Saturday, August 1, 2009

Revolution or Riot

I never posted this blog written July 2008 because going to the election riots was a clear violation of my volunteer contract. However, it's a year later and I'm procrastinating dissertation research - so voila.

At around 7:30pm July 1st I was getting ready to head to a bar for a quiet Canada Day drink when I got a text message from a friend saying she watching rioting on the Mongolian news. With all the campaigning over the past month I knew the election was the day before, and had heard that the communists had won a surprising majority. Despite rumors of election fraud I was still in disbelieve that pacifist Mongolia, one of the only USSR states to walk into and out of Soviet rule without so much as a stone throw, had turned to rioting in the streets of Ulaanbaatar. Having to witness this for myself I soon found myself in the midst of a revolution.

I was in front of the Mongolian People’s Revolution Party’s headquarters where wood scraps and styrofoam tubes where being rushed in from the neighboring building site to build the fire which was already pouring out of the first floor windows. A generation of young Mongolian men were running into the building with scraps and running out with computers, documents, rugs, and bottles of booze, some would make off with their loot while others would either have it stolen them or burn it up in the smaller fires littering the park in front of the MCRP building.

Police were keeping a distance, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, intermittently everyone would start running towards you and then you would turn and run towards others trying not to get trampled until the mass realized it was another false alarm and then race towards the chaos yet again.

Then the riot police charged. I was tying a shirt around my face after some tear gas had dropped close by when I heard the screaming and turned to see the riot squad rushing in, I thought I was going to get crushed under the rabble, when I reached the fence the task of maneuvering a spot to fling my leg over seemed an impossible task between all the bodies. Making it beyond the first obstacle there were still rows of hedges we had to tear though to get to the street, lining up to rush though the spaces between the branches the police were moving in closer and closer to us, I was almost at the end of the course when a large woman struggling thought the gap blocked my way, I turned to see a baton wielding riot cop right behind me and suddenly realized that with a t-shirt tied around my face I no longer looked like the humanitarian volunteer I am employed as, I looked like a target. My blood stream filling with adrenaline, I shoved the woman through to the other side and didn’t stop running.

A few blocks away in relative safety my friend and I were passed some vodka by rioters either amused or impressed at our presence. We learnt that the police had been overcome by the crowd and when we got back many of the fighters were brandishing the clubs and riot gear they’d acquired. The fires which had died down were again growing while footpaths were being torn apart into ammunition to be hurled in the direction of the police retreat and the MPRP building which police inside were trying to protect. Flags were pulled down from poles and brandished by protesters chanting for free and fair elections, democracy and fire. With all the smoke and remnants of tear gas it was difficult to see what was going on when the bulldozer from a construction site was hijacked, its front loader in a blaze people were climbing onto it and posing for pictures.

As the messages from my sponsoring organization began getting more urgent for all volunteers to get off the streets and rumors of the army’s imminent arrival grew we made our way into Sukbaatar Square not far from the action. As we retreated we started spotting the arrival of the Blue Mongols, the nationalist gang that brandishes swastikas and knew it was time to go. On the Square where Mongolians had gained their independence from the

Soviets only 18 years ago, rioters were trying to pry open a safe to burn the votes in it.

Was this all an excuse for gratuitous violence? The destruction spread to the nearby Cultural Palace where I’d watched a performance of Carmen only two days prior. Costumes and instruments were looted and destroyed, local merchants have suffered the same fate, and foreigners were attacked – what does any of that have to do with fair and free elections?

As many of the rioters claimed perhaps this symbolizes the real revolution against corruption and the communist party which continued to grip onto power long after the Russian tanks rolled out, maybe the Mongolians needed to fight for democracy after all. Mongolia is technically a transitional democracy and a young one at that, demonstrations are rare, yet even in countries where citizens are habituated to manifestations unwarranted violence is difficult to avoid. The MPRP represents socialist ideals as little as the Democratic Party represents democracy in Mongolia, and both parties have a long history of corruption. The protesters and rioters were marching for free and fair elections but the options seem bleak.

