- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
- Personal Essay
After almost a year in Kyrgyzstan, we were still treated as honored guests. In this Central Asian republic, one dramatic mountain range collides and boosts itself upon the back of the next until the entire country rises in a riot of glaciers, rivers, and peaks. The Kyrgyz people, once nomadic, are famous for their open and genuine hospitality. It came as a shock to everyone when Kate and I were robbed.
It was late May. We swung our door open to find books and papers strewn about the floor. Drawers dangled, and a hot wind poured over Jalal-Abad's scorched pistachio hills and through the balcony window our thief had punched out. We staggered about the apartment numbering our losses. After a few minutes, I collected myself and ran downstairs to find the police.
Two and a half hours later, the investigation began with the arrival of four pairs of Kyrgyz detectives. We solemnly shook hands in the entryway. They made an immense pile of their black vinyl shoes by the door, lit cigarettes, and produced pads, pens, clipboards, and dense forms for us to fill out. The fingerprint specialist burst into action, dusting every item our thief may have fingered, including walls and table legs. The gold hammer and sickle shone brilliantly from his cap, both epaulets, and the badge over his heart, even though the Soviet Union had broken up into independent states almost five year before. The specialist only paused when he spotted Kate's green REI headlamp, which the thief had miraculously overlooked. He was spellbound.
"I'll have to dust this carefully for fingerprints back at the station," he said, turning it over in his hands. I asked him when we could pick up the headlamp. "Patom," he said and stuffed it into his bag.
Then the investigation moved into the questioning phase. What kind of clothes were stolen? How many pairs of shoes were stolen? Why do you have so many pairs of shoes? There were also cultural questions. Do you enjoy eating our national dish? Does Michael Jordan live in Los Angeles? By now the fingerprint specialist had discovered my cracked and warped Russian guitar. He plunked at it thoughtfully. One of the detectives suggested that Kate and I sing a song. I had been watching Kate's frustration mounting, and at the song request she burst.
"There's no time for singing," she shouted. "We've been robbed!"
But the detectives assured us that they had plenty of time. So, in the interest of moving the investigation along I played and Kate harmonized on a rousing rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," to the immense pleasure of our guests. An hour later the detectives closed their notepads and snuffed their cigarettes. They sorted out the pile of shoes by the door, promising that justice would be served. We didn't see the detectives again until late summer.
On September 21, there was a knock at our door. One of the detectives stood in the hallway smoking. I shook his hand.
"We caught your thief," he said, flicking the spent cigarette down our stairwell. "His name is Vitaly Andreavich. He is your neighbor." He told me the case would now go to court and that the judge requested my presence. I asked him if the fingerprint specialist would be returning Kate's REI headlamp now.
"Oh," he said, lighting another cigarette, "Detective Rostomov has retired. The trial date is set for the fifteenth of October. Come to court then."
The courtroom was in disrepair. Chairs with missing backs stood in uneven rows before a battered deposition stand. A young Russian man I understood to be Vitaly Andreavich leaned in the aisle handcuffed and smoking. Another much older, haggard-looking Russian man sat in the front row near a window with warped glass. He wore a well-patched suit, and when we shook hands I noticed his eyebrows were caught in a high, expectant arch. I took a seat next to him.
A few minutes passed before the judge entered the courtroom flanked by the defense attorney and one of our detectives. The judge was a sharp-looking Kyrgyz man with wisps of hair swept back on his head. He wore a blue-and-white polka-dot shirt with a long, starched collar. He walked with a book and a thick stack of folders clamped in his left hand. Also, his right arm was missing, the empty sleeve tucked neatly into his belt. He took a seat behind the bench and fished out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket.
"This case, number 144 part three and four, will be tried in the usual manner," he said. "Anyone at any time can ask a question of anyone else in the courtroom, is this clear?" He motioned for me to stand. "There are two men who may have seen your robbery from the alley, but they are in the village and won't be present today. Should we continue without them?" he asked. I said I thought all possible evidence was important for a fair trial. The judge nodded judiciously and said, "We'll continue anyway; tell your story."
I related everything I knew about the robbery, what was stolen, and our time spent with the detectives. When I finished, the judge barked, "Questions!" The courtroom remained silent. The judge smacked his one meaty palm on the bench and said, "Vitaly Andreavich, stand and tell your story." Vitaly described getting drunk on vodka, tying a rope to a pipe on the roof, swinging over the edge and through our window. He showed how he had lowered our things to the ground and then climbed back up the rope to the roof. The old man with the eyebrows nudged me and whispered, "This kid's got a pumpkin for a head." When Vitaly Andreavich finished, the judge asked if there were questions, this time without looking up. Silence. He struck the bench with his one hand and said, "Part four."
The old Russian man beside me stood and told his story. He described drinking wine on a Tuesday night with his girlfriend and Vitaly Andreavich. He and his girlfriend had gone out on the balcony to smoke a cigarette when Vitaly crept into the kitchen, hefted a large bowl of honey from the counter, ran down the stairs, out into the street, and sold it to someone walking by. The courtroom erupted. Vitaly Andreavich flew to his feet, booming and shaking his handcuffs. Vitaly's previously mute lawyer pounded his table. The judge was standing now. His empty right sleeve had worked itself loose of the belt and swung carelessly back and forth. He raised his powerful left arm for order, and when it was restored, he said, "I will render a judgment in 30 minutes. Dismissed," and smacked the bench.
We waited in silence. Vitaly and the old man smoked. I looked around the courtroom and accidentally made eye contact with Vitaly Andreavich. He raised his handcuffed hands, pointed his cigarette at me and said, "I'm going to write you a letter from prison, but after you read it you must tear it up." I leaned forward and began nodding when the judge entered. We all stood. The judge easily balanced a huge, open record book in his one hand and read.
"According to the laws of Kyrgyzstan, it is the judgment of this court that Vitaly Andreavich receive six years in prison for robbery plus an additional year for the theft of the honey." He looked over the top of his glasses. "However, I have taken it upon myself to suspend this extra year." He slammed the book shut and said, "Case closed." I never saw the old man with the eyebrows, the one-armed judge, or Vitaly Andreavich again.
This spring I opened the door to find one of our detectives smoking in the hallway. He asked me if we'd had any more trouble since the robbery a year ago and inquired as to our health. He said he'd been trying to catch us at home because he wanted to give us something. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out Kate's green REI headlamp. "As it turned out, we couldn't use it as evidence. Anyway, all the fingerprints were ours," he said.