“The first shock was the flood, the second shock was the violence. We lost hope…we were like zombies.”
Pulling her gray wool shawl tight and hugging herself with her arms, the grandmother rocks nervously on her heels as she sits and talks. She’s still too scared to give her name, so I’m calling her Zamira.
She and her family had lived through weeks of fear. In May 2010, they were woken from sleep at 2 a.m. by crowds running to escape a rushing torrent. The townspeople live at the base of mountains in Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian country that experiences hard rains in spring. Floods have always been a concern in her town, but they hadn’t wreaked such havoc in over a decade. As Zamira fled to higher ground, the water swiftly ate away the mud walls of her house, toppling the ceiling.
Zamira was still living with relatives when a new alarm hit. In early June, bands of young men started raiding towns, firing weapons and attacking houses with flaming bottles of gasoline. While mothers and children escaped, Zamira’s grown son and other men set up roadblocks with trucks and stones, hoping to keep out the invaders. For four days the men kept vigil as towns around them burned. “I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping,” says her son.
The angry mobs passed them by, but the ethnically-motivated violence crushed what was left of Zamira’s spirit. The numb zombie feeling didn’t dissipate for 50 days.
“We couldn’t understand what had happened,” she said. “We had no desire to live—and no place to live, no plans for the future.”
Staying with extended relatives, she and thousands like her spent long days inside–afraid to go out for groceries, afraid to go to public places like cafes, afraid to go on picnics the way they used to. They spent their nights as prisoners to insomnia.
Then came a surprise, not a shock. “We don’t know how CRS appeared. It was like magic in a fairy tale,” she says.
As part of its transitional shelter program, and using contributions from Caritas, Catholic Relief Services said it would help build a two-room house on the site of her destroyed one. “But we were afraid: could we believe in CRS?”
They could. Plans were drawn up and builders arrived. With its local partner–the Civil Society Support Center of Jalal Abad–CRS found workers, managed the site, and provided constant support and supervision as the woman’s new home was erected. CRS bought the materials for her and others, giving families money to pay for labor. In a terrible year, an onslaught of bad news was finally being followed by good.
Other surprises came. In a region so torn by ethnic divisions, Zamira was astonished to see that CRS “treated us all equally. They are balanced.”
Zamira and her family now have a home that can withstand both the winter’s cold and future spring floods. Their house’s old foundation was about 6 inches high; in the new house, the foundation is over three feet.
Zamira is deeply grateful to those whose money made her family’s new house possible. “They proved that they see us as humans, not animals. Even though they are far away, they cared about us.”
The summer’s terrors linger–“I hear knocking now and I jump,” she says—but the numbness is gone. “CRS pushed us awake, not to be zombies. They gave us hope.”
“I hope CRS lives long and helps other hopeless people. They were the first organization to help us in a time of despair,” she says. “We will always remember CRS.”
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