Monday, September 9, 2013

Janela's tragedy

The story I'm about to tell is one I could almost sell to Disney. It has every feature, the princess, the hardworking father, the evildoers, the suffering mother. The only feature it misses is the happy ending.
The princess might not be what you expect. Not rich, not of noble descent, she's a girl from a Kyrgyz village. She's dressed in white with a little pink. She wears a smile with a little stress. She moves nervously; like sparks in a campfire.
We are sitting in front of the tourist information, trying to figure out how to use the internet. Nothing works.


"I so love tourists!," she says, "I so respect you, can I take a picture of you?"
I was wearing a Kalpak, traditional Kyrgyz hat, I think it might have appealed to her.
Her voice shakes a little, overcome with emotions, like a groupie in a concert, like a naive little girl. Her voice is high-pitched and her hands tremble a bit when she holds her camera. We're Filip and Ilona, not Elvis effing Presley!
However, there is something mysterious about her. Something I cannot describe. I cannot shake down the feeling that there is more to this person than it appears.
"I don't understand what you see in her," says Ilona, "you just like her because she's Asian."
I don't have anything to say to that. Maybe I do like her because she's Asian.
She's also looking to find some internet. She guides us to an internet café. We almost never pay for the internet but I am curious about that girl and a few soms (local money) for the internet won't kill us. Anyway, I need a normal computer because I've messed up my email account and cannot repair it from my tablet.
Her name is Janela and she lives not far from Karakol. She's just come back from Russia; she went there for work, as many Kyrgyz do. And as many Kyrgyz, she is not well recieved.
Now she's back in Karakol and she has some free time. She wants to meet us again. We are planning to go to the mountains.
"I'd love to go with you!", she says.
Ilona thinks she's just saying that, she doesn't strike us as the mountain type. But she has both triggered our curiosity and we both want to meet her. To do whatever. She is local, she'll figure out something.
But we cancel the meeting, we decide to go to Ala-Keul lake with a Polish couple. Ironically, we also fail to meet with the Polish couple. The trip to the lake is amazing.
I text Janela on our way back. Her mother is at the hospital in Aksuu. Damn, we were there yesterday, we shouldn't have returned to Karakol. There is a path towards the hot springs of Ardashan from Aksuu. It's the same direction as the lake. I think she probably lives in Aksuu so I set a meeting there and depart from there next morning. We all meet at 5PM. Turns out Janela doesn't live in Aksuu at all. She lives in a village on the other side of Karakol. She just came all the way because she wanted to meet us. And we have also come all the way because we wanted to see her. Ilona got her curiosity back. It's hard for her these days, she doesn't know how to handle her not continuing our initial plan to China. She'll go to Armenia alone, that's a big unknown.

We hitchhike all three together, to her village. It's so cool she accepts to hitchhike with us. Many locals wouldn't. Accepting a ride without paying makes them lose face. She is interesting and open and Ilona quickly changes her initial opinion of her. The first two rides, we negociate in my bad russian. The third one she takes over. I don't feel threatened as I felt with Nata. It's a sweet takover in the Kyrgyz language.
That's when I realize that beside her naive and shy side, that girl is able to make decisions, to act, she knows how to get her way.
Don't underestimate the Kyrgyz, we should remember that.

We are invited into her family. We eat and the food is even more incredible than usually. We meet with the father, he's a funny guy who looks younger than I expected. He likes to joke a lot and we connect quite easily with only minimal translation from his daughter. He doesn't talk bullshit, he's kind and honest. The mother is in a very bad shape. Her kidneys, liver, heart and pretty much all organs are failing. It's started with stress, we hear. Yet she makes tea, cooks and prepares the best raspberry jam I've ever tasted.
We eat like wolves, they barely touch the food.

Happy face Janela: "do you want some juice?"

Everyone is smiling and doing his best to make us feel at home. And it works. In this family, I have absolutly no stress. I like being here. I feel safe.
I'm getting to know Janela more and more and everything I see amazes me. She's really smart, she is skilled in languages, she can cook and appearently, she can sing.
The family is taking care of three more children. They're children from Djopan, Janela's sister. She's married but can't take care of them right now. It is a big happy house.

