Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.


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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An ancient history – Part 1

Up until now, I have avoided going into too much detail about the history of this fascinating country.  Mostly, because I am still trying to wrap my head around it.

I’ve met a lot of people over the past couple of months who’ve been kind enough to share their stories and insights with me on a range of issues.  And I’d like to share these with you.  But first, I thought that I should make an attempt at providing some sort of historical context.

I’m guessing that most of you know about as much about this region as I did when I first arrived:   it has a large Muslim population, it’s next to Afghanistan and it was once a part of the former Soviet Union. 

Not bad, but there is so much more to it than that. 

I’ll do my best to keep it concise.  I’m not an expert on this region so all of this information is borrowed from the book:  Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas.  


A complex beginning

Over the past 3000 years, a lot of different ethnic groups have passed through or settled in the territory that is today known as Tajikistan.  The Scythians, Persian dynasties, Macedonian/Greek armies under Alexander the Great, Parthians, Kushans, Chinese, Huns, Hephtalites, Mongol hordes, Arabs,  Russians, Nestorian Christians, Jews and the British ( they always seems to show up 🙂 have all left their mark on this region.

The Tajiks are a Persian-speaking people of Iranian origin.   They occupied a large part of Central Asia until they were displaced by waves of Turkic invaders.  They are known as the sedentary inhabitants of the region as opposed to the Turkic peoples who were nomadic.  

Today, the Tajiks are the main ethnic group in Tajikistan (80%) but there are also large populations of Tajiks living in northeastern Afghanistan and in Kabul, Mazar-iSharif and Herat.  In fact, they make up over ¼ of the Afghan population.  

There are also a lot of Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Western China (in China this small community lives in Sarikol, Xinjiang Province and are mainly Shia Ismailis). 

They are also a lot of Tajiks living in Russia – a substantial number fled from the war in Tajikistan and more recently Afghanistan, as well as economic migrants that have found their way to Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Pakistan.


Soviet Rule

Tajikistan was born out of the collapse of the Bukharen Emirate in the early 20th century.   When the imperial Russian army began its march through central Asia in the 19th century, Bukhara became a Russian protectorate.  Because of its geographical location at the edge of the Russian empire and its proximity to China and British India, the territory had considerable strategic importance.  

In 1920, the Soviet Army began bombing Bukhara.  People were fascinated by the Soviet planes in the sky (having never witnessed this) and shocked as the bombs destroyed their mud brick homes.

It took only three days for Bukhara to fall. 

With the dissolution of the Bukharen state, the Soviets set to drawing up a new map of Central Asia.  The “Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic” came into being in 1924 – incorporating what is now Uzbekistan with Tajikistan as an autonomous adjunct with its capitol at Dushanbe.   

They started to build – transforming the rural land that was once home to weavers, tanners and horse-traders into a model Soviet city.   Electric lights were built powered by a new electricity plant and telegraph poles were erected.    Local building materials (wood and mud brick) were discarded for glass and more modern materials brought in (by train and then donkey) from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet influence in Central Asia did not lead to the total destruction of local culture and religion: the region was located far from the centre and comprised a lot of rural communities where traditions remained strong.   However, the Arabic and Persian alphabet once used by the people of this region was banned, making outlaws out of countless intellectuals, clerics, lawyers and other literate people.   The Soviet occupation successfully severed the region from the Muslim world (and their entire literary canon).  

People who used the old script were sent to prison camps in the Russian Far East.  Many hid their literacy and their books.   In place of the Arabic script, came the Latin alphabet, later replaced by Cyrillic – the Russian lettering that is still used in Tajikistan today.

The capitol:  Dushanbe

Dushanbe (means Monday) became a booming metropolis.  By the early 1920s, the first cars, newspapers and school text books appeared. The style of dress changed to reflect the Russian/European influence.   

Imagine the speed with which that transformation occurred! Within a decade, people that were once living in mud brick homes in a rural village found themselves in a Soviet modern city!

Outside of the capitol, things were quite different.  The Red Army has secured a great deal of territory, often quite violently, and many villagers had lost their lands and livelihoods.  A great number fled to Afghanistan. 

Some men took up arms – they were known as the basmachi.   The Red Army carried out violent reprisals on surrounding villagers in response.  Close to a third of the population in the rural areas disappeared, of these about half were thought to have gone to Afghanistan and the other half killed.  Few places were hit as hard by the coming of communism as rural Tajikistan.

Soviet rule brought economic and social benefits to the Republics of Central Asia, especially for Tajikistan, the poorest among them.  Universal education and health services achieved a level of literacy and public health far superior to that achieved in the former British Empire just across the Wakhan Corridor to the South.  

The subsidies from Moscow provided a standard of living and social services in Tajikistan that bore little relationship to the actual economic development or potential of the region (this would come back to haunt the country once the Soviet Union fell) .

Dushanbe had grown into a major Soviet city with people emigrating from across the Soviet Union in search of work and a fresh start following the war.  Women cut their hair, wore Western style clothes, and got married at a later age (closer to 21).   The lingua franca was Russian and many Tajiks grew up speaking Russian better than their native language.  Those that didn’t speak Russian had no chance of finding a good income and a steady job.

“Village” Tajiks were disproportionately disadvantaged by this since many did not speak Russian well, and could not advance beyond a job as a manual laborer.   Educated Tajiks faced discrimination as well; they hardly ever got senior posts in other parts of the Union, in the army or in the political apparatus around the Kremlin. 

However, most Tajiks did not stop to question the Union. Life was fairly prosperous, cut off from the outside world, with nothing to compare their lives against but those of their parents.  They considered themselves immensely privileged.

In the 1980s, things started to change.   Tajik intellectuals wanted to revive Tajik language and culture.  They wanted to mend ties with Iran and Afghanistan – the other Persian –speaking countries.  The proximity to Afghanistan gave an extra dimension to this. 

The Soviets had fought a disastrous war in Afghanistan and some Central Asian conscripts had been changed profoundly by the experience.  They not only saw a world outside of the Soviet one, but they met Afhgans who spoke their own language, shared their traditions and even, occasionally were related to them through the generation that had crossed the Amu (river) for fear of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and 1930s.

From the villages, emerged devout young men bent on reviving Islamic beliefs and learnings.  For generations, Tajiks had been saying their prayers and teaching their children the Qur’an in secret (religion was prohibited under the Soviets).

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Tajikistan became an independent state but was immediately faced with the economic problems caused by the breakdown of the centrally planned Soviet economy:  withdrawal of subsidies, disruption of former guaranteed markets, exchange instability etc.   

Tajikistan declared its independence on September 9.   Thousands of demonstators arrived in Dushanbe from the villages.  Protests were staged.  The political leadership was not able to lead a brand new country.  And almost all Tajiks were poor and impatient for change.  More than half the population was under sixteen years old. 

Side note: I received a lot of comments about the pictures that I took in Dushanbe.  People were surprised to see such a developed city.  Don’t be fooled: outside of the capitol people struggle to survive and Tajikistan ranks among the poorest countries in the world. 

To be continued…

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