Ten days after we heard about the May 13 shootings in the city of Andijan, a colleague of mine at the school where I taught took me to a teachers' meeting. The school director echoed the government's version of what had taken place in Andijan that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the violence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He said accounts broadcast by foreign media outlets about the Andijan events consisted of "mish-mish," or gossip.
"Western journalists are lying. Maybe a hundred people were killed by extreme terrorist groups in Andijan. That is all," the director said. "There is a difference between the Western democracy of those criticizing Uzbekistan and our Eastern democracy. Our version is better. It is true to democratic principles."
True democratic principles? Throughout the meeting, my colleague watched my anger build. I explained to her that refugees who had fled Andijan and crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan were conveying horror stories about what went on in Andijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
I relayed accounts that I had heard on the British Broadcasting Corp's World Service, and read on the Internet, about how soldiers in Andijan shot at civilians from helicopters and without warning. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. I recounted the story about a witness interviewed on the BBC who saw hundreds of dead bodies piled together in a neighborhood school after the shootings. How family members frantically visited makeshift morgues, hoping to find missing relatives, then were followed home and shot.
Knowing the truth about these atrocities, the school director's lies made me sick. Uzbek television was filled with propaganda, endlessly replaying scenes of an old couple crying over their dead son, who supposedly was killed in Andijan by a terrorist.
I felt so powerless, wanted so badly to tell my community what had happened. I could have printed out Internet stories in the Uzbek language and left them conveniently in a taxi or at the bazaar. But as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was obligated to remain "apolitical."
The Peace Corps does not entangle itself in the internal affairs of host countries. But by not saying anything, by not doing anything to counter the blatant propaganda campaign carried out by the Uzbek government, isn't the Peace Corps also making a political statement?
When I discussed these issues with fellow volunteers, one said, "Why are we here? To teach leadership and critical thinking, right? But why? So our students can see wrongs being done, say something critical, and get shot?"
During one of my last taxi rides in Tashkent, the subject of Uzbek President Islam Karimov came up in conversation. I was with a few fellow volunteers, and all of us thought at once that our driver was not usually in the taxi business, but just trying to pick up some extra money.
We got in the car, and he said hello. Instead of saying "Yaxshi," or "fine," which is the typical Uzbek answer, we said, "yaxshi emas." We're not fine. Our driver wanted to know why, and I told him the Uzbek government had refused to extend my visa, and that I had to leave now.
Our taxi driver said the Uzbek government is good, that Karimov is going forward and doing great things. It was the first and last time I ever heard an Uzbek citizen speak well of the government.