Father and family in flowers: a disney scene?

Or is is it really?

Janela cannot go with us to the hot springs. She must stay at home and take car of her mother. Her father is busy with a lot of work. He is selling fruits and vegetables from the garden. That's really not nice of them to spoil such a nice trip! I wish it were so simple. Janela doesn't go into details before I ask her. Her family has financial problems, that's all. But after a while, when I push her a little, she tells me the whole story.

In 1997, Janela and her family lived a fairly happy life. Her parents were farmers as they are now, with a garden, horses, cows and sheep. Father even had a car. Thanks to his car, Father could sell fruits and vegetables a little further, he could even sell them to Kazakhstan!
Since he has a car, why not share it with the neighbours? That's how Father ended up driving his truck all the way to Kazakhstan with a friend of his. Inside the truck, all the fruits and vegetables from his friends and neighbours, about ten people in total.
Business was a success; they were returning from Astana (capital of Kazakhstan) with about 5000 U.S. dollars in cash.

On the way back, they were stopped and assaulted by thieves. In the steppes of Kazakhstan, organised crime is common; we heard about it first hand when we were there. They beat up Father's friend and took Father to the forest. They took all his money and were about to gun him down.
Janela remembers what he then told his kidnappers:
"I know you can kill me; but if you do; the youngest of my five children will never remember me."
They let him live, maybe because, as we learned in Kazakhstan, even bandits live by a certain code.
When Father returned to his village without the money, he lost all respect from his friends and even from his family.
"Here, if you have nothing, you are not a person.", Janela explains. His own brother abandonned him.

As weird as it may seem to most of my readers, few people from the village cared about his story and they all wanted their money back. And Father kept his promise, he gave back every penny. But at his own expense: he borrowed the sum from a bank. In a country like Kyrgyzstan, $5000 is more than a four year salary. The bank accepted to do him credit but only at the dangerously high percentage of about 13%.
It became soon obvious that the poor fruit and vegetable family business won't be enough to cover the debts. And believe me, banks in Kyrgyzstan have a lot in common with sharks. You don't want to be in their debt. That is why Father had to borrow money from another bank, to give the money back to the first bank.
After a while, he had to borrow from a private person for as high as 50%. Nowadays, the family is nowhere near paying back even the interests, let alone the initial sum. As a result, the debt has soared up to 15,000 dollars which is a sum they just cannot afford.

Father has faced the catastrophe bravely but always honestly. He has sold his sheep, his cows, his car and his horses. He has sold all 4 hectars of his land. His house serves as a guarantee for the bank and therefore it may be siezed.

His children have grown up, two of them have married. They have their own families to care about. Two of them work in russia, desperately trying to pay back the family debt. Janela is one of them. She sells fruits in Russia with an asshole boss who wants to sleep with her. In europe this would be called sexual harassment, nothing less.
Her brother works at a construction site and I am not even starting about the security conditions of such jobs in this region.
This is not enough and they all know it. They are strong people so they keep working and keep hope. But sometimes it is too much. Mother couldn't take the stress anymore, she became very sick and suffered two heart attacks. Everyone is very worried even though they try to hide it. Sometimes it's too much for Janela too. She didn't notice me when I woke up in the morning. I saw her silently praying in her room. I am not one too receptive to emotions but I could feel the desperation in the act.

The story I just told could be a disney story but without a disney ending. And it fucking sucks. I dance with Janela before we leave. She's dressed in pink with a little white. She dances on rock music for the first time. She isn't nervous anymore; she moves like the wind. She likes to dance and she knows how to sing. She is 24, wears a smile with just a little stress. A smile because she has hope, stress because she is losing it. Her voice shakes a little, like a groupie at a concert, like a naive little girl. Her hands tremble a bit when she holds her camera for our goodbye picture. And suddenly I see that behind that camera is one of the bravest people I know.
I also know that she needs help, that her hope is a leaking bottle, that she won't hold forever. I don't want her to destroy herself like her mother did. And there are just 15,000 dollars, stupid pieces of paper that separate her from a happy life. So if you can help, please do, it's not everyday you can actually buy a happy ending!

Father, Janela, me and 3 Djopan's children ages 3,5 and 6