Less than two months ago, Daniyar Terbeshaliev was a private entrepreneur running a small business not far from downtown Bishkek. He had no idea how the events that were about to unfold would change the direction of his life.
Terbeshaliev now heads Patriot, a civilian patrol group that guards government buildings, businesses, and residential neighborhoods to ensure security amid the chaos that has reigned in Kyrgyzstan since early April.
Patriot was initially set up by ordinary Bishkek residents the night after riots broke out in the capital on April 7, chasing President Kurmanbek Bakiev from office and leaving some 85 people dead.
Disappointed by what they call the police's inability to protect citizens during the upheaval, locals organized their own neighborhood forces to defend themselves and their property. But now, their goals have expanded considerably.
"Initially, our goal was to protect our own houses," says Terbeshaliev. "Now we are patrolling the area around the parliament and central government buildings; the Bishkek mayor's office; several banks and shopping centers; all major bazaars; and the main bus stations, among other places."
Other cities followed suit, and now there are thousands of civilian patrol members all over the country that have taken charge of security in their neighborhoods, working alongside police.
In a country where the security situation is still fragile and the new government's authority is being challenged by supporters of the previous regime, many ordinary Kyrgyz say the civilian patrols play an important role in maintaining order.
Patriot played an active role in restoring calm after a group of men attacked landowners in the village of Maevka outside Bishkek on April 19, prompting fears of ethnic tensions in the area.
"We work alongside Interior Ministry forces -- we help them,” Terbeshaliev says. “In fact, the civilian patrol is a helper of the police. We have men, women, youngsters, and elderly among us -- people who call themselves patriots. They come and join us. They take part in safeguarding security and stability."
Civilian patrols operate in many different areas, from Tokmok and Kant in the north to Jalal-Abad and Osh in the south.
"People trust civilian patrols, while the police don't enjoy such trust," says Janarbek Akaev, an RFE/RL correspondent in the southern city of Osh. "Their presence is important for people to feel safe. They don't let anyone take advantage of current circumstances to loot people's homes, to attack or disturb others.
"During last week's protests in the region, police forces just stood there and watched," Akaev says.
Two people were killed during recent unrest in southern areas, when supporters of ousted President Bakiev briefly took control of government buildings in the cities of Osh, Jalal-Abad, and Batken.
Perceived police indifference to public security during the protests may have been the last straw for citizens, many of whom have expressed frustration at years of corruption and bribery by the police. Many accuse the police of serving political leaders' interests instead of protecting citizens.
The interim government has promised to reform the police structure and fight corruption within the system.
According to the interim chief of staff, Emil Kaptagaev, the interim government does not finance civilian patrols but supports them and acknowledges their importance.
"There are some spontaneous outbreaks of aggression and hatred against police and other law-enforcement forces from the local citizens after what happened on April 7. And there is no doubt that such patrols are necessary," Kaptagaev says.
‘Not Taking Sides’
Civilian patrols say they are financed by ordinary people and private businessmen. Terbeshaliev maintains they are not involved in politics and do not take sides during political struggles.
Not everyone in Kyrgyzstan is happy with having unofficial forces being in charge of security, however.
Dinara Oshurahunova, a human rights activist in Bishkek, says some complain that "criminal elements" have joined the civilian patrols and that people are suspicious about their agendas.
Others question how long thousands of patrol members -- most of them young men in their 20s -- can be expected to continue volunteering their time.
"We have stepped in because there was a need for us to protect people," says Maksat Joldoshbekov, a member of a civilian patrol in Bishkek. "We will leave as soon as the government is capable of handling the job and takes responsibility into its own hands."
written by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions from RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Kanymgul Elkeeva