Caught in the Storm

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

The next morning, his lesson plan called for a lecture on American food. Instead, he crowded into Chirchiq's lone Internet cafe, logged on to its lone computer, and gleaned what he could from the slow-loading news sites. The Peace Corps, which received no direct threat on its American volunteers in Uzbekistan, shared what little information it had and switched into "standfast" mode, which orders all staff members to remain at their job sites and to continue working.

"That was the toughest part," Clark says. "You went through weeks of not knowing whether you were going to be there the next day. It was tough to work under those circumstances."

Although other Peace Corps volunteers reported some anti-American sentiment in the streets of Uzbekistan -- kids laughing at them and yelling, "Bomba! Bomba!" -- Clark says he was flabbergasted by the condolences he received from total strangers. "I wondered if in the States we would be as informed or sympathetic as they were," he says. "It seems that pretty often there are these disasters on the other side of the globe where thousands of people are killed and we can get over it in a few days. But the Uzbeks kept referring to it. It wasn't a small event for them."

In all likelihood, it's going to get bigger.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is generally considered the gravest threat to stability in Central Asia. A terrorist organization believed to train in Osama bin Laden's camps and receive financial support from the Taliban, the IMU seeks to return fundamental Islam to Uzbekistan and regularly skirmishes with the country's fighting forces. In 1999, according to the U.S. State Department, the group killed 16 people in a series of car bombings in Tashkent aimed at assassinating the Uzbek president. Last August, the group took four American mountain climbers hostage and held them for six days.

Needless to say, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan isn't likely to look kindly on its government buddying up with the United States to take down bin Laden.

"I'm worried about terrorism against the people there for supporting the United States," Clark says. "That's my biggest concern. I'm worried about some sort of payback."

Although he would have liked to stay, Clark says the Peace Corps made the right call in evacuating its staff members. "Not because of the Uzbek people -- I couldn't see anything happening from them -- but we were a great target, gathered as a group of Americans. Who knows what's going to happen? The area is so volatile."

That's a far cry from the message of safety and security he hoped to bring back from Uzbekistan. But he is open to returning, and he plans to re-enlist in the Peace Corps in February. For now, Clark has enrolled in some community college classes. He says he might head down to Latin America for a while, or he might try graduate school.

"I don't know what will develop in Uzbekistan," he says, "but I feel like I need to get rolling with my life."

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