Why one CSU alum began questioning the Peace Corps

Waiting to rendezvous with a military convoy in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, CSU alum and Peace Corps volunteer Raul Moreno watched as a city of 232,000 people burned to the ground.

Rioters sprinted by —  Moreno vividly remembers one carrying a bow and arrow — as the sound of gunfire rang through the streets. Suddenly, in the midst of the chaotic scene, Moreno found himself at gunpoint.

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While hunting down minority Uzbeks, the occupants of a sedan driving through the chaos spotted the car Moreno was in and turned around for further inspection.

A masked man jumped out of the car with a Kalashnikov rifle, yelling and demanding to know if any Uzbeks were in the car.

“If any of you are Uzbeks, we will kill you all,” he cried.

“No, no just Americans,” said the driver of the car containing Moreno and other American aid workers.

The trigger man yanked open Moreno’s door.

“We locked eyes, his glittery, angry and undecided,” Moreno said.

“No Uzbeks,” Moreno said in Kyrgyz, his voice catching.

The gunman got back in the sedan and seconds later they were gone.

“And at that point the whole situation is reduced to just inhuman terms,” Moreno recalled of the incident. “It didn’t matter, anything that I could say in that moment other than ‘We’re just Americans’ might not have saved us, right? If we were Uzbeks we were going to be gunned down.”

A short time later, Moreno and the other aid workers were airlifted out of Osh and to the relative safety of a compound in Bishkek.

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That was the end of the his four month experience with the Peace Corps.

Moreno had come to CSU in 2008 to teach, write and get a master’s degree in creative non-fiction. Prior to that, he had worked at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C for four years.

“I was looking to enter a kind of long form journalism in creative non-fiction…” Moreno said.  “I was feeling a bit tired by the daily grind of journalism at the public radio network I was working at in D.C.”

Part of the appeal of CSU was the Peace Corps Masters International offered to graduate students. Students accepted into the program spend a year at CSU taking classes, then leave  for 27 months to volunteer overseas and return to finish their graduate degree and write a thesis related to their time in another country.

Moreno had entered the Peace Corps hoping to make a small difference in the world.

“I think I was ambitious, I saw myself a bit of a humanitarian at that point, that I was going to do some good in the world,” Moreno said.

He ended up leaving during a harrowing evacuation after his region erupted in ethnic rioting that left hundreds dead and displaced an estimated 400,000 people from their homes.

The experience left him not only questioning the role of the Peace Corps in sending young “greenhorn” volunteers into what he referred to in a blog post as an “enchanting but volatile country,”  but also grappling with the fact that two local drivers who helped get American aid workers evacuated ended up losing their lives in the violence that overtook southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010.

“We’ve seen all these attacks on the American embassies, the consulates in North Africa and the middle east in September,” Moreno said. “I think a lot of that has brought to light once again … we don’t always know how the presence of American culture, good, bad and ugly, is playing out in other parts of the world.”

During the initial training sessions that all Peace Corp volunteers go through, which he described as being of a “mixed quality,” Moreno said he noticed warning signs that volunteers fresh out of college may not have thought through what being abroad might entail.

“The main thing I found worrying being in those initial training sessions,” Moreno said, “was that the people around me were kind of more excited about being in a foreign place than realizing the geopolitical dynamics that were underway.”

Assigned to work in the city of Osh, which he called “the jewel” of southern Kyrgyzstan in early June 2010, Moreno was to live in the city for two years, teach English and gather material for his master’s thesis in creative non-fiction when he returned for his final semester in graduate school at CSU.

That first week in June, Moreno recalled, was spent getting to know his host family, visiting their cherry farm and getting set up at the university where he’d be teaching for the next two years.

The initial calm was broken by a minor earthquake the night of June 10.

That night and into the next morning, long simmering tensions between the majority Kyrgyz population and minority ethnic Uzbeks boiled over. The city quickly descended into riots and bloodshed.

