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Meet the Stans - BBC, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    Meet the Stans By Simon Reeve In Central Asia http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/3143462.stm After a long journey through Central Asia, journalist
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 29, 2003
      Meet the Stans
      By Simon Reeve
      In Central Asia


      After a long journey through Central Asia, journalist
      Simon Reeve gives a personal view of the many
      challenges facing countries in the region.

      The underpaid scientist opens the fridge door and
      pulls out a tupperware jar containing vials of anthrax
      for me to inspect. Behind us a row of ancient
      refrigerators contain vast quantities of plague.

      The scientist pulls out a tray of diseases, then
      accidentally whacks the fragile glass vials as she
      puts them away. One of her colleagues gasps in fear.
      Everybody in the room freezes. Nobody dares to

      Welcome to a former Soviet biological weapons
      laboratory in Kazakhstan, abandoned by Moscow when the
      USSR collapsed in 1991, and now a plague research

      I was visiting the lab during a long journey through
      Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,
      collectively known as the Central Asian "Stans", with
      a BBC television crew for a documentary series.

      It was an extraordinary tour of a beautiful, bizarre
      and unpredictable region.

      Although Central Asia is larger than Western Europe,
      it is probably the most obscure area of the world. A
      glance at an atlas suggests no area of comparable size
      about which so little is known in the West.

      Because we know little about the Stans, we care little
      about their problems. Yet we should pay Central Asia
      more attention, because this is a region that matters
      to the West.

      In the late 1990s I wrote a book on Osama Bin Laden
      and al-Qaeda which warned the group was becoming a
      global threat. In the aftermath of 11 September, I
      believe Central Asia, a region afflicted by poverty,
      corruption and despotic regimes, could be a future
      flashpoint for the "war on terror".

      Soviet legacy

      Our Central Asian journey began in the far north-west
      of Kazakhstan, by the Russian border.

      We travelled by plane, train, helicopter, horse and
      four-wheel-drive east across the vast Kazakh steppes
      to the Chinese border, then south through Kyrgyzstan
      and Tajikistan to the Afghan border, and west through
      Uzbekistan to the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara
      and Samarkand.

      Central Asia was a remote corner of the Soviet Union
      before it collapsed in 1991, and the Soviets left a
      painful legacy.

      In the west of Kazakhstan fishing boats sit rusting on
      the dry bed of the Aral Sea, which used to be the
      fourth-largest inland lake in the world until Soviet
      planners pumped chemicals into the sea and
      deliberately diverted rivers to irrigate thirsty
      cotton fields.

      The Soviet legacy also includes radioactive waste
      dumps, which are scattered across the region.

      In Kyrgyzstan I visited several which have
      contaminated local villages and threaten an
      environmental catastrophe if they flood, or a
      terrorist threat if their contents are plundered for a
      radioactive "dirty" bomb.

      Wearing chemical and biological protection suits to
      guard against radioactive particles, and hoping we
      were avoiding "hot-spots" where radiation spiked to
      more than 1,000 times normal levels, BBC producer Will
      Daws and I chanced upon a hole somebody had been
      digging at one radioactive site.

      Yet the main consequence of the end of the Soviet
      Union was economic collapse.

      The Stans were left reeling, and most people I met
      longed for a return to the financial security of
      Communism. "At least we knew where we were then," said
      Kadyr Toktogulov, my Kyrgyz guide.

      Unemployment is now rampant in Central Asia; poverty,
      censorship and government repression are the norm. As
      a result, militant Islam is on the rise.

      'America will die'

      New groups are emerging in Central Asia which support
      al-Qaeda and could one day launch devastating
      terrorist attacks on the West. American political
      support for the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia
      is further fuelling anger and hatred of the West and
      driving more young men into the arms of new and
      established groups.

      Heading south-west across Kyrgyzstan, an activist from
      the shadowy banned militant Islamic group
      Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is becoming active across the
      whole region, assured me "America will die".

      Militancy has raised its head in Central Asia before.
      In the 1990s the battered state of Tajikistan, the
      poorest of all the former Soviet states, endured a
      violent civil war between government forces and a
      coalition of rebels and Islamic militants in which
      between 100,000 and 200,000 died.

      Now neighbouring Uzbekistan risks armed conflict.

      Uzbeks are angry with their authoritarian leader Islam
      Karimov and talk of revolution. In response, thousands
      of government opponents have been tortured, jailed or
      executed. Many have disappeared simply for growing
      their beards and being pious Muslims.

      Militancy is not the only reason for us to take more
      of an interest in Central Asia.

      The Stans are home to the largest untapped energy
      reserves on the planet, and international firms are
      battling for drilling rights to exploit oil reserves
      in a replay of the 19th Century "Great Game".

      Daily drugs raids

      Drug smuggling is also a massive problem in Central
      Asia, much to the annoyance of the Tajik secret police
      colonel who guided me along the dangerous, porous
      border with Afghanistan and fed me pilchards and a
      prized bottle of vodka.

      About 90% of heroin in Europe comes from Afghanistan,
      and much of that is smuggled via Central Asia to
      Russia and the West.

      On a drugs raid in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, I
      watched as the police seized 1.5 kg of high-grade
      heroin from a mother-of-six. The police just shrugged.

      It is a daily occurrence, they said, and showed me a
      secret storeroom containing about 500 kg of captured
      heroin worth nearly as much as their entire government

      Tragically, Tajikistan may become a failed
      "narco-state" in the future.

      But the region is so obscure, I fear few in the West
      would really care, or even notice.


      Simon Reeve is the author of The New York Times
      bestseller The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin
      Laden and the Future of Terrorism, and the presenter
      of Meet the Stans, to be broadcast on BBC Four on 29
      and 30 September at 2100 BST, and on BBC Two from 3 to
      6 November at 2320 BST.

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