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by Matt Nippe


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July 17-23 2004 Vol 194 No 3349


Take the Middle East, remove the oil, and you would probably be left with a region as little-known as Central Asia. Ever heard of Uzbekistan? What about Kazakhstan, Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan?

According to Simon Reeve, the host of the BBC series Meet the Stans, you soon will. The great powers are taking an interest in this predominantly Islamic region following the discovery of the world’s largest untapped oil reserves.

Several years ago Reeve wrote a book about an obscure militant group and concluded that it would inevitably launch apocalyptic attacks. “It came out in 1998, and didn’t sell very well,” he reflects dryly. The book, The New Jackals, had the “dubious distinction” of being the first to cover Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. “After September the 11th, it became a New York Times bestseller.”

While dwelling in relative obscurity between publication of The New Jackals and the fall of the twin towers, Reeve worked as the lead researcher on the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, about the 1972 Munich-Olympic massacre.

The BBC calls Meet the Stans a “political travelogue”, but the host bashfully declares this description “a bit poncy”. Most travel shows content themselves lounging on the French Riviera or in Pacific resorts, but Reeve busied himself poking around nuclear waste dumps and poorly guarded plague factories.

The Times calls the series “a first-class Boy’s Own adventure”, and Reeve agrees that it was an adventure, but says he is “trying to make a few serious points as well”.

With oil adding a new strategic dimension, it appears that a new “great game” — the fabled 19th-century race for influence in Central Asia — is being played out. Terrorism and demand for energy have forced the region onto the agenda of the great powers.

As one Kyrgyzstani student tells Reeve, “With our resources, with our government, it’s great to be wanted — the Americans, the Russians and hopefully the Chinese as well — it’s awesome.”

Back when the USSR ran the region, the environment was considered less important than economic growth. Driving through the Kyrgyzstani desert, you see not only camels and sand stretching to the horizon, but also dozens of beached ships. The nearest body of water lies some 75km away, but it wasn’t always like this.

Rivers feeding the Aral Sea were diverted to irrigate Soviet cotton crops. Water levels fell so rapidly that locals were unable to relocate their fishing vessels. The rusting hulks, regularly obscured by sandstorms poisoned by chemical residues, stand as testament to one of the world’s greatest, but least known, environmental tragedies.

Then there’s the other Soviet legacy; numerous nuclear waste dumps. Wearing respirators and clad in suits “made of what seemed to be shower curtains”, Reeve and his crew visited radioactive sites and saw locals grazing cattle where the Geiger counter spiked. The farmers and their cattle don’t wear any protection.

Radioactive waste, although certain to drive down neighbouring property values, could also serve a sinister purpose. Reeve says, “We wanted to see the level of security at the dumps, because we knew there was material buried there that could be useful for terrorists building a radiological dirty bomb.” Security was non-existent.

Terrorist groups wanting to pick through glowing Soviet rubbish won’t need to travel far to find targets, or deliver their payloads. Unthinkable as it was a few years ago, the United States has built military bases in several of the “Stans” to support military operations in Afghanistan.

This, says Reeve, involves propping up repressive governments, something the people being repressed aren’t so keen on. The war on terror, therefore, “is turning the people in these countries against the United States and increasing support for Islamic militants across the whole region”.

While being interviewed, one militant became quite agitated as he talked about wanting to be a martyr. When he reached into his pocket, Reeve says, “our guide was getting worried that the guy was about to blow himself up in our van”.

For all this, the fresh-faced BBC host still thinks the region has much to offer tourists. “If you’re interested in travelling off the beaten track, and you’re interested in a part of the world that’s retained much of its own culture”, then Central Asia is as good a place as any for a holiday.

“Most people who travel around the region would not end up in the back of a van with an Islamic militant, or go to a contaminated radioactive waste dump.”

Reeve faced only one real danger — something he calls “vodka terrorism”. This, he explains, is “the extraordinary hospitality of the locals combined with their love of good drink … Bottles of vodka are not put away half-empty — they tend to be fully consumed.” And this was “traumatic” for Reeve “because I was constantly being given alcohol, at all times of night and day”. A dangerous zone, indeed.


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