Meet the Stans - BBC, UK
- 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".
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
Central Asia was a remote corner of the Soviet Union
before it collapsed in 1991, and the Soviets left a
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
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
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.
Want to chat instantly with your online friends? Get the FREE Yahoo!