Postimees visited the border of Afghanistan on the Pyandzh River and joined local men in observing the Taliban on the opposite bank who have promised not to attack their compatriots in Tajikistan.
Tajiks living near Afghanistan do not believe Taliban will cross over
Owner of the Ruzvat kishlak gas station Davlat (52) got a good view of bearded men wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles when they hoisted the Taliban’s white flag on a river pole one hundred meters across the Pyandzh River in late July. The men fired a few bursts in the direction of the mountains to celebrate their victory before picking up a loudspeaker and commencing to communicate their message.
The message was not what Davlat had been fearing. The men did not threaten to come and “liberate” Tajiks living on the other side of the river, promising instead that they pose no threat and do not plan to cross the border, that runs along the Pyandzh for hundreds of kilometers, or hurt anyone.
The Talibs have kept their word so far and Davlat has become bolder. “I do not fear them crossing over. No one here does,” he tells Postimees a month later.
The Afghan kishlak (or village) on the opposite riverbank is called Darvoz. The locals say it comprises roughly 300 households. A fair bit of shooting was done in Darvoz when the Taliban took over, with the constant rattling of assault rifles interrupted by bursts of machine gun fire. Afghan police forces resisted the Taliban at first but were forced to escape. “It was quite the little Panjshir there,” Davlat recalls, comparing the battle to resistance still going strong in the Panjshir Province.
The kishlaks are located in Badakhstan that covers Afghanistan and Tajikistan, with both countries having a province of the same name. The people on both sides of the border are Tajiks. The national border that separates them was created 150 years ago, while it was still relatively easy to cross until the 1930s. That is why many locals are related despite living on opposite sides of the border.
Ruzvat in Tajikistan and Darvoz in Afghanistan are linked by a bridge over the River Pyandzh. The kishlaks used to be one back in the day. Just two years ago, residents held joint bazaars on the bridge. Tajiks living in Afghanistan were even allowed to cross the river into Ruzvat (even though the residents of Ruzvat could not cross into Darvoz). Therefore, it is little wonder when Davlat says he knows many people on the other side of the river by name.
Based on the accounts of said acquaintances (as it is still possible to call the neighboring village), Davlat offers his version of why his fellow Tajiks on the other side of the Pyandzh suddenly started supporting the Taliban. This despite the Taliban being predominantly Pashtun and their distaste for the Tajiks.
Makes no difference who pays the bills
“I have heard stories that the Taliban paid for support in the surrounding villages. As far as I know, it was not about the money but because there used to be lawlessness,” Davlat says. “People could be robbed of all their money and belongings in broad daylight and no one did anything. People came down from kishlaks in the mountains to buy goods but were robbed blind instead. These were bandits, not authorities. Of course the people are pro-Taliban now, after they put an end to it.”
We spend a long time looking at life in the Taliban country. Men wearing a white shalwar kameez and black vest can be seen walking the streets of Darvoz. “These are Talibs, that is what they wear,” Davlat tells me. The shalwar kameez, consisting of a long shirt and baggy trousers, is a traditional Afghan dress, while it is usually gray. We can see no armed men. Davlat says that the Talibs sometimes have weapons with them and only move in groups of two, like in the military.
Next to the Talibs wearing white, we can see women in dark hijabs. “Everyone has their reasons,” Davlat says when I ask him about what he thinks of wearing a full hijab, before cryptically adding: “There are a lot of women there.”
We notice some kids playing in the river at the far end of the Afghan kishlak. They are dancing with their feet in the water. A girl taller than the others and clad in red is whirling in the midst of other kids. “See now,” Davlat says in a way that makes it impossible for me to understand whether he is being approving – that life is just fine, with the children dancing – or critical – in that the children have nowhere else to dance but the river.
The bridge between Ruzvat and Darvoz is currently closed to traffic, while Davlat says trucks are allowed to move goods from Tajikistan to Afghanistan once a month on average. Mainly food products for which there is rumored to be great demand. Powerful trucks are used to move 60 tons of goods at a time. Davlat adds that crossing the bridge requires “highest authorization from our KGB.”
In the small town of Qal'ai Khumb that lies four kilometers from Ruzvat, the local men are convinced that their neighbors changed sides purely in exchange for money.
“What Talibs, they are Tajiks like us!” Kotbidin (63), speaking for a group of men sitting in front of the local mosque, says. “The Americans messed it up. They (locals – J. P.) got used to being paid, then the Taliban came and paid them more, and now they support the Taliban.” Approving mumbling from the other men tells me such conduct is not frowned upon here.
