As we approach September 1st, the day of international blogging on Uzbekistan and the call for sanctions against cotton exports, we are posting the following excerpt from Chapter 12 of Craig Murray’s forthcoming book.
After leaving Ergashev, I said goodbye to Vakhida, who left in a police car for the airport, to fly back and work for Nick. I would be without an interpreter for the rest of the day, but would be joined by a professional one in the morning in Namangan, to which city we were due to head that night. I judged we still had plenty of time to visit the University, and told Gafur so. He was standing smoking and chatting with the escorting policemen. They looked dubious and called the Deputy Hokkim, who had repaired to a nearby chaikhana while I was with Ergashev.
“Please, Mr Ambassador,” he said, “it is late, and it is dangerous to drive to Namangan after dark.”
“It’s not that late. An hour at the university and we can be away by five.”
“But I believe we are not expected now at the University.”
My hackles were beginning to rise.
“Well, think what a pleasant surprise it will be for them.”
The deputy gave a wan smile, and got back into his Daewoo Maxima, which had dark pleated curtains at the windows. I climbed into the back of my Discovery; it seemed strangely empty now, with only Gafur and I in it. The police cars started off and we followed. After about twenty minutes, we were heading out of town.
“Gafur, where are we going?”, I asked.
“This is the road to Namangan, ambassador.”
“Is the university this way?”
“Do you know where the University is?”
“Yes, I think so.” I had explained to the Embassy drivers that, within reason, they should always reconnoitre the day’s calls in the early morning or the evening before.
“STOP! We’re going to the university.”
Obviously impressed by the drama of the moment, Gafur slammed on the brakes and we slewed to a halt. The lead police car and the Hokkim’s Daewoo carried on ahead of us, turning round a corner. The police car behind had to brake quickly, and the doors opened as the police got out to see what the problem was. Gafur, having halted, was turned round looking quizzically at me.
“The university, Gafur. Drive to the university.”
It was a wide road, and Gafur spun the Discovery round. We sped off, leaving the puzzled policemen standing in the street staring at us. Gafur had worked out we were giving the escort the slip, because he drove like crazy through the streets of Ferghana. The escort caught up with us again just as we pulled up in front of the university. I waited for the deputy hokkim on the steps. He simply gave me a wan smile. I wanted to go straight to the English department, but he insisted that we should first call on the Rector. I was happy to concede that one.
The university building was a large brick edifice that would not have looked out of place in any British provincial university. The Rector was sour-faced and unwelcoming, and we endured fifteen minutes of stilted conversation over tea. We then walked down to the English centre, our footsteps echoing from the vaulted ceilings. The most striking thing about the University was that it was so devoid of life ‘ there seemed to be virtually no-one around.
In the English language centre I met two charming old ladies who taught there. They showed me with great pride the books they had been given by the British Council, and their cataloguing system. The only thing that worried me was that they all appeared to be neatly on the shelves, as opposed to being used by students. I had another cup of tea with the old ladies and two part-time students who had come in. They all said how delighted they were to meet a genuine English speaker. Their standard was very good, given that none of them had ever visited an English speaking country. They asked me about Big Ben and why the English are so fond of gardening. I asked them where everybody was, which brought a moment’s silence and no real answer.
The authorities had not wanted me to visit the University because of its resemblance to the Marie Celeste. I was later to discover the answer to the question, where has everyone gone? They were all in the fields picking cotton.
Even the massive labour forces held on the state farms are insufficient when it comes to harvest time. So other forced labour is drafted in. Staff and students are brought in from colleges and universities, which are effectively closed for the entire autumn term. An able-bodied university or college student will expect normally to spend two months in the cotton fields. Older schoolchildren will do the same, and even children as young as eight might expect to spend two or three weeks in the fields. Civil servants and even factory workers can also be drafted as the size of the harvest and weather conditions dictate.
Conditions can be appalling. The workers sleep in the fields, or in rough barracks. Sanitation is poor, food consists of a bare gruel, and water is taken straight from irrigation canals. The harvest regularly lasts through into October or early November, when temperatures can drop below freezing. Each farm and each region had its quota to produce in the State five year economic plan, and managers and hokkims were under extreme pressure to fulfil their quota.
Those drafted in for the harvest are not paid, but they are, for the most part, very successfully brainwashed by constant propaganda on television and radio, in newspapers and on banners and posters about harvesting the nation’s “White gold”. It is chilling to hear a bedraggled ten year old in a field talking about their patriotic duty to pick cotton to fund the nation’s independence.