October 14, 2001 - The Ukrainian Weekly: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Peace Corps volunteer Maya Milanytch reflects on evacuation from Turkmenistan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkmenistan: Peace Corps Turkmenistan : The Peace Corps in Turkmenistan: October 14, 2001 - The Ukrainian Weekly: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Peace Corps volunteer Maya Milanytch reflects on evacuation from Turkmenistan

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In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Peace Corps volunteer Maya Milanytch reflects on evacuation from Turkmenistan

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Peace Corps volunteer Maya Milanytch reflects on evacuation from Turkmenistan

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Peace Corps volunteer reflects on evacuation from Turkmenistan

by Deanna T. Yurchuk

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - As with other historical events, most people will no doubt remember where they were and what they were doing the moment they first heard of the catastrophe on the morning of September 11. Americans sat in shock in front of their TV screens as they calculated their proximity to the disaster and the victims.

Maya Milanytch, a Ukrainian American who had been working as a Peace Corps volunteer in central Asia in faraway Turkmenistan at the time, also sat in shock - a mere 200 kilometers from the Afghanistan border.

During the attack on the World Trade Center, Ms. Milanytch was staying with her host family for the night in the city of Mary, before returning to her permanent home in Turkmengala, the village where she taught English. Because Turkmenistan is nine hours ahead of New York, it was evening by the time the news about the terrorist attacks on the United States reached her.

Ms. Milanytch recalled: "I had just finished eating dinner with my host family and we were in the middle of watching a Brazilian soap opera translated to Russian when a friend called to tell us to turn on RTR [the Russian television station] and to 'see what's going on in America.' " The news came in with CNN footage and English subtitles, but was broadcast in Russian. "I have a pretty good understanding of Russian and my mind kept reading the English on the screen, but I could not fully process what was going on until the visual images of the planes hitting the Twin Towers were shown on TV," Ms. Milanytch noted.

What ensued was the same horrified reaction that everyone had. Ms. Milanytch was particularly concerned for her father, who works in New York's financial district, and immediately tried to call home, first through the Peace Corps office in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and then successfully through a friend in Mary.

"I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, hearing that my father was safe, but the horror of the attack left me completely distraught and sick to my stomach." Until then, she revealed, "I rarely felt homesick, because I was secure in knowing that my family was safe and healthy and that I could always reach them."

Ms. Milanytch's parents had traveled to Turkmenistan this summer to visit her, which she believes was incredibly important in the wake of the disaster. "I don't think they were as concerned about me as other people's parents may have been because my parents had been to Turkmenistan. They had seen how the local people really cared for me and that I was in good hands."

Immediately after the events of September 11, the Peace Corps volunteers in the area were called to cluster, meaning that they had to group together in specified sites near a phone and remain there until further orders. "While spending time with each other, we would experience many mood swings: from a high because we were together and supporting each other to the deepest low, facing the uncertainty of our future in Turkmenistan," Ms. Milanytch related.

Though she was living in a country that borders Afghanistan, Ms. Milanytch said she never felt that she was in danger. "I was never afraid for my well-being since I knew that I had so many people who were looking out for me and taking care of me there," she stated. "There was maybe a day or two that I felt there were eyes watching me due to all the events I had seen on TV and rumors within the Peace Corps about being evacuated or Afghanistan being bombed."

"It felt surreal even walking outside to the bazaar and picking out fruits and vegetables, something I had done on a daily basis before," she continued. "But on the whole, I can't say that I noticed a difference in the way others acted towards me; I just made sure to tell the curious I was Canadian," she added. Ms. Milanytch also noted that although Islam is the most common religion in Turkmenistan, few citizens are actually practicing Muslims, therefore, she never felt insecure due to a potential religious conflict.

In fact, had she not been evacuated from Turkmenistan, Ms. Milanytch says she probably would have stayed at her site until the beginning of November, when her tour of duty with the Peace Corps would have ended. She admited, however, that "accurate information and communication do not travel well in Turkmenistan; rumors run rampant. There might have been an uprising or refugees coming and going not too far from me, but because the news on Turkmen TV is so filtered and rarely addresses pertinent events, I wouldn't be aware of them."

The Peace Corps volunteers spent over a week in their cluster sites and then were told to return to their posts to pack their belongings. The villagers in Turkmengala were surprised by the urgency of the situation, according to Ms. Milanytch. "I left the people in Turkmengala a bit suddenly. I told them that I wasn't sure when I'd be leaving or if I'd be coming back. I didn't even get to say good-bye to the teacher with whom I had worked at the school, because she was out picking cotton that day and I had to be back in the city by evening."

