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The Civil War

In 1992, the civil war broke out.  The causes of this war were complex and relate to some extent to the ethnic and regional tensions that emerged from the formation of the new Soviet Republic in 1924 (once again artificial lines on a map – created by outside forces – lead to conflict!) and to premature attempts to liberalize the Tajik political system.  

At the end of the Soviet period, power in Tajikistan was tightly guarded by representatives of the Leninabad district in the North.  Other regions of Tajikistan were demanding:  equal participation in the political process; and the communist party to abandon its monopoly on political power, in favor of a multiparty system.

The refusal to share power coupled with a lack of political maturity on the part of the opposition- led to civil war.

The war was devastating.  

It compounded the economic disruption caused by the break-up of the Soviet system and the people of GBAO  (the Pamirs) and Karategin/Rasht found themselves virtually isolated from the outside world.   People were starving.   The mountainous terrain that protected them from the majority of the violence also contributed to their inability to access food. 

Many had lost family members during the war and the country was crippled economically.  Jobs were almost impossible to find. Public services, like schools and hospitals were in a shocking state and business nearly non-existent.  The feeling of unease was perverse –with gunmen openly walking the streets, murder, robbery and kidnapping rampant.  Gas , electricity and water were often cut and the winters long, dark and cold.

20,000 people died (of a population of 5 million) and around one in ten had fled their homes. 

The organization that I work for is well respected in this region not only for the projects that they currently fund but for the humanitarian assistance they provided during the war.     The crisis was largely ignored by the rest of the international community: few had heard of Tajikistan and many considered it Russia’s problem.   

Help was not on its way.


Peace

In 1997, a peace agreement was reached.  And to date, the peace process had been very successful. A result of the war has been a push for promoting cultural pluralism.  

The economic situation in Tajikistan remains the most precarious of all of the Republics, however, the high level of literacy and the secular education achieved under the Soviet Union coupled with the political maturity of the parties since the 1997 peace agreement, offers hope that Tajikistan will prove more stable than its neighbors.   

 
The People of the Pamirs

The Pamirs has been mostly protected from outside influence and occupation due to its isolated geophraphic location.   This mountainous area, a large part of which is located in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, is one of the most inaccessible in the world.  

Local tradition holds that the Pamirian people descended from the leaders of Alexander the Great’s invading army, who reached the area in fourth century B.C. 

This may in part be true but their ethnicity can also be traced to the tribes that lived in Eastern Iran.  Today, the Pamiris live in southern Central Asia, primarily in southeastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan.

The Pamiris are not a homogeneous group.  They are composed of people who speak the Pamiri languages, (some are quite similar, others not easily understood among the different groups) the indigenous languages of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan region and in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province in Tajikistan, and adhere to the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam (followers of the Aga Khan).  Aside from the Kyrgyz-speaking people in Murgab (more on this later) most people that live in the GBAO are Ismaili.

The Pamiris share close linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the people in Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan, the Sarikoli speakers in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang Province in China, the Wakhi speakers in Afghanistan and the Wakhi speakers in Upper Hunza Gojal region of Northern mountainous areas of Pakistan.

During the Tajikistan Civil War from 1992–1997 the Pamiris were targeted for massacres, especially those living in the capital Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa Oblast.

In the early 1990s there was a movement amongst Pamiris to separate Gorno-Badakhshan from Tajikistan. This did not happen but the Pamirs remain an autonomous region of Tajikistan (you need a visa to get in).

 

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We spent our first night in Dushanbe in a hotel room that could have been Anna Karenina’s bed chamber.  20 foot ceilings, gold wall paper, red embroidered drapes, crystal chandeliers and rich dark wood furniture.  It was a fitting introduction to this country’s complex relationship with the former Soviet Union.   And, a great place to end up after a long a flight.   The hotel was out of our price range so after the first night we decided to rent a flat in the centre of town for the rest of the week.   It’s in a great location right in the centre of the action.

Dushanbe is a lovely city. Russian-colonial buildings line the streets and the architecture is quite beautiful.  Many buildings have been converted into spaces for stores (clothing, electronics etc.) filled with products from China (its neighbour to the east).  There are restaurants, cafes and a lot of outdoor spaces to cool down, socialize, have a drink and eat beef kebabs.

 There is a huge park near the apartment and at night it fills with families taking a break from the heat and enjoying the colourful water fountains.  Tajiks love their kids.    This is a culture that allows children to be children. Kids run around and do mischief but they are rarely chastised for being themselves.  I’ve noticed that the men here spend a great deal of time with their children.

 People are very gracious about having their pictures taken.  I think it’s because they don’t get a lot of tourists here.  I have found myself the subject of quite a few photos as well!    The people here are really friendly and  often approach me for conversation.   But it’s difficult communicating because most people don’t speak English.

A lot of people ask me where I’m from.  They usually assume I’m American but when I explain I’m Canadian they nod in acknowledgement.  I’ve given up on trying to explain where Jamaica is –  I’ve even tried throwing out Bob Marley but that usually gets me blank stares in reply.

The teenagers here are great.   We spent a day at a camp about an hour outside of Dushanbe.  It was 36C and by the time we got there I was sure  I was going to faint.  I don’t know how people function in this heat.   I lived in Uganda for 10 months so you’d think I’d be used to it…

The “camp” was housed in a former Russian hotel.   It’s built on the side of a river with mountains on every side.

 The kids were celebrating their final day at camp.  They had prepared a show and we were the guests of honour.  And what a show!  This was my first experience with Tajik (Pamiri Ismaili to be exact) cultural dance, poetry and song.   The traditional clothing is very colourful and the girls weave red ribbon through their hair.

Tajikistan is a fairly liberal country and even knowing this I was surprised to see how bold the boys were in asking the girls to dance.   It’s a striking difference from the other Muslim countries that I am familiar with.   The men here are quite friendly but respectful.  They pay women a lot of compliments.   I don’t blame them, the women here are breathtakingly beautiful!  I have never seen such beautiful shades of hair colour, from the deepest black to the lightest copper (and even some blondes and red heads!).   It doesn’t surprise me that many foreign men end up getting married here.

 To celebrate their final week at camp, a local band came to play.  They played modern Tajik music and the kids loved it.   They forced us to dance (they are amazing dancers!) and taught us some of their moves in exchange for some of our “American dance moves.”  I did my best to represent.  At one point, I found myself in a dance-off, surrounded by a group of 20 kids clapping.  It was a really great time.

The language barrier here is a real challenge.  I like being able to socialize with people but since I don’t speak Russian or Tajik (which is a form of Farsi) I have to rely on my Russian phrasebook.   I have spoken a bit of French though.  There are some French soldiers here and the occasional Tajik who has studied French.

 So far, I’ve spoken to several shop owners, Russian military, students and a nice older gentleman on the bus.   I have a new appreciation for Russian – it’s a tough language to read but it’s fairly easy to pronounce.   Tajik eludes me.  I will begin my Tajik language lessons next week and am excited to speak to people in their first language.  But, I won’t get much practice in Khorog, it’s a region where people speak another language, Shugni.  This is an oral language spoken by Pamiri people.  I wanted to stick to Tajik because it’s close to Dari (the language spoken in Afghanistan) and Farsi (Iran).  So I will likely get the chance to use it again.

Because of the heat, I’ve been spending quite a few hot afternoons at a coffee house across from our apartment.   I’m leaving for Khorog on Thursday where these small luxuries (espresso) will be unavailable, so I don’t feel too guilty about having a cappuccino (and air conditioning) here and there.

In the mornings and the late afternoons, I explore.  I love photography and haven’t been disappointed by the sights.    So far, I’m having a great time!

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