Authors: Hank Steinberg
Tags: #General, #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
Out of Range
For my K, who gave me L and V
and everything else
harlie Davis lit the day’s umpteenth cigarette as he pressed the brake on his battered Toyota Land Cruiser, slowing down to address the heavily armed men in gray uniforms.
It was the fourth military checkpoint he and his guide had to contend with in the last hundred miles. For Faruz, this was a routine matter, an inconvenient repression like many others he had to endure as an involuntary citizen of the Republic of Uzbekistan. For Charlie, an American who’d spent the better part of two years here, the presence of these soldiers continued to be a source of unchecked outrage.
“Papers!” demanded the sullen young private, negligently pointing his AK-47 at Charlie’s chest.
Charlie handed over his documentation—U.S. passport, press identification, forged interprovince visa (thanks to his resourceful friend Faruz).
The soldier examined the papers for longer than seemed necessary, then finally grunted, “You are journalist.” The young man spoke in accented English, but in any language, the tone was clear. This was an accusation more than a question.
“You can read,” Charlie quipped, hoping the hostility in his eyes complemented his sarcasm.
“What you doing in Fergana Valley?”
“Meeting some friends for
Charlie felt his travel mate shift in the passenger seat. Faruz hated it when he did this—made things harder than they needed to be—but Charlie didn’t care. He stared defiantly at the soldier. “Would you like me to call the American consulate and have someone speak to you? I can do that.”
The soldier assessed Charlie. This was not a headache he needed. He handed back the documentation and reluctantly waved them through.
Charlie put the car in drive and sped away, kicking up dirt in his wake.
“Cowboy,” Faruz noted dryly, and lit a cigarette of his own.
alf an hour later, Charlie steered the Land Cruiser up a steep slope and into the tiny border town of Ragdovir.
“I don’t like this place,” Faruz said, his accent an odd amalgam of Uzbek, Russian and American. “I don’t like one bit.”
Charlie didn’t like it either. But there was no way in hell he was turning back now. It had taken three days just to get here. Three days following the ancient path of the Silk Road from the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, up increasingly pitted and dangerous roads, through at least a dozen hostile checkpoints, and into a mountainous region whose inhabitants seemed poorer and more sullen with every kilometer he drove.
Three decades ago Uzbekistan had been a thriving province of the Soviet Union, famed for its cotton and silk production, a mining and manufacturing center. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, its captive markets and special privileges had collapsed, too. Now Uzbekistan was a ragtag fiefdom ruled by one man, Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik who had used the fall of the USSR as a chance to seize an entire country, running it into the ground for the benefit of himself and a small group of cronies. Ragdovir had once been a way station on the Silk Road, a major stopping point between Samarkand and the high passes of the Hindu Kush. Of course, the Silk Road had died centuries ago, even before the coming of the Russians, and now Ragdovir was just an insignificant little dot on the Kazakh border, an insular haven for smugglers and thieves.
It was a risk even driving in here, but Charlie knew that if he didn’t find the woman they were looking for, he would lose a golden opportunity to expose the Uzbek government for what it was. And that was something he’d been determined to do since the first week he’d set foot in this godforsaken country.
As they neared the center of the town, the screechy wail of the muezzin called the people to prayer, his voice amplified by speakers hanging from a tilted minaret that seemed to loom over everything.
“Left here,” Faruz said, squinting at a wrinkled old Soviet-era military map.
Charlie squeezed the Toyota between two houses into a narrow gap that barely qualified as an alley, much less a street. A collection of undernourished children were playing war with plastic guns, shooting each other and dying extravagantly. Seeing the oncoming car, the children scattered.
The alley—so narrow that Charlie’s mirrors scraped occasionally on the walls—traced a serpentine path through a collection of houses that looked to have been in decline for centuries.
“Stop here,” Faruz said, pointing to a reddish door.
Charlie parked and climbed slowly out of the car, his legs aching from the long, tense drive, and his guide banged on the scarred maroon door with his fist.
A minute passed.
“I thought they were supposed to be here,” Charlie said.
