Caught in the Storm

A Peace Corps volunteer describes his sudden evacuation from Uzbekistan as U.S. troops arrived for an assault on Afghanistan

One month ago, Will Clark had the next two years of his life all figured out. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, the 28-year-old would spend his days teaching English to the country's Russian, Uzbek, and Korean children. During breaks in his teaching schedule, Clark would tour the ruins of ancient cities, whose crumbling walls and glinting mosques once made the Silk Road the epicenter of education and empire. He would immerse himself in the tradition of host families that urged him to gorge at every meal. And eventually, he would return home to Los Altos with an enlightening experience to share with his family and friends.

"The reason I went there was to come back and tell people how safe Islamic countries are," Clark says. "It's hard to convey just how peaceful everything seems in Uzbekistan. We think of it as a battleground, but it doesn't feel like a hot spot. People just go about their lives."

Until Sept. 11. Within days of the terrorist strikes on Washington and New York, it became clear that the sustained, arduous war on terrorism declared by President Bush would inevitably impact Uzbekistan, which shares an 85-mile border with Afghanistan to the south. As Uzbekistan became synonymous with the phrase "staging ground for U.S. ground assault," the Peace Corps decided to pull out. At the end of September, all 149 Peace Corps volunteers and staff members stationed in Uzbekistan flew back to Washington for a few days of counseling, stress management, and relaxation. The next week, about 1,000 infantry troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., moved into an Uzbek air base, becoming the first U.S. ground troops known to be deployed near Afghanistan.

Will Clark, meanwhile, never visited the monuments of Samarkand or explored the strict Islamic culture blooming in the fertile Ferghana Valley. But he saw enough of Uzbekistan and met enough of its residents to regret coming home, to worry about a country whose alliance with the United States might further inflame the home-grown Islamic extremists whom many consider even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden and his organization.

"We don't know what we missed, but we had a feeling we were going to miss something," Clark says. "I'm deeply worried for the people of Uzbekistan."

Here's how the CIA World Factbook 2001 describes Uzbekistan, the once-obscure country that has suddenly become crucial to Operation Enduring Freedom:

"Russia conquered Uzbekistan in the late 19th century. Stiff resistance to the Red Army after World War I was eventually suppressed and a socialist republic set up in 1925. During the Soviet era, intensive production of "white gold' (cotton) and grain led to overuse of agrochemicals and the depletion of water supplies, which have left the land poisoned and the Aral Sea and certain rivers half dry. Independent since 1991, the country seeks to gradually lessen its dependence on agriculture while developing its mineral and petroleum reserves. Current concerns include insurgency by Islamic militants based in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, a non-convertible currency, and the curtailment of human rights and democratization."

Thousands of miles from Uzbekistan's jagged peaks, barren steppes, and scorched deserts, Will Clark sits in the middle of a bustling coffee shop in downtown Los Altos, American flags lining the sidewalks, and offers a more sympathetic take on Uzbekistan's plight. Speaking candidly about his aborted five-week stint in Central Asia, Clark raises a few eyebrows among nearby latte-sippers. When he says he is concerned about the public perceptions of Islam, a religion he terms "nonviolent and as good as any other," the raised eyebrows become open stares.

"I convinced myself that terrorism would not be a problem in Uzbekistan, that to equate Islam with terrorism is essentially a racist idea," says Clark, a lanky redhead who looks decidedly un-Uzbek in a blue fleece sweater, khaki shorts, and sandals. "Maybe it's hard for other people to understand that, but I still feel that way. I'm not Muslim, but I feel personally offended when people say terrorism is what Islam is all about."

Clark didn't know much about Uzbekistan before he received his Peace Corps assignment to teach there (his first choice was Latin America). He had spent some time in Ireland and Zimbabwe, and for the past three years he taught sophomore English and coached track at St. Lawrence Academy in Santa Clara. On Aug. 17, when he arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, he was struck by how Russian everything looked.

"There are remnants of Soviet architecture everywhere -- big staircases, pillars, balustrades," he says. "It doesn't look Islamic at all. I don't think I saw a mosque the whole time I was there."

He lived with an Uzbek host family in Chirchiq, a city of about 150,000 that lies 40 minutes northeast of Tashkent. The family -- parents, two sons, a daughter, and the elder son's wife and baby -- didn't regularly attend a mosque. They allowed Clark to wear jeans when he wanted. And they spoke openly about their fears of extreme Islamic groups, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden.

Like most Peace Corps volunteers in Central Asia, Clark first heard about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks via CNN with a Russian feed. Information was scarce and rumors ran wild; at one point he heard that 12 planes had exploded, killing 50,000 people. "I just felt sick," he says. "When I heard the planes were heading to California, I thought I might know someone that way. But luckily I didn't. We were all just shocked for a few days. Eventually we started thinking about our own circumstances, and there was a lot of speculation about whether we'd get evacuated."

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