Postcard from Central Asia #4: urgent request from a UN ‘spymaster’


The United Nations building, Bishkek. Image by

A gloriously greasy gamburger for lunch, and on returning to the office an email from a senior United Nations staffer in Bishkek.

Could I meet them for lunch tomorrow at Bella Italia? An urgent matter to discuss. Certainly, see you there.

Earlier this week I’d negotiated an advertising deal at Gazprom’s towering Kyrgyzstan headquarters. And now this. Things were looking up.

The next day I arrive early, after another shoe-destroying trudge through the snow, and secure a window table. I’d met the UN contact a few times at civic engagements, one of several increasingly familiar faces, but nothing more. Such a global organisation is so forward-planned that approaches from local media like me are as driftwood to an oil tanker. Before leaving, a brief Google of UN news had revealed accusations of spying from a foreign power elsewhere in the world, but nothing of recent importance in Central Asia.

I have no idea what to expect.

The staffer arrives, a faint smile, anxious eyes. Why? A looming humanitarian crisis, requiring coverage of the UN’s swift and reassuring response? I see a trip to the Ferghana Valley, bodyguards, helicopters.

The menu is perused. We order. We talk of the weather. We talk of other restaurants. Where’s this going? I outline the editorial and advertising avenues of both companies I work for.

They respond by talking about the heaters not working in their apartment:

“I mean, I have to sleep wearing a hat.”

Luncheon arrives. Platters of cured meats for us both. A luxury, seeing as I’d not yet risked the grey-brown, shrink-wrapped matter displayed in the Narodny supermarket chillers. Devouring my plate with locust-like ferocity, the unspoken emergency situation is momentarily forgotten.

Cutlery positioned in gorged completion, I ask what the urgent matter is that requires discussion.

From behind a glass of sparkling mineral water comes the reply. That where they work is rather self-contained, rather isolated. That, by contrast, I’m on the ground. That I have local connections. That I know people.

This sounds interesting.

They continue. That they need someone. Someone reliable, educated, presentable. Someone that can work under pressure, that can get things done, that can deal with unfortunately frequent last-minute requests.

I see overheard bazaar conversations, trips to the south and interviews with people over purposeful quantities of vodka, reports on ‘the situation’, handler meetings in deliberate public. Like this one.

This sounds very interesting.

The UN staffer carries on:

“I wonder if you can find me a secretary. You know, one of these bright young girls that went to AUCA and want to work for an NGO. It could be a good start to their career. I dare say you must come across people like that all the time. What do you think?”


They add:

“Do you want dessert? I’m rather pushed for time.”

No, no dessert, thanks.

To a passing Kyrgyz waitress they give the international gesture meaning they’d like to pay. The waitress pauses. I smile and venture: eseptesheli. The waitress looks baffled, but nods and moves off when my dining partner asks in Russian.

They put it on expenses, and offer to drive me back to the office. A chauffeur emerges from the car outside and opens a door for me. On the way back to the city centre I promise to ask some contacts, already having a suitable candidate in mind. In heavy traffic along Chui Prospekt I recall when a diplomat gave me a lift and suggested an impressive-looking building opposite the Philharmonic Hall was a library, before being emphatically contradicted by their driver:

“No, is mayor office. Of Bishkek.”

I never manage a selfie outside Bishkek City Hall, despite living a hundred yards away. A few doors down the Metro pub – or Rick’s Café from Casablanca, as a friend describes it – always seems to command more of my attention…




About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
This entry was posted in Bishkek, Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, United Nations and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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