The Americans left a brand new schoolhouse in the Nusai kishlak opposite Qal'ai Khumb. Children of Tajiks in Afghanistan are said to still attend, including girls.
“Our Tajik brothers are people just like us,” butcher Muammad says of the Tajiks on the opposite bank. “They joined the Taliban because they side with whoever pays more. It is very simple!” he says, surprised by my question. “It makes no difference to them whether they are paid by the Russians, Americans or Talibs.”
The only thing I fail to learn is what the “Tajik brothers” are being paid for.
“And ever if they do cross over, what do we have to fear? They are all of them our relatives,” Muammad says.
However, he then goes on to say that while the “Afghan bothers” all have weapons, they surrendered their arms after the civil war of 1992-1997. Should something happen, the Tajiks will have to rely on the army and border guard for protection, he says in closing.
Small shop owner Dirhan (29) does not believe the Taliban wishes to cross the river into Tajikistan. “I do not fear it. No one here believes it could happen,” he claims.
Water shortage a bigger problem
Traveling along the Pyandzh River in Tajikistan, I fail to find anyone afraid of a Taliban offensive.
“We can neither see nor hear them,” Kulom Sabirov (60) from the kishlak of Kishti says. “We are living peacefully, much as we have,” he adds.
A bridge lying a few kilometers outside Kishti leads to the Hohon kishlak in Afghanistan. The Taliban flag has been hoisted on the Afghanistan side. A new schoolhouse can be seen, while there seems to be nothing going on from afar.
Local forester Kulom – tasked with protecting argali mountain sheep from poachers – has a set view of Talibs: “They are bad people and not true Muslims. A true Muslim does not kill people.”
The only sign of troubled times in Kishti comes in the form of border guard patrols of three or four members moving in the village and on the banks of the border river. Kulom says it has been a while since news that someone managed to swim across the river from the Afghanistan side came. It used to happen often in the 1990s, he adds. The Afghans had specially made life jacket-like bobbers. Those who crossed never did so purely with honest intentions, Kulom laughs.
Kulom is to be believed. Father of seven and grandfather of 18 or 19 (he was not sure), he has a large family to worry about. “Our biggest problem is water, not the Taliban,” he says.
Rather, it is lack of water. The Kishti kishlak and its 130 households get all of their water from a spring four kilometers away. Every family had to travel to the spring for its water just a few years ago, while the village then came together and installed a plastic water pipe that leads to the village. Now, Kulom’s family only has to walk a few hundred meters for water.
The most surprising thing Kulom says is his salary for fighting poachers – 500 somoni or €37 a month. (In the capital Dushanbe it is said a family needs an income of 5,000 somoni to make ends meet). Kulom says he feeds his family with the help of his 24 cows. He charges people five somoni or 37 euro cents for a liter of milk. A liter of gasoline 92 that is the most sought after variety in Tajikistan costs ten somoni or 74 cents. The locals say that gasoline is hugely expensive, while the price of milk is enough for a living, Kulom says.
Rahim (54) from the kishlak of Shurabad is among only a handful of people to admit they are afraid of the Taliban. “What scares me a little is that I don’t know what they want,” the local power transmission network employee, making 1,500 somoni (€111) a month, and father of five says. “I would very much like it if Tajiks on the other side of the river could live in peace as we do.”
His biggest problem is also water shortage but also changing climate. Rahim said that there used to be snow up to the waist where he lives at 1,500 meters above sea level, while recent winters have brought very little of it. This has resulted in poor grain harvests.
Rahim, who studied to be a physics teacher, says that many people in Shurabad have relatives in Afghanistan most have never seen. “Many crossed the Pyandzh escaping the Red Army in the 1920s,” he says. “Some returned a while later, while others stayed there. It was possible to visit people on the other side of the river relatively freely until the mid-1930s.”
Shurabad is known as a drug trade hub in Tajikistan where trafficking between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is most active. People say this has not changed.
“People have always crossed illegally, while no one is willing to tell you about that,” Rahim says reluctantly. It is something you do not discuss with strangers.
The Taliban comes and goes but the drug trade never ceases. No wonder Russia is feverishly looking for an excuse to help the Tajiks guard the Afghanistan border against the Taliban threat. The border is a lucrative one.