Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajik Border Hardship

Life in the once prosperous Khatlon province is now an exercise in surviving natural and man-made disasters
By Saida Nazarova

Izzatullo Khalikov's home is a few miles from the centre of Tajikistan's Khatlon region - a border area littered with ruins, dilapidated farms and abandoned shops. Before the civil war, this was a prosperous place. Back then, Izzatullo worked for a local collective farm, while his wife was a nurse in the district hospital. But, since the end of the conflict, life in this southern part of the country has gone from bad to worse. Industry has folded, harvests have failed, workers have fled and drug barons have tightened their grip over a ruined economy.


Izzatullo didn't take sides during the war, yet his house in Kurgan-Tyube was burned down and his father and elder brother were killed. Today, his wife and three children live in a small house, which they share with his elder brother's widow, their four children, and Izzatullo's mother.


Because unemployment is rife in Khatlon, Izzatullo has been forced to relocate to Russia where he has been working for the past six years. He is one of around quarter of a million full time and seasonal workers in Russia. Visits home are rare and the money Izzatullo sends back is barely enough to feed his wife and three children.


The family's plight encapsulates the tragedy that has befallen the Khatlon region over the past decade. Izzatullo's older children can barely read or write, as there is no money to buy books. Women and children now spend their time collecting firewood, tending cattle and helping out on the farms of their neighbours, richer for having successfully hidden their possessions during the war.


Natural disasters are driving even more families from the region. Drought struck again this year, as did fires, which destroyed 126,000 hectares of wheat and cotton worth an estimated 3.3 million US dollars.


The industrial base has also been scuppered. Just around a third of the region's once prosperous state enterprises are operational. Those still running do so at just a quarter of capacity, employing half the staff they used to. Although the region has rich mineral wealth with 53 gold, strontium and coal mines, only 16 of these are working. Lack of equipment, qualified labour and roads have made the deposits of little interest to investors.


Such is the level of poverty here that the 635,000 civil war refugees are cold-shouldered because of the humanitarian aid they receive. The average family of five or six individuals has to get by on five and a half dollars a month. Unsurprisingly, many suffer from malnourishment and the proliferation of poverty-related diseases, such as TB and abdominal typhoid. One in ten people Tajiks on the Afghan borders has malaria.


With few employment prospects, drug-trafficking from neighbouring Afghanistan - clearly aided by elements in the military on both sides of the border - has spread its tentacles. In the first six months of this year alone, Russian border guards seized more than 3.6 tons of drugs, including one ton of heroin.


As if all this weren't enough, those unlucky enough to live in the border villages find themselves caught in the crossfire between Taleban and Northern Alliance forces. Shells intended for two airstrips frequently fall short of their mark. The sad irony is that while the Taleban claim the strips are used to deliver military supplies to their enemies, they are in fact used to bring in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.


Saida Nazarova is a pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan


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