17 October 2006


Snapshot 1: Three young mothers, with long dresses and headscarves marking them from the countryside, and their children, six or seven of them, all under eight years, begging—and, in particular, the look on the face of the first woman who spotted me, a rich American, as I walked by.

Snapshot 2: A young boy, no more than 10, huffing glue or some kind of inhalant from a plastic bag while staggering down the stairs into the concrete underpass, packed with pedestrians and vendors, which run beneath the intersections of some major roads in the city.

Snapshot 3: On the other side of the same underpass, which is near Zum, one of the city’s major department stores (and where the female U.S. Air Force officer was allegedly abducted several weeks ago), there is often an armless street artist who does portraits in pencil using only his feet. Disabled panhandlers are common as are the elderly poor, many of whom will sell you your weight, measured a set of bathroom scales, for the price of one som, the equivalent of 2.5 cents.

Unlike the States, many of the street poor here are senior citizens whose pensions are unable to sustain them (which also provides an effective case for the preservation of the Social Security retirement system, which, more any single measure, has eliminated catastrophic poverty among the elderly in the U.S.)

Like many developing countries, homelessness in Kyrgyzstan is also associated with urbanization. Unable to make living as farmers, families are pouring into the Bishkek, the nation’s major city, where the economy is relatively stronger but jobs are still few and far between. There is also a substantial amount of youth homelessness, many of whom I expect are from rural areas. In the mornings, I have seen teen-aged boys curled around two “eternal flames” in nearby parks that commemorate the nation’s war dead. A few weeks ago, while running, I watched an elderly street weeper in his fluorescent orange vest gently trying to wake up two boys near the small flame in the center of Victory Square, which venerates the military dead from World War II.

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