Taking a long route back home and climbing up the nine flights of stairs to my apartment from my window I could still see a pillar of smoke flares shooting up from the area we just retreated from. We flipped the news channels watching police beatings and bloody faces when the channels started tuning to static one by one. President Enkhbayar had declared a four day state of emergency; only government sanctioned news was available, alcohol sales banned and a curfew allowing police to arrest anyone outside between the hours of 10pm and 8am was put in place.

July 2nd was eerily quiet in Ulaanbaatar; tanks were placed at major intersections, soldiers brandishing Kalashnikovs patrolled the streets and street cleaners piled shards of glass into bids. Rioters were locked away in jail cells or at home suffering from either alcohol or adrenaline hangovers. I was left wondering whether this was actually the start of a revolution, an adolescent tantrum or romantic idealism already swept under the rug.

Follow up

Ulaanbaatar was a strange place after the tanks rolled out and booze began to flow again. No one would initiate the conversation but it was on a lot of people’s minds: it is over? By July 23rd the MPRP parliament was temporarily reinstated, there wasn’t a peep on Sukbaatar square in front of the parliament other than small vigils for the five riot young men that died that night.

The national celebration in Mongolia falls on July 11-13th each year when the strongest and most skilled Mongolians compete in the three “manly sports”, archery, wrestling and horse racing. It is the biggest party of the year and despite the passion of the crowds on July 1st, the lobby groups and party supporters were not willing to have a cancelled Naadam on their hands; so we waited, Naadam came and went but after the parties the apathy was ever enduring.

While some Democratic Party MPs boycotted the parliamentary sessions for some time, by the time Tuvshinbayar won Mongolia’s first gold medal in the Beijing Olympics in mid-August it was barely a shock to see the MPRP and DP leaders singing the national anthem together in a drunken embrace on national television (unfortunately was taken off youtube).

Just before leaving Mongolia in August 2008 I walked by the silent protest to release riot detainees on the square, a handful of people had gathered, mostly the mothers of the captured. Around this small group life continued as normal in Ulaanbaatar, for better or worse, July 1st was a riot, not a revolution.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Goodbye Hutul

Keeping up-to-date with my blog has been a particular challenge for me lately. Things haven’t been going that well for the past little while and in trying to maintain a positive blog I’ve ended up simply avoiding the internet!

I’ve been reluctant to write negative things up to now but for some reason with recent changes in events I more willing to share now. Working in Hutul for the past 3 months has been somewhere between difficult and non-existent. Because both of my counterparts were fulltime teachers it was almost impossible to get them to dedicate more than a couple of hours every week to working on their NGO’s. Over last couple of weeks since school tapered off I’ve had the opportunity to work with them a little more but finally confirmed that their objectives were not going to coincide with those of my placement organization’s – thus I was pulled out.

After laborious negotiations I’m finally employed again and will starting working at the program office in Ulaanbaatar this week to conduct an impact assessment for VSO. I’m excited about the job, I’ll get to meet with many different organizations and get new skills under my belt but I’m sad that it didn’t work out in Hutul for many reasons.

Although the reasons I was asked to work in Hutul and the ones that I was actually brought there for had nothing to do with each other I worked hard to develop relationships with my counterparts and learn to live in simple circumstances. In UB although there is a large network of volunteers and ex-pats in general it’s a smoggy, noisy, expensive (relatively) city – not where I was hoping to work when I signed up! Nonetheless, I’m excited about the prospect of learning a bit more than the value of patience and the luxury of the occasional kettle water bath in my time in Mongolia.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mongolian Needle Torture

For the past three weeks or so I've had an awful pain in my hip whenever I walk, I have an ankle problem which used to give me knee pain until I got that corrected earlier this year so I figured it had something to do with that.

The pain's been getting worse and worse so based on my organization’s protocols I started by seeing the UN doctor in Ulaanbaatar. Long story short she sent me to this acupuncturist / masseuse. As I got out of the stairwell onto the 3rd floor of the building I was directed to, the smell of ointments and herbs was so overpowering that I almost turned around, but determined to give this new experience a try I persevered.

