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Michelle O’Brien: “The Long Shadow: War, Migration, and Community in Tajikistan”

October 18, 2017

The Long Shadow: War, Migration, and Community in Tajikistan

(All names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.)

Fotima* sat across from her husband, Bobujon* as she spoke. Her eyes welled with tears as she told me about her father’s death in the civil war, and her escape to northern Tajikistan with her mother. Her mother had taken clever steps to ensure their apartment would remain legally theirs upon their return. With a drag of a cigarette, Bobujon pointed to his shaken wife and explained to me that although they’d had the money for an apartment in Dushanbe for years, they would never buy one here. They would always keep other options open. They had seen, he explained, what happened when you ‘committed’ to Dushanbe.

The Tajik civil war raged from 1992-1997, killing an estimated 60,000 and displacing a million residents to northern Tajikistan or Afghanistan. Most of the violence was concentrated in 1992 and 1993, and Fotima and Bobujon were around 10 years old at this time. Still, the experience of violence and uncertainty emerges in discussions of daily life in Tajikistan today.

Tajikistan is a landlocked, mountainous country that was once the poorest republic in the Soviet Union. The legacy of the Soviet Union is perennially in tension with a remembrance (accurately and otherwise) and reverence of the Samanid, Bactrian, and Persian roots of the region. After the collapse of the USSR, war broke out, fundamentally changing the institutional landscape of the country.

My dissertation aims to examine the long-term consequences of the Tajik Civil War on population change and migration. Although I had lived in Russia, and read enough Russian to translate documents and gather quantitative evidence, I decided to spend the summer in Tajikistan in order to try to ‘get under the skin’ of the country, as a colleague of mine puts it.

During my time in Tajikistan, I conducted interviews with key informants at non-government organizations that helped me understand the development strategies after the war. I wanted to know how development might link historical conflict events with contemporary migration decision-making, through gains in social and human capital. I presented some of my preliminary quantitative findings to the United Nations Development Programme, and gained valuable insight into what on-the-ground mechanisms might have explained the results.

I traveled as much as I could and seemed to make new friends in every corner of the country. I had casual conversations about life and love while eating plov and kurutob on a topchan, a traditional dining pavilion. When the pipes in my apartment burst, the construction workers who lived upstairs rushed to help me and joked that it wasn’t they who were at fault, but rather Khrushchev, who was in charge the last time the pipes had been replaced, evidently. I discussed famous Tajik historians on a trek up a donkey path to see a glacier.

After waiting several days for the debris of a landslide to clear, I finally made my way to Gorno-Badakhshan. After a harrowing twelve-hour ride which should have taken much longer, the moon began to rise over the Pamir mountain range in Afghanistan, which lay directly across the Panj river. Arriving at a friend-of-a-friend’s house in Gorno-Badakhshan felt like landing in a fully separate country. Traditional Pamiri homes are constructed with a large square interior supported by five pillars, representing either the five members of the prophet’s family, the five principles of Islam, or the five major gods of Zoroastrianism, depending on who you ask. A major feature of every home in the Pamirs is the prominent display of the portrait of the Aga Khan, the living imam of the Ismaili branch of Islam ascribed to by the residents in this region. On a tour of the Pamir house, I pointed to the portrait and asked, “Aga Khan, right?” The patriarch of the house nodded enthusiastically and replied “Yes, he’s our leader (поводырь).” To the word ‘leader,’ I probed: “He’s the imam, right?”

The man responded, “Tajikistan has Rahmon; we have Aga Khan. Leader.” I nodded and understood, but later asked my friend why the man felt so free to speak about Aga Khan in such a way to a foreigner and stranger. My friend responded by reminding me how far from Dushanbe we were. Perhaps it is unsurprising to find such allegiance to the Aga Khan, as his foundations are largely credited for keeping the population in the Pamirs alive after the peak of violence in the 1990s with weekly deliveries of food and aid packages.

Later, I met a newlywed couple in the Wakhan Valley who had never met while growing up in neighboring towns in Gorno-Badakhshan, but had both migrated to Moscow in the last year – her for university and him for a construction job. They lived in the same neighborhood in Moscow, but still did not meet. Finally, they both attended a wedding back home in Gorno-Badakhshan, at which she caught his eye, and he asked around about her. He managed to track down her phone number in Moscow and called her. The rest is history. They were quickly engaged, and within six months were married at a modern ceremony in Moscow, followed by a traditional one in Gorno-Badakhshan. Now they live in Moscow and hope to migrate, as many young people do, to New York City.

Migration is a common livelihood strategy (Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world), but many see the widespread practice as a reflection of weakness, not opportunity. Some estimates claim that at any given time, a million Tajikistani are working abroad, mostly in Russia. In the hills above Khorog, on a walk with Farrukh*, who had grown up there, told me the story of his experience in Moscow as a migrant from Tajikistan. He and his friends had been on a metro car when a group of skinheads boarded, clearly looking for trouble. Farrukh and his friends disembarked at the next stop, but the skinheads followed. Farrukh was able to outrun them, but one of his friends was captured, beaten, and killed. Farrukh pledged never to return to Russia. Why would he? Anti-minority sentiment against Central Asians in Russia includes not only violence but also wage arrears and housing discrimination. By not migrating, however, Farrukh is part of a left-behind group of young people with few, if any, employment opportunities. Young men with less than promising prospects, a legacy of being forgotten by political leaders, and access to weapons from Afghanistan make for a dangerous combination for preserving peace in a former conflict zone.

Firuza*, whose son could easily fall into this group, expressed to me her worry that young people in Tajikistan no longer remember the horrors of war. They turn to violence because they are restless and angry, but they do not remember the sacrifices of their parents. She thinks that another war will erupt. It’s a point of debate for the few in Tajikistan who are willing to talk about it. Could another war erupt in their lifetimes? Could Gorno-Badakhshan once again declare independence? For some, it is a point of pride. For others, a deeply held fear.

The events of 2012 are never far from this debate. That July, a top security official was stabbed in Khorog, leading to an outbreak of violence. While the state reported 23 combatant deaths and no civilian casualties, a hospital worker told the BBC at that time that at least 200 were dead, with dozens more injured, both soldiers and civilians. The familiar security narrative of radical Islamic threats emerged, and road blocks were established between Gorno-Badakhshan and the rest of Tajikistan. Two years later, a foreign researcher was arrested investigating the event. That spring, the government temporarily halted foreign travel to the region. Under the surface of Khorog, a bustling town with an annual music festival and a new impressive university, that tension persists.

Back in Dushanbe, Bobujon and I met at a café on my last evening there. We discussed, in sometimes coded language, the theme of my dissertation. The shadow of this war was long, he told me. It affected the collective psyche of Tajikistan.

“We learned how to survive,” he told me, “but we forgot how to live.”


A pastoral scene in Sughd, Tajikistan

Panj river in Gorno-Badakhshan


Michelle O’Brien is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology, a former National Institute of Health Fellow in the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology, and an affiliate with the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington. In 2017, she was awarded the Ellison Center’s  Boba Fellowship to conduct research in Tajikistan. This post draws on her research supported by the Ellison Center, the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology, and the Department of Sociology.

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