The ensuing violence would eventually reduce much of the city to ruins. Widespread rape, murder, beatings and armed street fights took place in the days afterwards.

After being picked up by local drivers hired by the American embassy, Moreno and 10 other aid workers were dropped off at a safe house in Osh.

The group spent two long days there as sympathetic neighbors smuggled bread and tea to the frightened Americans.

Fighting raged on in the streets as the smell of burning vehicles and buildings filled the air. Gunfire was heard constantly throughout the day, and at one point the looters sent rocks through the windows of the house with the aid workers inside, prompting the group to barricade the windows with mattresses to repel a possible Molotov cocktail attack.

Eventually two cars showed up with local drivers hired by the American embassy to get the volunteers to an airfield to be evacuated out of the province.

Driving through the city in a car packed with other volunteers, Moreno saw that the Osh had turned into a “warzone,” with ambulances screaming back and forth, buildings smoldering, rioters running past the car carrying weapons, machinegun fire and military vehicles setting up roadblocks.

After an armed standoff with rioters, Moreno and the other aid workers were rushed to two helicopters and then taken to the airport where they made their way out of the province and eventually back to the United States.

The two drivers who had picked up the American aid workers from the safe house ended up losing their lives in the ensuing violence. Kyrgyzstan’s interim president at the time, Roza Otunbayeva, said upwards of 2,000 people may have died in the clashes.

While Peace Corps officials declined to talk specifically about security procedures or the events in Kyrgyzstan, Emily Dulcan, director of press relations for the Peace Corps, wrote in an email to the Collegian that the agency has “country specific action plans” in the event of an emergency and that those plans were implemented in Kyrgyzstan.

“If a situation arises in-country that poses a potential threat to volunteers, Peace Corps responds immediately to assess the nature of the threat and respond in a manner that maximizes volunteers’ safety and wellbeing,” Duncan said.

While Moreno acknowledges the mission to evacuate the American aid workers was successful, he feels that with the cell phone network down, no GPS, a group of greenhorn volunteers mixed with more experienced PC volunteers with no assets and having to rely on local fixers whose motives were not entirely clear, that a lot was left to chance and could have easily turned out differently.

“I am not sure that is the right way to get Peace Corps volunteers out of a sticky situation,” Moreno said.  “I think in that moment when we were kind of facing peril we were expecting the marines to descend from helicopters.

Back in the United States, Moreno began the process of trying to make sense of what happened in Kyrgyzstan.

“I wanted to figure out how I was going to come to understand what I had just experienced,” Moreno said. “It was a scary four months that wound up with two local guys killed. And I am not sure they were killed for good reasons or if their lives were lost in an effort that I was proud of.”

Moreno spent two months travelling from Seattle to Las Vegas, interviewing former volunteers about their reasons for going into the Peace Corps.

He realized that many new volunteers may not fully understand the moral and ethical considerations of what being an American overseas might entail.

“It’s important for the volunteer to think long and hard whether they’re going to be comfortable being an extension of American foreign policy in a place or community that probably has a history of colonization by a western power and possibly violent civil war,” Moreno said.

He came back to CSU in fall 2010 to work on his thesis. His adviser in the English department, Sarah Sloane, spearheaded an effort to get Moreno an instructorship and graduate teaching assistant position for the rest of the time he would be at CSU.

“He’s a good writer, a good thinker and a good person who got caught in conditions beyond his control,” Sloane said. “He’s one of the very first graduates of the creative non-fiction program and he’s doing us proud.”

While Moreno said the experience has left him “a bit more jaded, a bit more cautious about the role of Americans overseas,” he remains hopeful about other programs, like the Global Health Service, that sends doctors and highly trained people to areas where Peace Corps is operating.

“That’s an example of better trained people, I think, doing more advantageous, more valuable work in places that really need it,” Moreno said.

After graduating from CSU with a masters degree in creative non-fiction in summer of 2011, Moreno is now teaching and working on his doctorate degree at the University of South Dakota.