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Kyrgyzstan: Mixed Reactions to US Base

Locals are divided over the US military build-up around Manas airport
By Asel Sagynbaeva

The constant rumble of aircraft engines, dumper trucks and construction vehicles as well as the novelty of English speech are the new realities for people living around Manas airport, close to Bishkek.


An unprecedented construction programme is under way there, with an advance guard of 300 US troops preparing the ground for a military base expected to house some 3,000 NATO personnel.


A tented village has sprung up and a high barbed wire fence surrounds the whole area. Some have likened the site to a top security prison camp.


Several local construction firms have signed contracts to take part in the project. Other businesses are now providing food and supplies to the foreign troops. Some villagers are hoping to make some money too.


Rumours are flying around the area that the Americans have bought a local poultry farm. Azamat, a guard at the farm, could not confirm this. But he was eager to tell the now popular tale concerning a local shepherd who "got lucky".


"Americans came up to him and, pointing to a lamb, asked how much. Not knowing the language the shepherd put up two fingers to indicate 2,000 soms (40 US Dollars). The Americans paid him 200 dollars!" said Azamat.


Airport staff said the Americans were keen to buy fresh produce from local suppliers. Initially, the US troops got their Coca Cola deliveries from the airport, but now a Kyrgyz company is supplying the base directly. Meanwhile, Bishkek's most expensive supermarket, Europa, has prepared special discount cards for the US troops and has shipped in lorry loads of goods.


"They won't sit on their dry rations for long," said Radik, an optimistic local businessman.


"Let them have the land, the poultry farms, the airport and let them build the military base for the next 100 years - all of that, so long as they provide work for us," said Vasily, whose been out of work for years.


But others are less impressed.


The airport, built by the soviet authorities in 1974, is one of the largest and best equipped in Central Asia. The pompous marble terminal and 4 km runway have earned Manas "Category 1" status from the International Civil Aviation Authority. There are regular flights to other parts of Central Asia, China, Russia, Germany, India and Pakistan.


An airport worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Americans were adapting well to their new home, but complained that "they stubbornly refuse the help of our specialists".


"We're very upset, after all we know a lot about the conditions here and we can help them with problems," added a colleague. The Americans' unfamiliarity with the airport, the worker said, nearly resulted in a collision between two large transport aircraft.


US personnel were unloading a Russian Ruslan plane one night and had set up halogen lights to work by. An incoming Ukrainian Mriya super-cargo plane carrying military equipment mistook the lights for the runway.


"People were running in fright," the man said. "The Americans managed to turn their lights off in time and a tragedy was averted."


Meanwhile, residents of the nearby village of Mramornoe are worried that the new base will result in the closure of the only road linking them to Bishkek. The road passes close to the airport and may be blocked off for security reasons.


"If that happens, we'll be totally cut off from the world," complained Galina, a Russian language and literature teacher.


For many locals, the Americans are a source of disruption and annoyance. US troops patrol the area in armoured cars, passing through village streets every 30 to 40 minutes. "Last night my husband and I drove past the base. The Americans turned spotlights on us and followed us all the way back to the village," Galina said. Tatyana, a pensioner, is also aggrieved. "Now we're just suffocating: these enormous planes smoking the place out, the noise and the smog," she said.


The local children are, however, delighted with the new arrivals. "They treated us to Coca Cola and chewing gum and took photographs with us as mementoes. But we're most interested in talking to them. We even manage to get by without a translator," boasted Ulan, a high school pupil.


The Kyrgyz authorities have thrown the door wide open to the US. They've handed over the country's finest airport and 37 hectares of adjacent land. No one asked the Kyrgyz people if they agreed with this move. Nevertheless, the local people are going to have to get used to it and quickly.


Asel Sagynbaeva is an IWPR contributor