October 2, 2001 - Wall Street Journal: Peace Corps Volunteers Lament Hasty Evacuation of Countries (Full Version)

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Peace Corps Volunteers Lament Hasty Evacuation of Countries (Full Version)

Peace Corps Volunteers Lament Hasty Evacuation of Countries (Full Version)

Peace Corps Volunteers Lament
Hasty Evacuation of Countries


POTOMAC, Md. -- At 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22, the phone rang at Erin Reinhart's apartment in Urgench, a poor town of cotton-pickers in western Uzbekistan. The safety and security director of the Peace Corps was on the line pressing Ms. Reinhart to get to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, within 24 hours.

"He said, 'You're allowed one small bag, give everything else to a trusted friend. Bring all of your documents and money. We're leaving,' " recalls Ms. Reinhart, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who had been teaching local doctors about tuberculosis and family planning for the past 18 months.

A St. Louis native who had mastered the Uzbek language and organized the first Urgench Special Olympics for the Deaf, Ms. Reinhart left all of her clothes, books, a blender and various specialty foods behind. She hurried to the Solomatlik Sanitorium, a dilapidated Soviet-era spa in the capital, where she was to await further instructions. On Tuesday, Sept. 25, she and 27 other volunteers touched down at Washington Dulles International Airport, having traveled from Tashkent via Frankfurt, Germany, to the U.S. on commercial flights.

All told, 311 volunteers working in the "stans" -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic (often referred to as Kyrgyzstan) -- have now returned to the U.S., where they first holed up for a week of counseling and debriefing at a compound here in suburban Maryland that is normally used to train U.S. Postal Service workers.

"If I could just go back for a few days to say goodbye, I'd be better with that," says Ms. Reinhart, who left so fast she couldn't contact her Special Olympics kids. "I feel like I've abandoned everyone, disappointed them, and I'll never really get to explain to them what happened."

Anoo Gowda, 34, a Peace Corps trainee from Tulsa, Okla., who had arrived in Turkmenistan on Sept. 9, only to be whisked out of the country 12 days later, observes: "We came, we saw, we left. Now, we are all refugees."

The Peace Corps, established by executive order in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, doesn't generally evacuate countries unless there is a serious, credible threat to its members. When the U.S. bombed Afghanistan two years ago, for instance, Peace Corps volunteers in border countries were not subject to sudden anti-American animosity and no one was evacuated.

Peace Movement, Quiet for Years, Begins to Mobilize

In explaining last month's evacuation of the three Central Asian nations, the Peace Corps cites the countries' porous borders and proximity to Afghanistan. "You don't want to wait for something to happen," explains Ellen Paquette, a 21-year veteran of the Peace Corps who oversees operations in Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia.

But perhaps more than anything, the volunteers' parents drove much of the decision-making. In the days after the attack, hundreds of them called every day, Ms. Paquette says. Dozens across the U.S. called their congressmen and senators and asked them to pressure the Peace Corps to evacuate. Others started an online petition.

"In the beginning, most of the calls were, 'What are you doing to ensure their safety?' " Ms. Paquette says. "Then, as the media coverage increased and other things were being discussed as far as a very aggressive response from this country, it was more 'When are you getting them out?' "

Fueling the parents' concerns about safety was a spate of tragedies involving volunteers. In January, a volunteer from Long Island was trampled to death by an enraged elephant in a Tanzanian game park; in the same month, another volunteer died in a car accident in Namibia; yet another volunteer has been missing from Bolivia since February.

Ms. Reinhart's mother, Christine, a bereavement counselor, first called Peace Corps headquarters on Monday, Sept. 17, to express concerns about her daughter's safety. "It is more than a little troubling when you see Colin Powell point to Uzbekistan on a map and say, 'That would be a good place to launch an attack,' " she says.

Volunteers, who are paid subsistence allowances for the work, are free to leave the corps anytime, even before their 27-month term is up -- a point frequently made to some of the anxious parents. But among current and former volunteers, there is a stick-it-out ethic that runs deep.

"Part of it is a pride thing," says James Barta, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who was evacuated from Turkmenistan, where he taught business development in Ashkhabad, the capital. "You don't want to quit. The ethic is: I signed up to do this, and there's nothing that's going to stop me -- it's very powerful."

But even volunteers who say they would go back to Central Asia in a heartbeat concede troubling signs were afoot in the days after Sept. 11. Beyond the fact that Afghanistan remains a potential target for retaliatory strikes, the State Department had also issued an advisory warning citizens to defer travel to Turkmenistan, and it approved voluntary departures of nonemergency personnel and family members of U.S embassy workers in Turkmenistan and the Kyrgyz Republic.

The Peace Corps's immediate response to the attacks in the U.S. was to contact country directors in 75 nations, who in turn reached 7,300 volunteers and delivered the horrific news. In the most vulnerable countries, a stage-one alert was imposed, meaning that volunteers would have to check in twice a day. Four days later, the agency stepped up the alert in Turkmenistan, followed by Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, ordering volunteers to consolidate in central sites, in case a speedy evacuation was called for.

The agency intentionally kept volunteers in the dark about certain details of the evacuations. "It was all too unpredictable," explains Ms. Paquette. "You don't want a big group of visible Americans. We usually like to do things in a low-key way."

In Turkmenistan, the evacuation order came as a surprise to Iranian-born volunteer Ali Azizi, 25, from Dallas, who had worked for the past year as a health aide in Ashkhabad. After the attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, he immediately worried about his parents and sister in Texas, concerned that, as Iranian-Americans, they would be targeted by those seeking quick revenge. He couldn't get through to his family. It didn't occur to him that within days he would be back on U.S. soil himself.

At the compound in Maryland, Mr. Azizi is reflective. "It isn't the evacuation that's the most traumatic," he says. "It's more the lack of closure. Most people, when the world is normal, get to finish projects, resolve relationships. For us, it was 24 hours and we're gone. We don't have closure with our work, with our communities. It's heartbreaking that we missed that."

The Peace Corps says its programs are technically "suspended" rather than closed in the evacuated countries. Says Ms. Paquette: "I have hopes we will go back."

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Story Source: Wall Street Journal

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Turkmenistan; COS - Kyrgyzstan; COS - Uzbekistan; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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