Saturday, February 5


Ferghana town, the pastel-washed, chinara-lined administrative center of Ferghana Valley, started as a Russian colonial entity, founded in 1876 to garrison the Tsar's forces. At first it was called New Margilon, and only Russians (i.e. European subjects of the Tsar) were allowed to live within town, the natives of the Valley just permitted to approach the perimeter to sell produce. In 1910, as part of the paroxysms that followed Russia's defeat to Japan in the far-eastern krai, the town was renamed Skobelev, after old goz zanli (bloody-eyes), whose cannons and night-raids had secured the Valley for Russia. Prosperous sarts were eventually allowed to build houses in Skobelev; gradually a class of Armenian and Jewish merchants also moved in. After the Bolshevik re-conquest of the area in 1924, the name was changed to Ferghana (Farg'ona).

Two thousand years ago, this is where the first interactions between Indo-European and Chinese states had taken place, between the Bactrian descendants of Alexander and the Han empire. Sima Qian (130 BC), the Grand Historian of the Han empire, writes of the inhabitants of Ferghana-region as Da Yuan, or the Great Ionians. A local myth recounts how a king went to the lake (much of the valley was marshland before being drained for agriculture) and saw a mermaid; he built her a palace, hence Pari-khona (Far-ghona), or the Fairy's House. Many a passing soldier has since helped himself to a local pari.

We are staying at an odd place -- in what looks like a full-fledged resort with a dozen modern, semi-detached condo-style buildings surrounding a lavish pool, bar, and entertainment center (complete with 24-hour Russian pop on big-screen-TV.) All this gated, behind high walls, in the midst of acres of sculpted gardens of rosebush. We are the only guests, apart from a Malaysian-Indian gentleman and his Uzbek office-ladies.

I step out into the street. All roads lead radially to the center -- deliberately laid out so that the civilians could flee in to the garrison should the surrounding natives ever rise in rebellion. A little way down is an internet cafe. Sadeq, who is hanging out, gives me a quick briefing. There are two of these resort-hotels in town, both controlled (under the fronts of joint-ventures with the Uzbek government) by drug-mafia laundering their money through real-estate. The southern Valley has become the largest trans-shipment area for Afghan heroin on its way to Russia and Europe. The Kyrgyz officials from Osh, the Uzbek ones from Farg'ona, the Tajiks from Isfara are all either drug-lords themselves or in the pay of these people -- Sadeq even thinks the American military has elements who collude in escorting opium out of Afghanistan. He is getting excited: "Did you see today's story? Zia Massoud was caught in Dubai with 52 million US dollars in cash! In an Afghan Airlines plane! And the Americans let him go! Bakiev's brother passed 25 tons of heroin through Osh every year! People over there" he gestures over the hills to the south, "pay 10 million soum (i.e. about USD 5,000) to just be the transportation officer for the district! And you can make that back just passing one truck through your area." A friend comes out and speaks to Sadeq in Uzbek.

From a paper by Ramtanu Maitra:

Afghanistan’s opium production was 350 tons in 1986, and 4,581 tons by 1999. Following the occupation of Afghanistan by the US and NATO forces, opium production rose to 8,200 tons in 2007. The opium began to flow across the Tajik-Afghan border, and then along the mainly uncontrolled and mountainous Khorog-Osh-Andijan road (the “Opium Highway ”).

High-quality heroin can be purchased in Afghanistan for USD 500 a kilo. Its price increases to USD 2,000 in Tajikistan, USD $4,000 in Osh or Ferghana, and USD 8,000 in Bishkek. By the time it reaches Moscow, it is USD 50,000 a kilo. A suitcase full of heroin smuggled from Afghanistan to Russia thus carries a margin of a million dollars.

In the morning over breakfast, we chat to Jerome Fernandez, the Malaysian-Indian gentleman we saw last night. He was born in Kerala, but has spent most of life in Kelantan. After a career in secondary education culminating in head-mastership and union-leadership of provincial schools, he is currently affiliated with Education International, a global federation of national teachers' unions. He is in Ferghana to conduct a workshop to help local teachers' union bosses cope with the dislocations brought to the education system by the collapse of the USSR.

The 'market' for education in the valley is shifting to private schools. These, as everywhere else, teach what is valuable in the global economy -- Korean language, double-entry book-keeping, or digital multimedia editing. The state-education system of Soviet vintage knows no way of meeting the demands of the market. Between delivering students for cotton-harvesting every autumn, the teachers are mired in antiquated syllabi of national heroes and notional reckoning, the most common medium of instruction being a stick. Jerome's backers, who would like healthy unions in all countries, and whose members also give money for the liberal end of 'capability development' in this part of the world, want him to deliver a blunt message -- adapt or die. If they do not change, he is to tell them, the private sector will step in, and the way of life for unionized teachers will go the way of Ionian medicine. Jerome is finding the going tough -- the first day of the workshop, he says, degenerated into chaos, the union members venting their anger about 'democracy' and 'free-market'. In Ferghana, life under the Soviets was tolerable, you knew where you stood, bread and soup were abundant, and while you did not get electricity all the time, your power never got cut off for merely failing to pay the bill.

The 30-odd workshop attendees have gathered again today, continuing their 'off-site' at the resort conference center. They are all senior teachers, headmasters or union leaders in the state school-system, and dressed very formally. Their 3-piece-suits, watches on fob chains, and long overcoats make them look like sombre state-councillors. About one in five is a woman, and about a third look Russian to me. This morning, the education minister of Ferghana is to kick off the proceedings. The group stands in a circle, in the sun outside the breakfast lounge; the minister speaks gruffly in Uzbek, and shakes hands with Jerome. The day will start with group-therapy -- everyone will write down on a card what his/her biggest problems are; then they will break up in groups to discuss and consolidate. Jerome's Uzbek assistants, two girls in their 20's who are also sharply dressed in business suits, hand out cards, markers, rolls of chart paper. The groups set off looking like kindergartners given all the ingredients for a nice-morning of making mud-pies.