I was ushered into a barely curtained off area in the room where the smells where wafting from, I started with a painful massage given by a young woman who would occasionally go out of the room I was in and giggle with a male attendant while I lay there in my underwear. At one point I had my eyes closed trying not to spasm from her boney figures in my stomach when I suddenly heard her say "bano?" – she nonchalantly talked on her cell phone for at least 5 minutes while jabbing my organs.

Forty-five minutes later that was finally over and I was given acupuncture, mostly on my stomach and thigh. Still lying there in my underwear the attendant my masseuse torturer was giggling with continuously poked his head through my curtain while I sat there with 20 needles sticking out of me, it was difficult to access the professional reasoning behind this considering that he was not attending me in any apparent way.

Finally the needles came out and I’m under the impression that I can finally go and relax after this stressful experience when I'm told to flip over. I lay there with another 15 or so needles in my back and on my ass when all of a sudden I feel this plastic thing on my lower back that the acupuncturist starts pumping into some suction action over the needle – the final result was a semi crescent of fist sized hickies shaping my bum cheek for about a day and a half… and the same pain I started with!

I probably could have given it another chance but was happy to settle it with the expensive ex-pat doctor with a diagnosis of tendonitis and a bag of ibuprofen!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Real Countryside

Hutul is a soum (small town or village) which is considered to be the countryside in many respects, but in the 6 weeks I’ve been living here I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with that. Yes, everyone knows everyone, almost as many horses as cars and I can walk the length of the area in under 10 minutes, but it doesn’t look like a “typical” countryside.

The town was constructed in the ‘70s by the Russians who built the cement factory here and anyone that came here came to work in the factory, the buildings are all perfectly identical 5 story Soviet style structures in groups of four with a playground in the middle of each. Beyond hills on three sides of the town are the “ger districts” where people live in traditional Mongolian gers or simple wooden houses. Being here had lowered my expectations of Mongolia as a beautiful country. There are beautiful places, but concrete doesn’t conjure up any nostalgia or inspiration.

Last weekend I went to Dulahan a small soum north of Darkhan closer to the Russian boarder. I loved it! The town itself didn’t have any buildings higher than a couple of stories and they were all different shapes and forms all mixed together in one area without any apparent segregation. The hills where higher and rockier than the dusty gray-brown ones surrounding Hutul and two rivers pass through Dulahan, recently unfrozen and flowing again.

We spent only one night there but a friend and I hiked for hours to the tallest hill. It was a strenuous hike but when we reached the top we were surrounded by cherry blossoms and sat on a rock for a long time taking in the beautiful view and the sweet smell. Mongolia is beautiful.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Staying Warm in May

I think that Mongolia is in desperate need for restructuring its heating systems. The country runs on coal and apparently in the winter time the pollution in Ulaanbaatar is horrible turning the Eternal Blue Sky that Chinngis Khan once prayed to into eternal gray smog. When I got to the city in February it was cold but comparable to Montreal winters, what was ridiculous though was how I constantly had the windows open in my guess house because the heating system was set so high.

In Mongolia you either have heat or you don’t, and if you have it then it’s at the exact same temperature from October 1st until May 1st. In February I had the windows open, today a week into May, I’m sleeping in my thermals and under 4 blankets while it's snowing outside!

Thermostats people.

I asked around about this and it seems like using the current system – despite the complete waste of coal, is cheaper than installing a controlled system. I think this situation epitomizes the problem of environmental protection in developing (or transitional) countries.

Mnemonic Memories

Living in Hutul without many English speakers around puts extra pressure on learning Mongolian and learning it quickly. I have a few friends here in town who I spend some time with, the way this plays out is usually them stuffing food down my throat while we teach other a few phrases in our respective languages with the help of a pile of dictionaries and language training books between us. Usually this amusing scene is successful in helping me interact and practicing the few phrases I know but my challenge lately has been in trying to remember the new vocabulary.

