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Bullets Whistle over Your Head

Shahnaz Islamova of Tais Plus shares how sex workers are trying to stay safe in the midst of a revolution in Kyrgyzstan that has turned violent.

SWAN News: Can you explain, very basically, for SWAN readers what has been happening this spring and summer in Kyrgyzstan?
On the 4th of April, K. Bakiev, the President of Kyrgyzstan, was overthrown and a temporary administration seized power. This new administration was not able to hold down the political unrest and 80 people died. In June the situation repeated itself, but it took an international turn: in the south of the country, conflicts between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek broke out. According to official data of the Ministry of Health, 180 people died, but unofficial sources say that dead people were buried right away, so there is no way to guess the exact number. Some people think it is as many as 500.

SN: How has the political upheaval impacted sex workers?
There were some sex workers who suffered during the first wave of the revolution. Places where they used to work were burnt down by a group of unidentified men. It took place on the “spots" near one of the biggest markets where sex workers lived and worked in small hotels. Five sex workers who made to our center told us that they had been beaten up and their hotels burnt. Unfortunately in that situation we were not able to help them, as there were shootings in the streets and we were trying to ensure safety of our families and our houses and it was impossible to get out to the street. The sex workers stayed in our center where it was safer. Currently, our center is prepared to host all sex workers who need refuge until the end of these difficult days. Sex workers are ready to share space to sleep and food to eat when it is needed.

SN: How have sex workers dealt with the curfew?
There was no curfew in Bishkek, but in the country street sex work stopped. Those who can, work during the day time, they mostly survive by working in saunas if they can.

SN: What are sex workers doing to compensate for lost earnings?
The lost earnings are impossible to compensate. The only thing we can do is to offer place for temporary living and food at our drop-in center.

SN: Lately media reports have said that there is a great deal of violence against Uzbek-Kyrgyzstanis, how are Uzbek sex workers being affected?
I don’t have information about it right now. I suggest sending these questions to the countryside to get a bigger picture.

SN: Is there solidarity amongst sex workers across ethnicities or have some of these tensions emerged in the sex worker community?
There is not discord in the community because everybody understands that the problem is not about ethnicity but about political actions.

SN: In Thailand, workers are being compensated for lost wages due to the political crisis. Empower, the sex worker group are petitioning the government to have sex workers compensated as well. Would this work in Kyrgyzstan?
Here, it is impossible to make sex work accepted as work. We are a Muslim country where there is no place for sex workers. Even though sex work is decriminalized, nobody speaks aloud about it.

SN: How should sex worker groups prepare to support sex workers (financially, psychologically, medically) during times of political crisis?
The only thing we could do was to phone them and find out how they are dealing with the current situation. We asked everybody not to leave their homes. This was the only method to save your own life. We gave shelter to those who could make it to our center.

SN: Are there any lessons that Tais Plus has learned that you would like to share with other sex worker groups?
It is very difficult to speak about any lessons, when bullets whistle over your head. You understand very clearly that you cannot do anything to help others. This makes it even harder. But we did understand that when you communicate with each other, you can warn others abut the most dangerous places at that moment and tell where it is safer.

Tais Plus http://www.volvox.in.kg/association_members/tais_plus
Contact person: Shahnaz Islamova, taisplus@gmail.com