Before Faruz could respond, the door opened. A young boy with one milky white eye and one startling green eye stood in the doorway, aiming an old shotgun at them.
“Hey!” Faruz shouted. “Get that out of my face!”
Charlie quickly read the boy’s age as twelve or thirteen and knew that despite the scowl, he had to be terrified. “Your mother asked us to come,” Charlie reassured him in impeccable Russian. “We’re here to see your brother.”
A staccato female voice broke the stalemate.
The boy stood aside silently, allowing Charlie and Faruz to enter the courtyard. In the center of the small enclosed space was a fountain of cracked tile, burbling with clear water. A crooked fig tree stood at the far end. Underneath it sat a small, weary figure. Eyes dark and guarded, her wrinkled face lit by the last glowing rays of the sun, she looked to be about sixty. Charlie knew, in this country, that would put her much closer to forty.
, Palonchi Ursalov,” Charlie greeted her, hand over his heart.
“You said you would be here yesterday.” She spoke in Uzbek and she spoke directly to Faruz.
Charlie knew that if he was going to get through to her, to break the barrier of distrust, he would have to be the one to respond. He also knew that it would go a long way if he could converse with her in her native tongue, even though she would surely be fluent in Russian, as he was.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said in his halting Uzbek. “As I’m sure you know, the journey from Tashkent can be a rigorous one.”
The woman looked at him oddly and Charlie instantly realized his faux pas. This woman had never been to Tashkent. No one in this part of the country had. She would have no idea what the journey would be like or how long it would take. Thankfully, she was too proud to admit this and let him off the hook with a fatalistic shrug, turning to the boy and ordering him to bring tea.
The boy went inside the tiny house and shouted at someone else. As the last echoes of the muezzin’s call died out, Charlie’s eyes began adjusting to the fading evening light and he grew conscious of a faint, unpleasant odor emanating from behind him. He realized it came from something he’d only glanced at briefly as he entered, something draped in a white sheet that lay in the shadows of the darkest corner of the courtyard. He looked at Faruz. They both knew what must lie beneath it.
A small girl, no more than four years old, came out with a warped tin platter. Perched on it were a small plate of almonds and dates, along with two chipped glasses containing dark, steaming tea.
Charlie slowly sipped the offering, burning his tongue. In Uzbekistan it was never wise to stampede to your point, but finally he set the tea down and said, “Tell me about your son.”
The woman glanced at Faruz. The guide nodded his reassurance and she began: “Two weeks ago, they took him away. When they gave him back to me . . .” Her eyes flicked briefly to the shroud in the corner. “When they gave him back to me, they told me that he had fallen off a stool in his prison cell.”
“What really happened?” Charlie asked.
She hesitated, peering at the boy squatting in the doorway to the house.
“I have two sons. I don’t want Salim to fall off a stool, too.”
“I understand that.” Charlie leaned forward. “But we have a chance to do something. To give some meaning to this tragedy. If someone doesn’t try to make this country better, nothing will ever change.”
Palonchi Ursalov studied her surviving boy, lip quivering briefly, emotions threatening to spill out. But then her face became a mask. She rose, walked to the dark corner, knelt next to the white-covered form, and put her hand on the shroud.
The woman hesitated, then turned, her eyes pinned on Charlie as though he were the one responsible for what lay beneath it. With one hard, angry tug, she yanked the cloth off.
Faruz instantly turned away and made a sound as if he’d been punched in the throat. Charlie had been a foreign correspondent for a decade, and had seen a lot of terrible things. Somalia, Afghanistan, Burundi, Yemen . . . but this was about as bad as it got.
A young man, barely more than a boy, lay on a board. He appeared to have been torn apart. His genitals were gone. A rib protruded like a blackened stump from his chest. One leg was twisted at the knee, the foot rotated backward. The other lay separated from the body, tendons hanging limply around the glistening ball of the hip joint. An ear had been removed, perhaps ripped off with pliers. His face was an unrecognizable mess.
“Jesus,” Charlie whispered.
“He was an engineering student at the university,” she said. “He never hurt anybody. He never agitated against the government. He never caused trouble.”