Jerome looks at them in despair. "A very tough situation here," he says. "I don't think these folks will make it. "

Jerome is in Uzbekistan after several years in Aceh, helping rebuild the education infrastructure there after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. He shakes his head recounting its horrors. "You would try talk to children, who had lost their families and houses, who would answer all your questions but never once look up at you. If you did look at the faces, the eyes were vacant, month after month. We tried everything -- fostering, presents, trips -- but those children never again smiled." He looks fondly at Mr. M rampaging around. "That is why, when I see a child laughing and playing, I am grateful to God."

From a Malaysian interview:

"DON’T trust anyone!" This is not Jerome Fernandez’s life’s motto but it has been his mantra for the past three years.

It is not a policy Fernandez is comfortable with. But this guiding principle, he said, is what has kept his head above water, so to speak, in Banda Aceh since 2005 when he was picked by an international body to spearhead a mega post-tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction project. As project coordinator for Brussels-based Education International (EI), Fernandez is tasked with rebuilding schools, providing livelihood programmes, training new teachers to replace the 700 who died in the Boxing Day 2004 disaster as well as re-train those who survived. On top of this, he is also involved in a trauma counselling programme for survivors.

In a country where corruption is high, many foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had closed shop, downsized their projects or passed on their programmes to local NGOs or government-linked agencies, frustrated by the bureaucracy and delaying tactics and instances of "under-table donations".

"When I landed there, the place was in total chaos. On top of that, everyone wanted to make money out of the tragedy," said the 61-year-old retired headmaster. "‘Can I trust him? Will he cheat me?’ were all I could think of," he said in a recent interview in Petaling Jaya. It was a surprise to the many who knew him when he got the job. This is because overseeing the construction of 35 schools was his main task – something alien to this educator from Kuala Krai, Kelantan, who admittedly can’t even hammer a nail without hurting himself. "But, my employers said they needed to be absolutely sure that they could have a trustworthy person handling the money from donors," said the father of three. He said it was EI Asia-Pacific Regional chief coordinator Aloysius Mathews, for whom Fernandez had conducted educational programmes in Thailand, Bangladesh and other Third World countries, who made him the offer. "I received a call one night and was shocked at being offered such a project. I was confused and spent some time staring at the map of Aceh," said Fernandez, who minored in Geography and majored in English at the Sultan Ismail Teachers Training College in Kota Baru. However, he was more fearful of what his wife would say. "I was least expecting her to give me the green light but she said: ‘If you think you can do it and you want to go, then go for it!’

"I went to Aceh on May 11, 2005. I had to look for about 30 schools which had been ravished, train 1,000 teachers, find 338 teachers to train them as trauma counsellors and 4,000 children to give scholarships to. "I thought, oh God! I am all alone here. How am I going to do it? I don’t speak the language, I am a foreigner … where am I going to get all these information from?" Fernandez said these are pertinent questions as there was no complete data available – attributed to poor filing practices and the tsunami itself which destroyed the documents. "However, after about two months, I managed to gather the information from the community and obtained some help from the rehabilitation and reconstruction body (BBR), a department set up by the government to oversee the reconstruction of Banda Aceh."

To compound his problems, there were "turf wars" between the various NGOs. "Each has millions of euros to spare and needed projects so they would be upset if I encroached on their turf." On top of all these, there were dubious characters barging into his office and demanding contracts to build schools. Some dropped names of powerful local politicians, while others used veiled threats by saying they were with GAM, the Free Aceh Movement rebels who laid down their arms after the tsunami. In times like these, Fernandez, who got by speaking Bahasa Malaysia, would refer them to the BRR or claim the decision was not his but the government’s.

As far as getting staff he could trust, he preferred to surround himself with the fairer sex. "I felt I could trust women more," said Fernandez, whose office staff are all women.

He also credits his survival in Banda Aceh to taking a no-nonsense approach to his work. "There are no second chances for those who try to cheat me or those who do sub-standard work. I sack them on the spot," he said, adding that in this way, word goes around and everyone pull up their socks and "hopefully diminish any sinister thoughts". "We advertised in the papers for contractors and 32 companies applied. But I did not approve even one of them. "I do not trust them! They come for the money and not to help," he said. Ultimately, he got in touch with Yayasan Kita Peduli, an NGO headed by former Indonesian ambassadors and recruited contractors from their database. "That way," he said, "they cannot cheat me, because if they do so, they will have to answer to the ambassadors and the government.

"Anyway the foundation needs a lot of foreign aid, so it will ensure that the contractors do their work," he said, adding that at the end of the day, he still supervises their work with the help of engineers and surveyors. Living alone next to a graveyard and without the comforts of home (hot water and irregular power supply) is a humbling experience for Fernandez, who regards himself as a good cook. Alas, his new electric cooker blew up after a power surge. "It just makes you appreciate what you have back home."

However, the cracks are beginning to show. From facing Indonesian rebels and receiving threatening calls from contractors who were passed for projects, deadline pressures, being home sick and even finding a snake in the bathroom, it was inevitable that the ophidiophobic (fear of snakes) Fernandez would pick up his smoking habit – 25 years after he quit!

He has since completed 30 schools. With 75% of the funds from Oxfam Netherlands, and the balance from EI, he has a lot to account for, but his backers are happy.


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