With the flood of 9/11 stories this month, most of us have been compelled to remember where we were when the news came in. I was in Tashkent, the sleepy Central Asian capital of Uzbekistan, bordering Afghanistan.
It was about 6:30 p.m. when the phone rang. Our secretary called out, "There's an American woman trying to reach you." I was surprised to hear my mother's voice calling from Pittsburgh. "It's war," she said.
Needless to say, our sleepy outpost began to bustle in the following days. I was working for the U.S Agency for International Development. Our attention quickly turned to getting as much assistance across the border to Afghanistan, before the anticipated U.S. military campaign there was to begin. In the days before 9/11, I would often travel down to the Afghan border and look across the Amu Darya River to Taliban-controlled territory and see complete darkness.
The bustle of activity was a welcome change from my normal routine. As the person managing USAID's democracy and governance portfolio in this deeply authoritarian regime, I had been thinking seriously about throwing in the towel in the previous months. The environment in the country was too oppressive to see any meaningful results. This was a place, after all, where the government was known to boil opposition activists alive (literally, not figuratively). There were very few activists to support.
The government of Islam Karimov was as afraid of democratic activists as it was of Islamic extremists. It perceived both as threats; both were arrested in large numbers. Most of those involved in the human rights and democracy movement had fled for the West. The Islamists had fled to Afghanistan where they had set up bases under the auspices of al-Qaida and the Taliban. It seemed difficult to justify spending U.S. taxpayer dollars in this environment.
One of the things I loved about my work, however, was that it gave me an excuse to talk with just about anyone about what was going on in the country or in the region. I maintained a very open door policy.
Just a couple of days later, during the haze of these events, I received a strange phone call. The caller claimed his daughter was in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He told me that he wanted to get a visa to travel to New York but was unable to do so because no one in the U.S. embassy believed his story.
The visa line outside the embassy was always chaotic -- filled with people clamoring to get out of Uzbekistan. Most visa applicants weren't concerned with politics. Many of them sought a tourist visa so that they could get to the U.S. and stay for good, seeking economic opportunities. Most folks who applied for visas were rejected because consular officials were well aware that these "tourists" never seemed to return home.
"How did you get my cell phone number?" I asked. He said that one of the security guards at the embassy had given it to him. The guard told him that I spoke the local languages and always seemed to be taking visitors.
My caller began to recount his story: He insisted his daughter was working in a shop on the upper floors of a tower. He was frightfully concerned for her health but certain she was alive.
"I'm sure she's in a hospital somewhere but is injured," he told me. "Her English is not very good, so no one can understand her." He had to get to America to see her. "No one at the embassy believes me," he kept saying. The embassy had been closed for several days after 9/11 and was experiencing even longer lines than normal due to the backlog.
I was deeply skeptical of his story. In the five years I had spent in the country, I had heard just about every reason why someone needed to get to the United States. I took his phone number and address and told him that I would get back to him.
After a few minutes of debate, I asked a local colleague to accompany me to his home.
But upon entering his small flat in central Tashkent, I no longer doubted his story.
His wife, parents and children were pale and weeping from days of uncertainty. They showed me pictures of their daughter, Gauhar Kamardinova. She was just 26. Her parents thought it was auspicious that her daughter and I were the same age.
She had been in America for about a year and, like so many others, overstayed her tourist visa and was working illegally. They told me of her love for life and how in recent weeks she had just begun taking courses at a local institute and working on her English so that she could improve her employment prospects. Her mother's eyes lit up when she described how her daughter had just begun attending a local mosque and had even started praying regularly. Unlike her parents, Gauhar was not raised as a devout Muslim. She was raised under communism.
Her turn toward religion made her father especially proud. The family had spent the past 40 years as religious refugees. They were not ethnically Uzbek, but were Uyghur -- an ethnic group that has remarkable similarities to Uzbeks -- both in language and culture, but who are based in Western China, just across the Tian Shan mountains from Uzbekistan.
In the 1960s, the Chinese authorities began formal takeover of the areas around Kashgar and Urmuchi in Western China. This place was home to a Turkic-speaking Muslim population. As communists, the Chinese authorities began a ruthless crackdown on the practice of Islam. As devout Muslims, the family fled to freedom -- in Afghanistan -- where they spent the next 15 years. Gauhar's father, Muhomet, recalled growing up in northern Afghanistan.
