Sexual Assaults and Terrorism Are Factors Leading Peace Corps to Suspend Program in Kazakhstan

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The Peace Corps is pulling out of Kazakhstan days after a gunman killed seven people in the southern city of Taras. A police investigator examines a Kalashnikov machine gun at the site of an attack in Taraz on Nov 12. Photo: Reuters

Peace Corps has announced that the agency has suspended its volunteer activities in Kazakhstan based on a number of operational considerations. All 117 Peace Corps volunteers serving in the country are safe and accounted for, and will soon be participating in a transition conference.

“The Peace Corps has made significant contributions to the development of Kazakhstan for almost two decades,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. “For the past 18 years, Peace Corps volunteers have worked alongside their Kazakhstan counterparts to create a lasting impact that lives on in schools, clinics, NGOs and community and youth centers throughout the country. We thank the government and people of Kazakhstan for welcoming Peace Corps volunteers into their communities, and we are grateful for their strong support and partnership over the years.”

Associated Press reported that U.S. Embassy spokesman Jon Larsen said the Peace Corps will be leaving but gave no specific details on why. Several volunteers, however, posted messages online linking the move to rapes and other attacks. One Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the central Karaganda province was reportedly raped earlier this month.

Terrorist Attacks

Kazakhstan has seen a rash of terrorist attacks in recent months. Last weekend, a gunman went on a rampage in the southern city of Taraz, killing seven people, including five law enforcement officers. He blew himself up as officers moved in to arrest him.

Kazakhstan has also this year for the first time faced a series of attacks by radical Islamists who accuse the government of harassing Muslims. Most of the violence had been focused in the west of the country but Saturday’s attack in the city of Taraz was only 350 miles from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

Since then Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has pledged to strengthen the security services and asked the population to be increasingly vigilant.

Sexual Assaults

On November 10, a Kazakh news website reported that a Peace Corps volunteer had allegedly been raped in the town of Saran near Karaganda, a Soviet-built industrial city in central Kazakhstan.

Peace Corps youth development volunteer Lisa Murray wrote that Kazakhstan currently ranks as number 1 among all Peace Corps countries for incidents of rape or sexual assault and that four rapes or sexual assaults of volunteers had occurred in the past year.

“Again, the extent to which this affected the decision to remove volunteers is unknown,” wrote Murray. “I do not believe that Kazakhstan is an overly dangerous country. I have never truly felt threatened or unsafe. 90% percent of my experience has been positive, and the people here have ultimately expressed nothing but warmness, kindness, and hospitality. That being said, we did unfortunately have 4 (that I know of) incidents of rape/sexual assault within a 1-year period. While incidents do happen in every PC country, I think it is very rare to have this many incidents occur in such close proximity. PC handled these situations swiftly and alerted volunteers of any safety concerns and provided support for the volunteers affected. I want to reiterate that I do not think Kazakhstan is more dangerous than other countries. That has not been my experience, and I do not believe the majority of the population condones these actions. Unfortunately it is the reality of the world we live in. These things do happen, even in America.”

Work Related Issues

Murray added that over the last several months, it became increasingly more difficult for volunteers to conduct their work. ”

“Many were prohibited from working for months at a time and ultimately they were moved earlier in the fall to new sites. A few months ago, we were also informed that the Youth Development program (me) was being discontinued because of concerns about volunteers working with youth who were not teachers. This was not a huge surprise for me, but sad nonetheless. The EDU volunteers who were scheduled to arrive in February were also postponed until our staff could reach an agreement with the ministry.”

“With that being said, I cannot definitively say why we are leaving. I believe it’s a combination of all of these factors, and right now, Kazakhstan cannot meet the goals and expectations of Peace Corps. I do hope we will return in the future. I know many, many people who were touched by Peace Corps volunteers in a positive way. As with all relationships in life, there are ups and downs. Sometimes space is the best thing.  Perhaps some time apart will be a blessing for both Peace Corps and Kazakhstan. This country is full of resources and people who are actively working towards the future of a better Kazakhstan. It really is an amazing country with an incredibly rich history and culture.”

Timing Coincidental Says Government

For Kazakhstan’s education ministry, the timing is just coincidental and Peace Corps is only leaving Kazakhstan because of its rapid social and economic development over the past 20 years.

“We believe the suspension of the activities of Peace Corps in Kazakhstan is a rather logical step,” the Kazakh education ministry statement said. “As it is known, this organisation assists mainly the least developed countries.”


Reference:

“Peace Corps Suspends Program in Kazakhstan ” Peace Corps Press Release.  November 18, 2011.

“Peace Corps to quit Kazakhstan in Central Asia” by Peter Leonard.  Associated Press.  November 18, 2011.

“US Peace Corps quits Kazakhstan” by By James Kilner, Almaty.  The Telegraph.  November 18, 2011.

Kazakhstan Peace Corps Volunteer “Adventures in Kazakhstan” writes: Sudden Departure….  November 17, 2011.

Read more details on “Peace Corps Online” at:  http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4004475.html