When I was briefed at Mercy Corps headquarters just before leaving for Osh this time, a field veteran mentioned an important security indicator to watch for when entering a conflict zone: the presence of children.
If there are kids playing in the streets, he said, there’s a good chance it’s relatively safe. Parents just won’t knowingly put there kids in harm’s way. On the other hand, if there are no children in sight, you should be on guard.
I remembered this often during the first two weeks I was back in Osh. I’d gotten back into our old apartment and was happy about that, but it was so eerily quiet in the building and surrounding area. In fact, I had concluded that our block must be no more than 25% occupied during those first days.
But the most striking thing was that there wasn’t a single child in sight, or within earshot. And things were definitely tense. Where a year earlier there had been little girls playing with dolls and rowdy boys bouncing soccer balls off parked Ladas, now there was just a solitary old mangy dog and few dust devils swirling across the barren spaces between our decrepit apartment blocks. More than once the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It seemed surreal.
Even after the first week, when in spite of admonitions from our security officer, I began again my old routine of walking to and from the office, I found streets that had been choked with kids exactly a year ago were now devoid of people all together. Definitely not a child in sight.
One evening about two weeks ago now, I had just gotten home and was preparing a late dinner. Suddenly, over the simmering of my soup pot, I could just make out the surprising yet delightfully familiar sound of a giggle -- a child’s giggle! Almost autonomically, I flung open the window. Sure enough I could just make out two kids about 6 or 7, sitting on the broken wall of a nearby garage. They were completely absorbed in some sort of game, giggling and laughing as they went. I could have run out and hugged them. Of course they gave me no mind at all and will never know what a gift they’d given.
Every day now for the last two weeks or so, there has been one or two or three more kids playing in the dusty playground near our apartment. And along my route to work there is an ever growing mob of kids that assaults me with “Salaam aleikum” and even “Hello baby” that hilarious salutation they used last year, apparently lifted from a Russian rap song or C-grade video. What last year had verged on the annoying was now music to my ears.
I don’t want to read too much into this; the security situation here is still tenuous. But the slow return of children to Osh is definitely a most encouraging and welcome development.
And there is really nothing more beautiful to the ear than laughter of a child.