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

Tajikistan: Dreaming of the Mountains

Resettlement programme in trouble as migrants ask to go back to their old homes in the mountains.
By Boris Khairuddinov

Three years after the government of Tajikistan resettled hundreds of people to develop an arid region in the south of the country, many of the settlers want to go back to their old homes in the mountains because they say the experiment has failed.


“I dream of returning to my village in the Pamirs,” said Zubaida Gushirova, a nurse who is one of the settlers who suddenly found themselves living in the semi-desert lowlands after a lifetime in Badakhshan, a high-altitude region sometimes called the “roof of the world”.


“We are all longing to go to our homeland. It is very hot here and the wind is strong.”


A decree signed by Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov in January 2001 put in place a scheme which was supposed to have a dual benefit – providing a labour force for underpopulated areas with good potential for growing cotton, an important cash-crop; and offering a better life for people from impoverished mountain communities.


In all 343 families – about 2,000 people – moved to the Beshkent valley, in the far south-west of Tajikistan, including 170 families from Badakhshan province and the rest from Shuroabad, near the southern town of Kulyab, and Isfara in northern Tajikistan.


The Badakhshanis say after taking up the offer of voluntary resettlement, they found conditions in Beshkent to be much worse than they had expected. They were promised housing, farming land and loans so that they could get started, but they say the government has done little to make their lives easy or even sustainable.


“We moved here with my family in August 2002,” Norbibi Pirshoeva told IWPR. “We were promised conditions that would be like paradise, but there are no [viable] conditions at all here – it is very hot, the soil is saline, and the unfinished houses are damp.”


The hot, humid climate – it can reach 60 degrees in the shade in high summer here – leaves the settlers vulnerable to frequent ailments. “I have severe pains in my legs, and my three-year-old grandson cannot leave his bed because of back pain,” said Pirshoeva.


Like many of the settlers, Pirshoeva is from Roshtkala, a village in Badakhshan’s remote Shahdara gorge, and people have fond memories of fresh alpine air and spring water, green forests, and the peaks of the high Pamirs. But though beautiful, the area provides little arable land and the villages suffer frequent land- and mudslides. Many of the resettled families came to Beshkent after being displaced by a particularly damaging landslide in August 2002.


When they volunteered for resettlement, the Badakhshanis were promised a package of benefits – a third of a hectare of land plus a loan worth 1,500 somonis, about 515 US dollars, to build houses – but they say they only received it within the last year. Because the soil is poor their harvests have been unsuccessful, and some lost everything after ploughing their housing loan into seeds, fertilisers and agricultural equipment only for the crops to fail.


Locals say wages average under 10 dollars a month, which is not enough to buy the flour they need.


The Aga Khan Foundation and the United Nations help families out with supplies of with flour, vegetable oil and peas two or three times a year. But when the food aid runs out, people are reduced to a diet of shirchoi, a traditional milky drink, and poor and unvaried nutrition leads to anaemia, especially among children.


The overriding problem is the lack of clean drinking water, since the subsoil and surface water in the area is saline. “Water from local ditches is so salty that it can be used only for industrial purposes or washing,” – complained electrician Mamadyor Butayorov. He is grateful to the non-government organisation FOCUS which regularly brings in canisters of water for each family on the Beshkent-1 collective farm where he lives, transporting it from the neighbouring Shaartuz district. “We wouldn’t know what to do without the people from FOCUS,” he said.


But not everyone is so lucky. Residents of the neighbouring Beshkent-2 community have to fetch water on their own, a round trip of about 10 kilometres, or pay a driver to bring in water canisters.


The settlers say that when Prime Minister Akil Akilov last visited, he promised that both collective farms would soon be supplied with water by a mains pipe, but they remain sceptical that this will actually happen. “They always make promises,” said Pirshoeva, “but you can wait as long as you want and you still won’t get any real help from them.”


Muhabbatsho Sharipov, chief administrator with the local authority in the Beshkent area, told IWPR that the water supply was already well on its way. “A water pipeline is currently being laid from the water reservoir in Shaartuz district to Beshkent,” he said. “When will the residents start getting water? That depends on the construction workers.”


Finally, the Badakhshanis say they have trouble with their neighbours, many of whom are ethnic Uzbeks who are among the area’s original residents. “The Lokays [an Uzbek tribal group], the long-established local residents, often deride us, provoking us into fights and harassing our young women,” said a settler who asked for his name not to be given. “A girl was raped recently, causing a storm of indignation among the Pamiris.”


In an inhospitable climate, many people now want to leave Beshkent. Some have chosen the route taken by many other rural people in Tajikistan, where the younger men go off to Russia to work as migrant labour, keeping their families going with the money they send back.


Others are tired of waiting for the government to deliver on its promises to provide adequate living standards.


“I want to ask the government to move us away from here to other places - preferably the Pamirs - and help us with housing,” said 67-year-old Abdurrahmon Shotumannoev, originally from Roshtkala.


Some settlers told IWPR that they are prepared to go back to Badakhshan at their own expense, but the local authorities in Beshkent are obstructing this. The suspicion is that officials fear that an exodus would be bad news for their careers, since it could be seen as an admission that a social experiment instituted by President Rahmonov himself has failed.


After numerous visits to government offices and calls to the ministry of labor and social welfare, IWPR’s contributor managed to speak to Anvar Boboev, head of the ministry’s State Migration Service. Boboev said the authorities were doing whatever they could to help the settlers, despite the larger economic problems facing Tajikistan.


He said that at the end of April, Rahmonov issued orders for an additional 300,000 somoni – 100,000 dollars – to be earmarked for Beshkent. The president instructed ministers to sort out access to water, public transport, and the shortage of schoolteachers, and improve preventive healthcare.


Boboev did not go into detail on specific problems facing settlers, but defended the overall policy. “The programme of resettlement from mountain districts to the valleys offers settlers a chance to find jobs and work on the land,” he said.


That may not be enough to stop people packing up and leaving.


Schoolteacher Daler Chorshanbiev said, “Soon I will leave for my homeland, mountainous Badakhshan, because personally I cannot live here.”


Boris Khairuddinov is an independent journalist in Dushanbe, Zafar Abdullaev is director of the Avesta news agency.