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Caught in the Storm 

A Peace Corps volunteer describes his sudden evacuation from Uzbekistan as U.S. troops arrived for an assault on Afghanistan

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
One month ago, Will Clark had the next two years of his life all figured out. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, the 28-year-old would spend his days teaching English to the country's Russian, Uzbek, and Korean children. During breaks in his teaching schedule, Clark would tour the ruins of ancient cities, whose crumbling walls and glinting mosques once made the Silk Road the epicenter of education and empire. He would immerse himself in the tradition of host families that urged him to gorge at every meal. And eventually, he would return home to Los Altos with an enlightening experience to share with his family and friends.

"The reason I went there was to come back and tell people how safe Islamic countries are," Clark says. "It's hard to convey just how peaceful everything seems in Uzbekistan. We think of it as a battleground, but it doesn't feel like a hot spot. People just go about their lives."

Until Sept. 11. Within days of the terrorist strikes on Washington and New York, it became clear that the sustained, arduous war on terrorism declared by President Bush would inevitably impact Uzbekistan, which shares an 85-mile border with Afghanistan to the south. As Uzbekistan became synonymous with the phrase "staging ground for U.S. ground assault," the Peace Corps decided to pull out. At the end of September, all 149 Peace Corps volunteers and staff members stationed in Uzbekistan flew back to Washington for a few days of counseling, stress management, and relaxation. The next week, about 1,000 infantry troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., moved into an Uzbek air base, becoming the first U.S. ground troops known to be deployed near Afghanistan.

Will Clark, meanwhile, never visited the monuments of Samarkand or explored the strict Islamic culture blooming in the fertile Ferghana Valley. But he saw enough of Uzbekistan and met enough of its residents to regret coming home, to worry about a country whose alliance with the United States might further inflame the home-grown Islamic extremists whom many consider even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden and his organization.

"We don't know what we missed, but we had a feeling we were going to miss something," Clark says. "I'm deeply worried for the people of Uzbekistan."

Here's how the CIA World Factbook 2001 describes Uzbekistan, the once-obscure country that has suddenly become crucial to Operation Enduring Freedom:

"Russia conquered Uzbekistan in the late 19th century. Stiff resistance to the Red Army after World War I was eventually suppressed and a socialist republic set up in 1925. During the Soviet era, intensive production of "white gold' (cotton) and grain led to overuse of agrochemicals and the depletion of water supplies, which have left the land poisoned and the Aral Sea and certain rivers half dry. Independent since 1991, the country seeks to gradually lessen its dependence on agriculture while developing its mineral and petroleum reserves. Current concerns include insurgency by Islamic militants based in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, a non-convertible currency, and the curtailment of human rights and democratization."

Thousands of miles from Uzbekistan's jagged peaks, barren steppes, and scorched deserts, Will Clark sits in the middle of a bustling coffee shop in downtown Los Altos, American flags lining the sidewalks, and offers a more sympathetic take on Uzbekistan's plight. Speaking candidly about his aborted five-week stint in Central Asia, Clark raises a few eyebrows among nearby latte-sippers. When he says he is concerned about the public perceptions of Islam, a religion he terms "nonviolent and as good as any other," the raised eyebrows become open stares.

"I convinced myself that terrorism would not be a problem in Uzbekistan, that to equate Islam with terrorism is essentially a racist idea," says Clark, a lanky redhead who looks decidedly un-Uzbek in a blue fleece sweater, khaki shorts, and sandals. "Maybe it's hard for other people to understand that, but I still feel that way. I'm not Muslim, but I feel personally offended when people say terrorism is what Islam is all about."

Clark didn't know much about Uzbekistan before he received his Peace Corps assignment to teach there (his first choice was Latin America). He had spent some time in Ireland and Zimbabwe, and for the past three years he taught sophomore English and coached track at St. Lawrence Academy in Santa Clara. On Aug. 17, when he arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, he was struck by how Russian everything looked.

"There are remnants of Soviet architecture everywhere -- big staircases, pillars, balustrades," he says. "It doesn't look Islamic at all. I don't think I saw a mosque the whole time I was there."

He lived with an Uzbek host family in Chirchiq, a city of about 150,000 that lies 40 minutes northeast of Tashkent. The family -- parents, two sons, a daughter, and the elder son's wife and baby -- didn't regularly attend a mosque. They allowed Clark to wear jeans when he wanted. And they spoke openly about their fears of extreme Islamic groups, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden.

Like most Peace Corps volunteers in Central Asia, Clark first heard about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks via CNN with a Russian feed. Information was scarce and rumors ran wild; at one point he heard that 12 planes had exploded, killing 50,000 people. "I just felt sick," he says. "When I heard the planes were heading to California, I thought I might know someone that way. But luckily I didn't. We were all just shocked for a few days. Eventually we started thinking about our own circumstances, and there was a lot of speculation about whether we'd get evacuated."

The next morning, his lesson plan called for a lecture on American food. Instead, he crowded into Chirchiq's lone Internet cafe, logged on to its lone computer, and gleaned what he could from the slow-loading news sites. The Peace Corps, which received no direct threat on its American volunteers in Uzbekistan, shared what little information it had and switched into "standfast" mode, which orders all staff members to remain at their job sites and to continue working.

"That was the toughest part," Clark says. "You went through weeks of not knowing whether you were going to be there the next day. It was tough to work under those circumstances."

Although other Peace Corps volunteers reported some anti-American sentiment in the streets of Uzbekistan -- kids laughing at them and yelling, "Bomba! Bomba!" -- Clark says he was flabbergasted by the condolences he received from total strangers. "I wondered if in the States we would be as informed or sympathetic as they were," he says. "It seems that pretty often there are these disasters on the other side of the globe where thousands of people are killed and we can get over it in a few days. But the Uzbeks kept referring to it. It wasn't a small event for them."

In all likelihood, it's going to get bigger.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is generally considered the gravest threat to stability in Central Asia. A terrorist organization believed to train in Osama bin Laden's camps and receive financial support from the Taliban, the IMU seeks to return fundamental Islam to Uzbekistan and regularly skirmishes with the country's fighting forces. In 1999, according to the U.S. State Department, the group killed 16 people in a series of car bombings in Tashkent aimed at assassinating the Uzbek president. Last August, the group took four American mountain climbers hostage and held them for six days.

Needless to say, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan isn't likely to look kindly on its government buddying up with the United States to take down bin Laden.

"I'm worried about terrorism against the people there for supporting the United States," Clark says. "That's my biggest concern. I'm worried about some sort of payback."

Although he would have liked to stay, Clark says the Peace Corps made the right call in evacuating its staff members. "Not because of the Uzbek people -- I couldn't see anything happening from them -- but we were a great target, gathered as a group of Americans. Who knows what's going to happen? The area is so volatile."

That's a far cry from the message of safety and security he hoped to bring back from Uzbekistan. But he is open to returning, and he plans to re-enlist in the Peace Corps in February. For now, Clark has enrolled in some community college classes. He says he might head down to Latin America for a while, or he might try graduate school.

"I don't know what will develop in Uzbekistan," he says, "but I feel like I need to get rolling with my life."

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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