Charlie cleared his throat. “Do you know why he was arrested then?”
“Some of his friends at school. They are the ones who agitate. But not my boy. Not my boy.”
When things got ugly like this, Charlie fell back on his professionalism to maintain composure, so he tried to remain clinical, to keep careful tabs on the appearance of the body, on all the little physical details. But finally the horror of it overwhelmed him and he had to look away.
Faruz was squatting on the far side of the courtyard, holding his head in his hands, visibly shaking. The brother, Salim, stood in the doorway, jaw clenched with anger and grief, tears running down the side of his nose.
Charlie looked once again at the dead boy’s grieving mother.
“You understand I’ll need pictures,” he said gently.
For Muslims, any depiction of the human form was fraught with difficulties. Traditionally, art in the Islamic world was forbidden from representing the human body at all. To take photographs of her son this way was more than just a violation of his privacy. It was an act of profound impiety.
Palonchi Ursalov rose slowly to her feet, glaring at Charlie. There was naked disgust in her eyes. Maybe even hatred. But for all her anger, she knew what had to be done.
With her head held erect and her face composed, she walked silently back into the house and softly closed the door. After a moment, Faruz rose from his fetal crouch and scuttled out into the alley.
Charlie was left alone with the younger boy, who continued to squat on the other side of the courtyard, his one good eye watching Charlie’s every move.
Slowly, gravely, Charlie pulled out his camera and began to photograph the ruined young man on the ground.
Three weeks later
he protest in Babur Square, in the heart of the provincial capital of Andijan, had been building for hours and Julie Davis had been handing out placards since midmorning. The event had been organized hastily—the day before—in order to stave off restrictive action from the hypervigilant government, but the crowd was growing far beyond what anybody could have expected. As she watched the thousands of angry, inspired people pour into the square, Julie realized the event was taking on a heady—maybe even frightening—momentum, and with her baby due in less than five weeks, she wanted to be with her husband.
She checked her watch and searched for him again in the crowd. With his sandy hair, broad shoulders and indefinable American-ness, Charlie would be easy to pick out. Finally, she spotted him and Faruz making their way through the throng of protesters. When Charlie saw her, he waved and ambled over, greeting her with an impassioned kiss on the lips.
“What’d I miss?” he asked with a grin.
“Only the beginning of a revolution,” she said proudly.
He marveled as he took in the scene. “There must be ten thousand people here.”
In the center of the square stood a statue of a turbaned man on horseback—a famous Uzbek sultan named Babur—portrayed in a slightly jarring Soviet-realist style. A young man stood on the pink granite pedestal, shouting into a bullhorn in strident Uzbek.
Julie saw Faruz’s eyes open wide as he watched with a combination of hope and fear. She couldn’t help but try to allay his anxiety. “It’s all right, Faruz. It’s just a peaceful protest.”
Faruz looked at her skeptically. “You shouldn’t be here.” He noted her protruding stomach. “Not with your boy coming.”
She felt Charlie look at her and knew he was thinking roughly the same thing.
“If the government was going to stop it, they would’ve done it by now,” she said confidently.
Faruz looked at Charlie. “My cousins supposed to be here. I’m going to try to find them.” Charlie clapped Faruz’s shoulder and his friend disappeared into the burgeoning crowd.
Julie squeezed Charlie’s hand as he looked around with an expression of concentration, his blue eyes scanning for details that would fill out his latest story. For her, being at the rally was simply an opportunity to be part of a growing democratic movement in a country which sorely needed to reclaim freedoms for its people.
Julie had come here four years earlier on what had been a bit of a lark. A product of England’s elite, she had decided early on that she didn’t want to live as her parents had, sitting smugly on top of the English heap. There was a chance to make a difference here in a country that was overdue for change and she’d taken it: helping small artisans earn a decent living through microlending, shuttling from the capital to the villages where she ran several aid projects for an international charity based in London. Over time, she found not only a sense of fulfillment here, but had also come to love the country, to feel invested in its people, its culture and the possibilities for its future. Plus, this was where she’d met and fallen in love with the kindred spirit who was now her husband.