"What's happening now? ... Are there any other cars around? Can you flag one?"
"Come on! There's got to be other cars."
"Whenever one slows down, these guys tell him to keep moving."
"Well, just keep walking. How far are you from the U.N.?"
"I'm not sure. Owsh...!"
"What?! What's happening?!"
"They ripped my shirt."
"Just keep going, man. Walk. Run if you have to. No, wait, don't run."
"I can't. They've got me on the hood of the car."
David repeated the news to his wife (full disclosure: that's me), and I started making calls. I phoned a friend at the U.N. office for human rights in Bishkek, who texted over the number of a colleague in Osh. I called her. The town encompasses only six square miles, so minutes later the U.N. official pulled up on the scene. The plainclothes ruffians calmed down a bit; a third man, clearly their senior, showed up. All together, the group went to Nic's hotel for a passport check.
David, meanwhile, called a press officer acquaintance at the U.S. Embassy. He took down the details, and offered a suggestion: "Tweet it."
In seconds, the words "American photographer Nic Tanner being harassed and physically assaulted in #Osh, #Kyrgyzstan. Please help!" went out to 738 Twitter followers in English and Russian. The responses poured in immediately, mostly from young former and current Kyrgyz officials. A one-time presidential chief of staff tweeted back "where exactly? Contact info?" A parliament member and a staffer from the prime minister's office called to get specifics.
This is not a story of Twitter's ability to galvanize grassroots protests and marshal ordinary citizens to defend just causes. Kyrgyzstan is a place where high-tech social networks meet old-fashioned patronage networks. All those who got in touch were people we knew personally, and people with some clout. According to a recent national survey, only 19 percent of the country's 5.4 million residents have ever used the Internet. A far smaller elite uses sites like Twitter.
But nationwide, among the young and old, the tech-savvy and the paper-and-pencil set, the same context applies: Institutions are weak, courts serve as theater props, and laws are broken by those meant to enforce them, so the most effective means of getting things done is through personal connections. Our use of social media didn't tap a network of underground civil-society activists -- it simply sped up the well-oiled machinery of string-pulling.
One Twitter-tracking official let David know she had texted the head of the secret police and contacted a deputy interior minister. Another said he'd help as well.
Nic phoned. The men had taken his passport. They were telling him to sign a paper admitting he'd broken the law and threatening to keep him detained until he did.
"Don't sign! Don't sign anything they give you!" David yelled into the phone.
Nic bluffed, saying he wouldn't go anywhere before talking to his lawyer, though he knew no lawyer was coming.
All we could do was stall for time.
Then, a text arrived from one of our helpful officials: "We called" -- without specifying whom -- "He should be let go soon."
David's phone rang again. It was Nic: "Hey, so, I don't know what you did, man, but..."
"Talk to me. What's happening?"
"So, one of the security guys gets a call, walks a couple of paces away, talking very softly, then, within like 30 seconds, comes back over and says, ‘Here's your passport. There's no problem.'"
"He had such a tail-between-his-legs look -- there was this total transformation, from king of the hill to defeat and acquiescence."
David sent messages of thanks to all those who had helped. One of the officials texted back, "Sure. We yelled at someone :)"
We're grateful we had him -- and can imagine all too vividly what happens to those whose friends are less well-connected, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. But so long as people in Kyrgyzstan have good reason to distrust government, innovations like Twitter will serve to bolster old ways of doing things at least as much as they offer new ones.