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

Tajik Violence May Threaten Aid

Dushanbe fears downturn in aid after renewed clashes between security forces and criminal groups
By Saida Nazarova

Tajikistan's attempts to expand Western relief operations in the country have been undermined in recent weeks by a resurgence of violence.


On May 29, the US State Department warned all US citizens going overseas about possible terrorist attacks, in particular advising them not to visit Tajikistan.


It followed a New York City court judgment, which found four followers of the alleged international terrorist Usama Bin Laden, America's arch-enemy, guilty on several counts. Bin Laden is based in Afghanistan, which a shares a long border with Tajikistan.


Much to the embarrassment of the authorities in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, Tajik gunmen then took 19 foreigners and government officials captive. They were released two days later unharmed.


The gunmen were demanding the release of four suspects held after the April 11 killing of the republic's deputy interior minister, Khabib Sanginov. The hostage-takers were believed to be former rebels of the Tajik opposition.


After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan descended into a five-year civil war between a Russian-backed secular government and the mostly Islamic opposition. The war ended when opposition leaders agreed to stop fighting in return for participation in the government.


But many of their followers refused to hand over their weapons, joining criminal gangs - now one of the main sources of instability in the country.


The Tajik authorities have criticised the Americans for over-reacting, clearly worried that the State Department's remarks might discourage humanitarian aid workers from visiting Tajikistan, the poorest Central Asian state.


The secretary of the National Security Council, Amirkul Azimov, told IWPR that the US warning was 'unwarranted and regrettable'. "It is imperative that foreign nationals gain first-hand experience of Tajikistan, instead of forming their opinions from biased press reports," he said.


Curiously, the US embassy in Dushanbe has played down the State Department's remarks, pointing out that it had been circulating similar warnings since 1993. Nonetheless, embassy employees have been advised not to visit the eastern part of the country, where much of the violence is centred.


In early June, the permanent envoy of the UN Secretary-General in Tajikistan, Ivo Petrov, visited the Karategin valley, one of the most unstable areas. Following his visit, Petrov told IWPR he thought the place looked safe and tranquil.


However, three days later on June 3 the chairman of the local community council of Kaznok, Muhammadsolekh Saimukhiddinov, was attacked by unidentified assassins. He survived.


"I cannot say it was a political action," Petrov said. "It could have been related to local faction rivalry, but it [the assassination attempt] certainly did not add to the region's safety."


Tavildara, also in the east of the country, has also had its fair share of problems. Some members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are said to have established training camps there.


Trouble persisted in the area, however, in the form of a local criminal group, led by Mullo Abdullo, an uncompromising former opposition fighter. Following a month-long standoff with the security forces, Abdullo surrendered whereupon the area was brought under full government control.


But the violence continued elsewhere. In April and May 2001, the Kofarnikhon district, in the vicinity of Dushanbe, emerged as a new focus of hostility, when former opposition guerrillas fell out with the local law enforcement authorities.


According to Tajikistan's interior minister, Khumdin Sharipov, fighting was triggered by a household quarrel, but swiftly escalated to shooting match which left 3 dead and many injured. Things have since quietened down according to Petrov, who visited the area on June 6 and met both the local authorities and former opposition fighters.


The response of international organisations to the violence has been mixed. Some continue to move freely around Tajikistan, while others have imposed travel restrictions on their staff. Most of them avoid Karategin.


Filaret Motsko, a political adviser to the OSCE mission in Tajikistan, told IWPR that OSCE employees are free to travel around the country, although he preferred to "stay in after dark".


And, rather surprisingly, the recent spate of violence has not put off holiday-makers. According to Kasym Gafarov, president of Sayekh, the state tourist firm, two groups of overseas visitors have come to Tajikistan in the last two weeks, one from Great Britain and the other from Germany.


The 10 Englishmen and 14 Germans trekked across the mountainous Sogd region in northern Tajikistan and apparently enjoyed their trip. Twenty-two German tourists will arrive on July 3 to travel from Khatlon region in the south to the north of the country.


Tajikistan and, especially the capital, Dushanbe, are certainly safer now than they were four years ago. There are no more armed people in fatigues on the street and no more cars with tinted windows and no license plates.


One well-known Indian hotelier based in the country said, "I came to Tajikistan when the civil war was still on. Now we are starting construction on a 5-star hotel in Dushanbe, and I've been bringing my wife and kids here routinely.


"Do you think I would do it if I didn't feel perfectly safe here? I've been also making lovely trips to other places in Tajikistan, including the mountains."


Life is returning to normal in Tajikistan, even though the recent clashes have shaken the country's fragile stability.


Saida Nazarova is a pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan