Tajikistan: A Blast From the Past

The authorities are systematically destroying arms stockpiles left over from the civil war, but they have no idea how many weapons are still hidden away.

Tajikistan: A Blast From the Past

The authorities are systematically destroying arms stockpiles left over from the civil war, but they have no idea how many weapons are still hidden away.

The explosions of artillery shells are deafening, but this is the sound of peace rather than war. Tajik army engineers are destroying some of the huge stockpiles of weapons and ammunition that belonged to an assortment of paramilitary groups during the 1992-97 civil conflict.

Although there has been no major fighting since the government signed a peace deal with the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, eight years ago, the physical elimination of the weapons is an important psychological watershed for many people.

The explosions at the Lohur firing range 20 kilometres from Dushanbe are the first phase of a 780,000 euro (930,000 US dollar) arms reduction programme that will also include mine clearance, arms storage depots and workshops to repair weapons for use by the Tajik military.

The OSCE has allocated 120,000 euro to the first phase, which entails teaching Tajik army engineers to destroy explosives and firearms safely at a training centre which opened on November 4. The ammunition destruction programme will continue until June 2006.

“The training and destruction are taking place at the same time. It’s a good system doesn’t take up a lot of working time,” said Lieutenant Firuz Saidbekov, an army engineer.

The Tajik defence ministry says that more than 30 tonnes of ammunition – artillery shells, mines and bombs – has been destroyed in the last six to eight weeks.

“Most of the shells are of Russian manufacture, but there are also quite a lot of Chinese shells. But sometimes you come across real oddities - shells, mortars and mines,” said Lieutenant Saidbekov.

Some of the munitions belong to the Tajik military and are beyond the expiry date for safe use.

But the bulk of the weapons and ammunition being eliminated are material left over from the civil war, which has either been found in arms caches, handed over voluntarily, or confiscated from members of the public.

The civil war pitted the guerrillas of the UTO – mostly supporters of the Islamic Rebirth Party, now a legal political group – against the government of President Imomali Rahmonov, which as well as the regular army was backed by its own paramilitary force, the Popular Front. The UTO operated and was supplied out of northern Afghanistan.

Under the 1997 peace agreement, the UTO insurgents disarmed and either returned to civilian life or were incorporated into the government forces. A large proportion of the weapons held in government arms dumps and now beginning to be destroyed date from the period immediately after the war when the guerrillas handed in their weapons.

At the same time, the Popular Front units were gradually reined in and disbanded, and as time went on the government was able to deal with the few maverick militias commanders on both sides who refused to knuckle under.

It is hardly a coincidence that most of the weapons seized to date come from areas where the paramilitaries were most active and the fighting fiercest in the war – the Hatlon region in the south of the country, and the mountains to the east.

Morten Kjellvang, the head technical coordinator with the OSCE in Dushanbe, says light weapons remain a real danger to human lives in Tajikistan.

“All the ammunition which is currently being destroyed has been confiscated from various groups or found in caches,” he told IWPR. “We don’t have accurate information about its origin. It’s dubious, so the law enforcement agencies do not have the right to use or keep it.”

The Tajik authorities say they hope it will not be too long before they have gathered in the bulk of the illegally-held weapons, through a mix of voluntary surrenders and forcible confiscations. But they have no data on which to estimate the number of weapons once held by the warring factions and now either owned by members of the public or concealed in secret stockpiles.

Arms caches that once belonged to the UTO and the Popular Front are still being unearthed. Experts believe there may be many untouched stocks of weapons in remote mountain areas of eastern Tajikistan.

The standard weapon on both sides was the Kalashnikov assault rifle, but one store seized in August 2004 gives an idea of the sophistication of the weaponry that may still be out there. After a former UTO commander called Yeribek “the Sheikh” Ibrahimov clashed with local police in Tajikabad, high in the mountains, he was captured with a group of men and a small arsenal discovered hidden in a cave. The haul reportedly included guided missile systems, both antitank and antiaircraft, and a Grad multiple rocket-launcher, as well as light weapons.

Ibrahimov, who was later sentenced to a 21-year jail term, is said to have told interrogators that some of the weapons were smuggled in from Afghanistan by UTO guerrillas during the civil war. Others, he said, were left behind by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an insurgent group which in 1999-2001 carried out a serious of raids in border regions of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

An anonymous source in the Tajik police told IWPR that there are many more such stockpiles still undiscovered – most of them left behind by UTO guerrillas after they returned to more peaceful occupations.

“They have jobs here or in Russia, but they don’t touch the caches – those are well-wrapped and buried deep in the ground up in the mountains,” he said.

“They could use the weapons in extremis – if there was a war. But it doesn’t happen that they take these weapons to kill their enemies or rob banks.”

In the years since the conflict, the once common sight of armed men of uncertain allegiance on the streets has disappeared, and if a gun is visible its owner will generally be clearly identifiable as a member of the security forces. However, the government is pressing ahead with the arms destruction scheme as it sees this as the way to ensure the peace is durable.

Saifullo Safarov, deputy head of the Centre for Strategic Studies, which is linked to the Tajik president’s office), shares this view.

“People certainly are scared; they have lived through difficult times and they do need to know that no one is using weapons. The current process is part of the greater work done by the government and international organisations to achieve a stable political situation,” he said.

Not everyone shares that view. Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy head of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan, believes that collecting up weapons is something of a diversion from more pressing problems.

“Whether weapons are handed in or not, social stability will not be achieved until the standard of living increases,” he said.

Landmines are being cleared in parallel with the arms reduction programme. Although mine clearance has been going on since the conflict ended, it has gathered pace since 2003 when the OSCE and Swiss Foundation for Mine Action started a major new initiative.

Major-General Ramil Nadirov, first deputy defence minister of Tajikistan, said at least 2,500 square kilometres of farmland and roads were mined during the civil war. “Clearing these areas is a priority for us, since the social and economic development of Tajikistan depends on it,” he said.

The head of the army’s engineering service, Major-General Abdukakhor Satarov, explained how daunting the task is even with international assistance.

“According to the information we have, there are over 16,000 mines in various parts of the country,” he told IWPR. “Clearing them will require major funding, which we don’t have. There aren’t enough mine detectors.

“Plus, military-style mine clearance is a very different thing from clearance done for humanitarian purposes, especially when it needs to be done to a high standard. We used military techniques for many years.”

Back at the bomb disposal site outside Dushanbe, the ammunition is not held for long before being destroyed, for fear it could be stolen or go off accidentally.

According to Lieutenant Saidbekov, the controlled explosions are relatively simple once the engineers have been trained, “We dig holes for the munitions and make sure there’s no one around.”

The only real hazard is the local farmers who put their animals out to pasture on the army range. “That complicates things,” admitted Saidbekov.

Shirin Azizmamadova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Dushanbe.
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