BISHKEK -- Police in Kyrgyzstan were evicting squatters from an unfinished dormitory for workers at a meat-packing factory in the capital, Bishkek, throwing their ragged belongings out the windows and onto the street.
Some 30 families, many with small children, were left standing in the February cold, clutching their meager possessions.
With nowhere else to turn, they looked to the woman whom many call the "last hope of the desperate" in this Central Asian nation -- human rights activist Aziza Abdyrasulova. Abdyrasulova was called in, but no agreement for temporary housing could be reached with the local authorities.
She returned that night in 2003 to her two-room apartment with 10 children trailing behind her. Five other kids, her own, were already at home. The 10 children lived with Abdyrasulova for almost two weeks before their parents were able to find permanent shelter.
Also known as a tireless advocate of prisoners' rights, she regularly meets with inmates to monitor living conditions in Kyrgyz prisons.
At one point, 15 children were sleeping in Abdyrasulova's two-room apartment in Bishkek.
It was a typically generous move by the 49-year-old Abdyrasulova, the slight but strong-willed founder, in 2003, of a nongovernmental human-rights organization called Torch of the Century (Kylym Shamy). She is also a former executive secretary of another NGO, the Guild of Prisoners of Conscience, and deputy chairwoman of the Kyrgyz president's Commission on Human Rights.
Difficult And Dangerous
One of the more advanced Central Asian nations in terms of political reforms, Kyrgyzstan is still wrestling with the challenges of creating a tolerant and transparent civil society, almost 17 years after declaring its independence from the Soviet Union. Activists are still often jailed in Kyrgyzstan for participating in antigovernment rallies, despite the promise inherent in Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in 2005, when nationwide protests forced the ouster of President Askar Akaev in March of that year following disputed elections.
Abdyrasulova has been arrested eight times in the last seven years and has had court cases lodged against her for participating in peaceful pickets, hunger strikes, and marches. Abdyrasulova's children and neighbors have been questioned about her pro-democracy activities.
Working as a human rights defender in Kyrgyzstan is not only difficult, but often dangerous.
Abdyrasulova was attacked and beaten late one night in 2002 after a meeting to help defend Azimbek Beknazarov, an opposition member of parliament who had been detained on charges of abuse of office for his previous work as a district prosecutor. Opposition and human rights campaigners criticized his detention as politically motivated due to his criticism of the government.
"Two young men came running from behind, looked into my face as if trying to identify who I was, and then started to kick me," Abdyrasulova recalls. "It was winter time, and my heavy coat saved me. I was afraid that if I fell they would throw me into a nearby river. Fortunately, three ethnic-Russian guys were passing by, and they intervened and started fighting with the attackers. After that attack, even during the daytime, I have acquired a habit of looking around. I am afraid that somebody may hit me from behind."
In 2006, Abdyrasulova's husband, Januzak Abdyrasulov, was abducted from their home by unidentified men. He was taken to the outskirts of the city and beaten.
Aziza Abdyrasulova speaks with a police officer in Bishkek's central Alatoo Square in 2006 during antigovernment demonstrations. Her husband, Januzak, stands behind her. Eventually, the protesters were forcibly dispersed by police.
At the time, Kyrgyz railway workers were staging a hunger strike, protesting their social conditions and what they perceived as rampant corruption within their company. Abdyrasulova had become involved in helping them obtain the necessary paperwork to file formal complaints.
Abdyrasulova's neighbors and children have routinely been questioned by security officers, and one of her daughters, who was 11 at the time, was hospitalized in 2002 after being run over by a car that witnesses say deliberately targeted her. At the time, Abdyrasulova was protesting in support of an independent newspaper, "Asaba," which had been shut down for criticizing the government. The driver of the car was never found.
Some Internet forums in Kyrgyzstan refer to NGO leaders as "foreign spies," but Aziza and Januzak say they will not be intimidated. Januzak, who worked in the construction business, can now be found at Torch of the Century and accompanies his wife on assignments where he feels she might be in danger.
"Since she became a human rights activist, she sometimes is not at home for 24 hours or more," Januzak says. "On these occasions, I am very worried, and I cannot have peace until she returns home."
'I Have Seen Many Difficulties'
Many of those who know her say it is impossible to discern any personal or political agenda in Abdyrasulova's actions. Perhaps, she says, some of the obstacles she has had to overcome in her life have left her with a greater understanding of the struggles of others.
She recalls that the Kyrgyz economic crisis of 1992-94 hit her hometown of Maily-Suu, in the southern region of Jalal-Abad, particularly hard. She remembers real starvation in the town.
"The post-Soviet Kyrgyz state ceased taking care of people, who were struggling to survive," she says. "I remember that, in order to feed us, my mother-in-law sold our cow and bought two sacks of wheat. There were days when we had no bread and did not cook at all. At that time, I was still breast-feeding my youngest son, Marcel. Sometimes, I would have no [breast] milk. I think all of this made me sensitive to the hardships of other people, and [inspired me to] adopt a proactive stance."
Abdyrasulova credits events that occurred during the 2000 parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan for inspiring her human rights career.
