Lawyers on wheels: ‘solidarity bus’ represents Kyrgyzstan’s landless women

A photo taken on May 7, 2015 shows World War Two veteran Sardar Akylbekov, 93, playing with his grandchildren in front of his house in the village of Tok-Bay, some 20km of Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. (AFP)
Updated 10 December 2018
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Lawyers on wheels: ‘solidarity bus’ represents Kyrgyzstan’s landless women

  • At independence in 1991, when state property was privatised, every citizen was given an equal plot of land, but it was often registered under the name of the male household head

KARA-KULJA, Kyrgyzstan: In a cold, sparsely lit Soviet-era room, sitting close to the heater, Ainura Ibraimjanova taps at her computer. In this rural district in southern Kyrgyzstan, she is the only lawyer providing free legal aid.
Just back from court in the Alai district, Ibraimjanova is attending to a stream of clients in thick coats and clutching documents. They are in need of help with alimony, divorce or family land disputes.
“The laws have changed considerably since Kyrgyzstan gained its independence, because there was a real gap in legal frameworks and customs — with many people breaching laws in favor of customs,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Land, a scarce and highly-prized resource in this former communist country, is of huge social value, she said, with disputes over it particularly affecting women.
“Having or not having a piece of land decides who you are ... It’s a very important matter, especially in a rural area,” said Ibraimjanova.
At independence in 1991, when state property was privatised, every citizen was given an equal plot of land, but it was often registered under the name of the male household head.
That meant women often missed out on claiming land rights, especially if they got married or divorced, Ibraimjanova said.
“According to Kyrgyz tradition, people treat men and women in different ways. If a girl grows up and chooses to take her share of land with her and separate from her big family, this really looks strange in accordance with local tradition and the family is usually opposed to it,” she said. Although courts often rule in favor of women and in accordance with the law, executing such judgments can be arduous and take years, Ibraimjanova said.
“There are still many women who need to be supported and whose rights needs to be better protected.”
ON THE ROAD
Yet change is coming, even to remote regions like Alai — in part thanks to the “Bus of Solidarity.” The small van bounds along rural roads to bring lawyers, notaries and social workers to remote parts of the country to resolve villagers’ legal quandaries — for free.
It is supported by the justice ministry and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). On this day, it is headed for the craggy village of Kara-Kulja in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Among those waiting in the rain for the bus to arrive was Zoora Jumabaeva.
“I learned by chance that the bus was coming today,” Jumabaeva, a first-time user, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She hoped the lawyers could resolve her complaint with the local bazaar after the new owner raised rents and forcibly removed her stall, which sells medicine for livestock, to a location outside the market.
Had the bus not come, Jumabaeva would have had to make an arduous two-hour journey on poor roads to the nearest town, Osh, to seek legal services.
In previous years, she would use informal mechanisms such as a council of elders to solve her disputes. But, she said, the fact that their decisions were not legally binding was frustrating.
And so, bearing the rain and cold, Jumabaeva huddled at a small desk inside a billowing blue tent to explain her dilemma.
“I’m losing my regular income and my family is suffering. I came here today to get some more legal advice on protecting my interests,” she told a lawyer.
“There are many other women and young families (at the market) who suffer more than me (from being evicted), as this was their only income source, so I’m trying to act on their behalf to solve a common problem.”
The lawyer, Jazgul Kolmatova, who practices in Osh, is no stranger to the Bus of Solidarity having made several journeys. Jumabaeva’s paperwork, she said, was scant.
“She came to us with quite a difficult and complex problem, but her case is a fairly common one,” Kolmatova told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she took down notes.
Boarding the bus provides a chance to resolve knotty legal issues that have often been building for years, she said.
“I joined the bus of solidarity because I know that the rural population — and especially women — are very poorly educated in legal issues, and I want to make my contribution to changing this situation,” she said.

SOCIAL PRESSURE
Since the bus began running in 2016 it has visited about 193 villages and carried out more than 7,000 consultations, according to UNDP.
But meetings are often brief, and complex cases require follow-up.
With a luminous orange hijab wrapped around her hair and fighting back tears, Gulzina Ashimzhanova, 37, said she met Ibraimjanova when the Bus of Solidarity came to her village earlier this year.
Ashimzhanova and her five children were made homeless when she left her alcoholic husband, who she said was violent. Ashimzhanova wanted to divorce him and secure her share of the property.
“When we went to the village we saw the bus and met Ainura (Ibraimjanova). She told us about this free legal assistance, she explained everything,” she said.
“We were consulted from there, then she said to bring the documents and she could help me. She said we could divide the house and get alimony via the court.”
Ashimzhanova, who has been clinically depressed, tried to get her share of a house, 5,500 square meters of land and an apple orchard — all registered in her husband’s name.
“I need to get a house for my children,” Ashimzhanova said. “I don’t want my rights to be violated.”
For Ibraimjanova, the case — though legally clear-cut — carries a heavy social stigma, because Ashimzhanova left her husband and wants an equal share of their common property.
“Gulzina (Ashimzhanova) from my point of view is very brave to act like this, and I’m sure her example can inspire many others,” Ibraimjanova said.
“I told her if she does fight for her rights that could set a good example for other women in Kyrgyzstan too — there could be many others who are also shy, and this step of hers could give them a push.”


Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

A woman poses for a photo among poppies in bloom on the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, on March 8, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

LAKE ELSINORE, California: Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.
About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.
A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.
Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.
It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.
Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.
“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”
By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.
And people were streaming in again.
Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.
Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.
Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.
“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”
Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.
The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.
“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.
Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.
In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).
The city is again experiencing a super bloom.
The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).
But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.
Most importantly, Macuga said, the town’s businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee’s, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.
“We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media,” he said. “It helps now knowing what’s coming.”