She continued, "The villagers were aware of the political situation, but I don't know if they fully realized the significance of having Americans in their midst. Personally, I was afraid that our clustering with my host family in Mary might bring repercussions to them, so I was relieved for them when we left."

Joined Peace Corps after college

Ms. Milanytch's interest in the Peace Corps began during her sophomore year at Bryn Mawr when a few recruiters came to her school. She spent the following year studying abroad in France, which affirmed her love of languages and foreign cultures, and further sparked her interest in the Peace Corps. She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1999 with a major in archaeology and a minor in French.

When Ms. Milanytch applied for the Peace Corps after graduation, she was offered three choices: Central Europe, south or east Asia and western Africa. She did not want to live in western Africa because of political instability there, so she tossed a coin between the remaining options and chose Asia. "I had been to Central Europe a couple of times before, so secretly hoped it would be Asia," Ms. Milanytch said. "I wanted to go for the extreme adventure." Soon afterwards she found out that she would be living in Turkmenistan in central Asia.

Ms. Milanytch spent over two years in Turkmenistan, where she taught English to village schoolchildren and members of an adult club, as well as worked in a museum of archaeology and ethnography creating labels for display cases in Turkmen and English. "It was a unique experience. I felt that my presence was appreciated, not only for my knowledge and education, but also because I would be the 'American' friend. I would visit my colleagues, students, and other villagers, have tea and just talk about everyday occurrences," she said.

According to Ms. Milanytch, the best aspect of her experience was interacting with the Turkmen people. "They were hospitable and gracious, and always interested in finding out about something new," she stated.

Although Ms. Milanytch adapted well to the Turkmen lifestyle, she admits that the harshness of the climate - the unbearable heat during the summer and the frigid winter - were hard to endure. She recalls, "The first winter I was there I had a bad ear infection that was treated by my host mother with vodka and a syringe." Like the Turkmen villagers, Ms. Milanytch enjoyed learning about other cultures and seeing new perspectives.

A keener appreciation of America

The group of Peace Corps volunteers from Turkmenistan arrived back in the United States on September 23 and then spent a week near Washington in a debriefing session. Even though Ms. Milantych was returning home, she admited that she experienced culture shock. "The situation in the United States has changed. It's much more patriotic than I ever remembered. After having left Turkmenistan so abruptly, I really appreciated having had a week to sort out feelings about coming home so soon," she commented.

Back in the United States, Ms. Milanytch is more keenly aware of the differences that separate the United States and her host country. "I realized that I appreciate America much more when I am abroad. I see the better parts of America, those that are so easy to take for granted: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion," she said.

Turkmenistan still has many remnants of the Soviet system. People pick cotton for the state and show support for the president, Saparmurat Niyazov, with traditional Turkmen songs and dances. The villagers live under a sort of barter system and the standard of living is much lower, according to Ms. Milanytch. "But unlike the U.S., where life is work-oriented, based on finding the job or career that you want, the Turkmens' lives are centered, first and foremost, around the family. Without family and friends, it would be impossible to survive," she said.

At present, Ms. Milanytch said she feels as if a fast-forward button has been pushed on her life and that she is now where she was expecting to be in January of next year. Her two worlds are slowly coming together. Looming ahead is a pending job search, which she is contemplating while keeping in phone contact with the hospitable people who have come to be an extended family of sorts for her in Asia.

As for the future, Ms. Milanytch hopes to go abroad again. She had been scheduled to take the Foreign Service exam in Ashgabat in late September, but will now be taking it in the United States this coming spring. She is also considering jobs in coordinating study-abroad programs for universities overseas or in adventure travel tourism.

In light of the recent U.S. attack on Afghanistan, Ms. Milanytch said she still believes that Turkmenistan's citizens are rather safe. She stated, "If Afghan refugees did indeed come to Turkmenistan, they would have little reason to target the citizens of the country. Turkmenistan officially shares the same religion and, although the president granted the use of Turkmen airspace to American forces, the majority of Turkmen people were in no way involved in the political arena. I even know of Afghan communities in Turkmenistan that sympathized with the plight of the Americans, asking about our individual security within the country. Therefore, I am relatively confident that my close friends will remain unscathed."

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, October 14, 2001, No. 41, Vol. LXIX

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Story Source: The Ukrainian Weekly

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Terrorism; COS - Turkmenistan



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