we were required to obtain a Visa. Our military host drove us off base and to the public airport. I had to pay two “bribes” to obtain one visa for the two nights I was going to spend in Kyrgystan. I was first taken to one window at the airport where I paid a “fee” to a Kyrgy public servant in U.S dollars and then I walked to a second window to pay another “cash only” fee with US dollars. The total fees paid were about $40. I have often been forced to pay “thank yous” in countries around the world. It is common in most cultures. However, it is not as common to have to pay “a double thank you” to government officials for the same service.

          About a year ago, the Obama administration had to up it’s “thank you” to Kyrgystan from 17 million a year to 60 million a year to rent Manas Airbase.

        I have thought about my two nights in Kyrgyztan several times in the last couple years. What stuck with me the most from my brief experience there was the extreme poverty. About one-third of the country lives well below the poverty line. Of course the base hired some local Kyrgyz to staff the food court, work in the shops and clean and perform maintenance on the base. But that is a drop in the bucket for the country’s five million people. The inflation rate in Kyrgystan is above 24% and the GDP per capita is $870. Compare that to the United States GDP per capita of $48,300, or even of nearby Afghanistan whose GDP per capita is $1000.

         Driving the streets off base, it seemed that no one had a job or any hope of finding one. There were small children wondering the streets begging and picking up rubbish to sell. Child Prostitution is one of the major industries in the capitol city of Bishkek. The girls and boys are often gang raped and then beaten into submission by the local pimps.  Eleven year old children are a popular commodity in the prostitution rings there. Many private homes are turned into brothels and the children are kept there as sex slaves.

        This is the second time in five years that the government of Kyrgystan has been overthrown. The money will continue to flow from one bureaucrat to the next regardless of party affiliations. The new government will probably ask to sweeten the deal again for Manas since the US has made it abundantly clear that there is no other way to keep supply lines going into Afghanistan without this important corridor.

           But the average citizen of Kyrgystan will continue to struggle and starve while we load the cargo planes to Afghanistan. Kyrgyystan will continue to feed it’s other supply line as one of central Asia’s major thoroughfares in human trafficking.

           There lives will not change until we as citizens recognize the real war that needs to be fought is the war on poverty. Poverty is the real weapon of mass destruction because it denies education and opportunity to massive amounts of people. It allows extremists to take hold of communities, children to be traded as sex toys and corruption to govern.

            The political coup will not kill the US mission in Afghanistan but poverty and corruption might.