I’ve reviewed my notes from these meetings, I’ve tried rewriting words over and over again like some sort of punishment, I’ve even tried Sesame Street style “words of the day” which I would write on my hand and try to use in the day to drill them in my mind but nothing’s been sticking! Finally I decided to go back to what I know.

In my second year of university I enrolled into an elective “The History of Classic Greek Art and Archeology”. As a budding anthropology student I thought it would be interesting to see the physical archeological side of my discipline. I don’t remember why I didn’t drop out of that class but it tore at my soul. We would spend 3 hours looking at slides with 15 centuries worth of pottery, paintings, sculptures and architecture. We had tests every couple of weeks worth just a few percentage points but no matter how hard I would study those pictures the classical Greek names, dates, artists, materials and locations that matched them never connected and I kept bombing one exam after another.

As the semester went on I started freaking out, I’d never done so bad in a class and it only got worse after my final exam schedule came out, I had 5 finals consecutively squashed into 4 days and couldn’t spare the time to figure out the difference between Daedalic and Severe sculpture styles anymore. The night before I had to sit for that impending exam I finally pulled out my text book and stared at one clay pot after another trying to drill all the details into my exhausted mind, I was studying an archeological plan which had a long path going up to a main temple, I began picturing the beautiful goddess Hera walking up that path and imagined that there was water on either side of it, as she walked up that path salmon were jumping out of the water over the path to the other side, 6 on the left jumping over 5 on the right, Hera being a bit freaked out by these weird fishes runs into the temple for sanctuary – and that’s how I remembered that The Sanctuary of Hera dating back to 650BC was excavated in Samos.

I spent the entire night fantasizing ridiculous, often perverted, intricate stories and images. At the end of the three hour exam I looked up and found that I was one of the only people still there – not because I was struggling to remember but because I remembered so many details that I couldn’t stop writing!

Now when I have to remember the word for “question” an image of a menacing cartoon interrogation mark pops into my mind since the word for question асуулт sounds like “assault” and if I can’t remember I can say “мартах” because it rhymes with partaay and if you party too much it’s only natural to forget.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Hard at Work

Darkhan one of the bigger towns in Mongolia and only a 40 minute drive from Hutul so I’ve been spending my week-ends here hanging out with the hub of VSO volunteers living in the city. It was interesting coming to Darkhan after my first week living in Hutul and talking to a colleague who was remarking on how quickly he ended up in a 9-5 routine in Darkhan. Not the case for me.

In Hutul I work for two organizations, my original mandate was to work for one headed by two women but upon arrival in Mongolia I found out that only weeks before my arrival the women had parted to create two NGOs so they could each head their own. My job description was already divided into two parts – building the capacity of the NGO it self as well as building the capacity of the national volunteers working for the NGO, the split meant that I would now be balancing those two initiatives between two organizations.

Both of my employers, N and D, are fulltime teachers and work in the mornings, so I don’t start work until 2pm the earliest. However, even then in the past couple of weeks I’ve only had a few days which could be considered an orientation to the work I’ll be doing. It’s difficult not to get wrapped up in that fact considering that I’m only here for another four and a half months with a lot of work to do but then I reflect on some of my best “meetings” these weeks such as getting invited to D’s home for dinner and discussing project ideas, or the discussion I had with N at lunch. They’re busy working mothers with great ideas but not a lot of time to invest in them but I’m hoping that we can get a momentum going soon.

Of course there’s still the question of what that momentum will look like. I was brought onto this project in the role of an advisor/capacity builder but it seems like other than a bit of fine tuning both the NGO’s are in need of fundraising more than anything, they have great ideas and know the community’s needs better than I ever could so there’s no point in me bringing in new project ideas, despite them asking for them, I think the best thing I can do is support what they already want to do, however without other NGOs, foreigner investors or organizations, or internet access to organizations to network with it will be interesting to see how I’ll manage that!