Friday evening, Uzbek Air flew the first ever direct Tashkent to Washington flight. On it were about seventy friends, colleagues, and associates from the US Embassy in Tashkent. As I said goodbye to friends, I waved to them from a safe distance, with vague hopes for seeing each other 'soon,' but no firm idea of what soon actually meant.
I've done an evacuation before so I know what they were going through as they threw things into suitcases, not knowing when or if they would return to Tashkent, not knowing where they would stay when they got to the US, not knowing when or if they would see friends again, sometimes not even knowing when they would see their family again. I don't envy them.
The first case of COVID-19 in Uzbekistan was reported last Saturday. By Sunday the government had decided to shut down all borders and halt all flights in and out of Uzbekistan.
In the State Department, there are two types of evacuations. In an authorized departure, non-essential personnel and all family members are allowed to leave the host country if they want to. In an ordered departure, all non-essential personnel and family members are required to leave the host country and return to the US.
Sunday evening, after we had finished playing Catan Junior and were eating our mint brownies, I got an email on my phone. The DCM, the second in command at the embassy, informed everyone of the border closures and cessation of flights. Then he let us all know that Tashkent had requested an ordered departure.
We all looked at each other, stunned. The first response was from Kathleen, "But we just filled the pool! I don't want to leave!!" I couldn't help but agree with her. Immediately my mind went to planning mode as I started looking for places to live and cars to buy. Brandon and I debated whether it would be better for me to stay in North Carolina while he went to DC or to try and find somewhere that could accommodate all nine of us for an indefinite stay.
I couldn't concentrate on any one thing as I thought of the packing and dislocation and disruption and uncertainty. As the evening grew longer, I grew more and more frantic with stress and dread. As I tried to sleep, various scenarios kept churning through my mind, keeping me awake despite the exhaustion from my time in the hospital with Elizabeth only a few days before. Around midnight, I checked my phone and found a new email. DC had not approved the ordered departure. I woke Brandon with the news and finally was able to fall asleep.
Monday there was a town hall for everyone at the embassy where they discussed the situation in Uzbekistan. DC had just approved a worldwide authorized departure for anyone who is put at risk by their medical situation, including those who have less optimal local medical resources. Anyone who would like to leave would be able to go.
Brandon and I had already discussed the possibility of an authorized departure and had decided that we would stay if we could. With our large family, finding housing would be very difficult, and we would have to buy a car (for the second time in six months). We have only been back and settled for four months, and I just couldn't handle having to up and leave again.
Our situation in Tashkent is very stable. Our house is safe, large, and filled with our consumables. The children and I already spend most days home and we have very limited contact with anyone outside our family. Everyone is in good health and nobody has any underlying medical conditions that would cause problems. For us, staying was the best option.
As the week wore on and the discussions about staying or going were resolved for each family, a special Uzbek Air flight was arranged, affairs were put in order and suitcases packed, I only felt relief at being untouched by the drama. And when the final flurry of pictures and announcements were posted to group chats, I was so incredibly glad to be safely staying at home.
So now we are in Uzbekistan for the duration of the corona virus crisis, however long it lasts. There are no flights in or out for the foreseeable future and I am often reminded of Gandalf's reading of the dwarfs' end in the Mines of Moria, "We cannot get out. We cannot get out."
In future days when we are swapping stories of COVID-19, I will always remember our posting in Tashkent. Inevitably someone will ask why we chose to stay in Central Asia during such uncertain times. By then we'll know the end of this story, whether it was a good decision or a poor one. The uncertainty and stress will have faded with time, and everything will be neatly laid out with a happy ending to finish the story with. I'll pause and try to remember why it was that we so desperately wanted to stay out in the wilds when so many others fled for the safety of home. Then I'll shrug and reply with a smile, "We had a pool. What other reason did we need?"