Once again, the onslaught of communism required that the family uproot itself. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought civil war and violence. They realized that the specter of communism was in the region to stay. So instead of toughing out the war in Afghanistan, they moved to Tashkent, then part of the Soviet Union. At least peace and stability were there. Three generations of the family lived together in a flat.
"How could anyone kill so many people in the name of Islam?" repeated the Gauhar's mother. "We are Muslims! Our daughter is Muslim!" Like her husband, her mother insisted that her daughter was alive somewhere in New York. "I'm sure she's just forgotten her English with the trauma. No one can understand her Uyghur."
In this case, official America opened wide. Within a few days, the entire family was granted visas. Embassy staff -- both American and local -- took up a collection to help the family withtravel expenses. The U.S. ambassador paid a visit to the family.
Of course, we all prayed for the safe return of their daughter. But we were keenly aware that she was probably dead.
A week or so later, I saw the family off at the airport as they began their somber journey. The shared with me the itinerary they had set up: They had mapped out every hospital they were going to visit.
A few weeks later I received a call from Muhomet in New York. A deep sadness had taken over his once-hopeful voice. There was no sign of his daughter. She had been on the 98th floor of the north tower, the first one hit. Authorities confirmed that Gauhar was dead.
"How could Muslims do this?" he kept repeating, over and over, in a shaky voice. He told me that he would stay in the U.S. for a little while and piece together his daughter's life and retrace her last footsteps.
By profession, Muhomet was an architect. He told me that he signed up to design a memorial for the victims of Sept. 11 in New York. He also described how he had made a home movie in New York detailing all the helpful people he had met through his emotional journey. He would show me the film once he was back in Tashkent.
After the family returned to Tashkent, I heard from them from time to time but never had the chance to see them again.
In the months that followed 9/11, my work schedule was frantic.
The U.S. government established a new military base near the city of Karshi in southern Afghanistan. I spent countless hours with members of Congress, from both political parties. They were keenly interested in the human-rights situation in our new ally in the War against Terrorism, and we were introducing them to the prickly and fractious human-rights groups who remained in the country. I travelled frequently to the Afghan border. After the Taliban had been routed, I would peer across the border and imagine a country filled with optimism.
Many of us hoped that the new strategic partnership between the United States and Uzbekistan would lead to greater political and economic reforms. In those hopeful moments during 2002, I returned to the United States to start graduate studies. I wanted to understand why the smart and industrious people of Uzbekistan were served by such bad government and why most felt paralyzed to change anything.
Those hopes for reform were doused a few years later. In 2005 in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, a few hundred people gathered in an unprecedented public demonstration to protest the trial and imprisonment of their male relatives for anti-government activity and Islamic radicalism. During the trial, the number of protesters grew and grew.
As a series of revolutions swept the region, the Karimov regime became nervous and cracked down on protesters, shooting upwards of 1,000 people (according to Human Rights Watch, although the government of Uzbekistan claims 187 were killed) in what became known as the Andijon Massacre.
The Bush administration criticized the killings. As a result, Uzbekistan sent the United States, and its military base used to support combat operations in Afghanistan, packing. Barely noticed by U.S. media, the events in Andijon represented the most significant killing of protesters by their own government since Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the aftermath of Andijon, I was refused entry to Uzbekistan. I suspect this was due to my previous work with democracy advocates there.
I turned my attention to Afghanistan, where, oddly, the research environment is far more permissive. Since 9/11 my work has focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan, where I have been fortunate enough to conduct extensive research, interviewing hundreds of Afghans, on how they have been able to provide for themselves when there is no meaningful government to do much for them.
Unlike citizens of Uzbekistan, who face government control in just about every aspect of their lives, the situation for Afghans is quite the opposite. I learned how customary systems of governance served as an antidote for anarchy at the national level.
During interviews in northern Afghanistan I spoke with dozens of people who were descendants of those who had fled to Afghanistan from China or the Soviet Union, like Muhomet and his family, seeking religious freedom. They found themselves victims of the chaos and brutality of war.
During these years, I have lost touch with many friends in Uzbekistan. But every Sept. 11, I remember Gauhar and her family -- unfortunate victims of seemingly every ideological battle of the past hundred years.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh ( email@example.com ).