Daniyar Usenov, then the leader of the opposition People's Party of Kyrgyzstan and now the mayor of Bishkek, had been nominated to run for parliament in 2000. Despite receiving almost 49 percent of the vote, Usenov was prevented from running in the second round after his candidacy was revoked for allegedly failing to make a full property declaration. Abdyrasulova and her daughter spent two nights in jail after being arrested for attending rallies in support of Usenov.
Abdyrasulova has highlighted the plight of the unemployed in her hometown of Maily-Suu in the Jalal-Abad region, where thousands of people brave hazardous conditions to scavenge for nickel in the waste dump of a light-bulb factory.
Abdyrasulova was working as a stringer then for "Res publica," an independent newspaper published during President Askar Akaev's regime.
"During the trial, a young man behind me said that I should ask him to be my defender. I did not understand who he was or what he wanted," she recalls. "Later, I found out that it was [human rights activist] Edil Baisalov. Eventually, he was able to get the judge to annul my 1,000-som fine [about $25 then]. This is how I came to know Baisalov and Toleikan Ismailova [of the nongovernmental organization Civil Society Against Corruption]. They asked me to join the Coalition [of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan]. I hold those days as the turning point in my life."
Predictably, Abdyrasulova could be found at the forefront of protests against Kyrgyzstan's most recent parliamentary elections, on December 16, 2007, which were criticized by the U.S. State Department for "widespread irregularities."
The pro-government Ak-Jol party, led by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, secured an overwhelming 71 of the 90 seats. Despite significant political reforms having been instituted in Kyrgyzstan since Akaev's resignation, Abdyrasulova says human rights and democracy are as threatened today as they were under Akaev's regime.
The Tulip Revolution, she says, succeeded only in changing the name of the country's president.
She led a team of independent election monitors who concluded the December 2007 vote was not fair. "I would never have imagined that Kyrgyzstan could go so far backwards," she said at a press conference the day after the vote.
Long Days, Nights
Abdyrasulova's working day starts at 9 a.m. and usually ends at 9 p.m., or later.
There are many days when I am afraid for my mom. Even during the daytime, I think about whether she has been beaten or taken into custody, and my heart sinks.
On one typical day recently, she helped in the case of a beleaguered young man accused of stealing a cooking pot. She attended a press conference devoted to the rights of citizens to freely assemble. ("It should not be allowed to turn ordinary participants of a peaceful demonstration into criminals," she says. "The authorities want to scare people so that they don't dare to go out. We cannot allow this.")
From there, she visited a Bishkek district court, where she was able to get a young man who had just spent five months in prison freed on bail under her guarantee.
She was observed drinking only a single cup of tea all day. Her husband and two of her daughters, who also work at Torch of the Century, finally persuaded Abdyrasulova to return home at around midnight.
Home is a plot of land on the outskirts of Bishkek, where Aziza and Januzak are building a five-room house. The couple lives there with Januzak's parents and their five children.
"There are many days when I am afraid for my mom," says eldest daughter Gulshara, herself a leader in the Kelkel youth organization. "Even during the daytime, I think about whether she has been beaten or taken into custody, and my heart sinks. But I have never told her: 'Please, Mom, stop these kinds of public activities. Let's live peacefully as others do.' My other siblings, and my father, have told her that several times. I believe that if there are more women like her in Kyrgyzstan, our country will prosper."
Aziza Abdyrasulova and her eldest daughter, Gulshara, conduct a training session for Kyrgyz political parties ahead of December's parliamentary elections to inform them of their legal rights to freely assemble, picket, and organize meetings.
Abdyrasulova dresses modestly and wears little, if any, jewelry or makeup.
Her small office is also simply furnished. In 2008, Torch of the Century is operating on a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment For Democracy, which is funded by the U.S. Congress, and 65,000 euros ($100,000) from the Dutch NGO Hivos.
"Aziza does not know how to rest," says Toleikan Ismailova of Civil Society Against Corruption. She shakes her head in gentle criticism.
"She is very emotional. I have been telling her now for years that she should take a vacation and rest, but she does not listen to me. She cries together with those whose rights she is defending. Sometimes, after visiting prisons, she breaks into tears while telling what she has witnessed in jails. I am afraid she might hurt her heart this way."
She is very emotional. I have been telling her now for years that she should take a vacation and have a rest, but she does not listen to me. She cries together with those whose rights she is defending.
Abdyrasulova agrees that she is soft-hearted, and ultimately an optimist.
"Each person is entitled to expect justice," she says. She also likes to laugh and joke and play with her puppy, Constitution, and a kitten named Law. In her spare time -- what little she seems to have -- she plays chess with Januzak, reads, or writes poetry.
"Sometimes," she says, "I stay awake the whole night and put down on paper the changes taking place in my inner world, my emotions." One of Abdyrasulova's most beloved historical figures is stateswoman Kurmanjan Datka, known as the "Tsarina of the Alai," who was a provincial governor during the Islamic Kokand khanate in the 19th century. Her picture graces 50-som Kyrgyz national banknotes. She is also known as the "mother of the nation" and remains a symbol of the free Kyrgyz woman.
Those who know her say Aziza Abdyrasulova -- through her work and the way she has chosen to live her life -- is herself a symbol. She is carrying on Datka's epic tradition -- through more intellectual means, perhaps, but with no less courage.
"I believe that justice will win after all," Abdyrasulova says, "but for that we need to work together."
translated by Janyl Chytyrbaeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service