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Tajikistan: Villagers Held Hostage by Afghans

Tajiks living near the border with Afghanistan are falling prey to drug dealers who are taking desperate measure to recover debts.
By Turko Dikaev

An increasing number of Tajiks are being kidnapped by Afghan drug dealers, taken from their border villages and held hostage until their families pay ransom money to clear debts.


In mid July, three residents from Porvor, including a border guard holding the rank of captain, were taken to Afghanistan, and a price of 80,000 US dollars was set for their return.


More than 100 Tajiks are now thought to be in such captivity. While some have been taken by force to clear money owed to the drug lords, many choose to be imprisoned as “security” for heroin supplied from Afghanistan. The confined man’s associates sell the drugs in Tajikistan or elsewhere, pay for the release of the “hostage”, and keep the difference as profit.


This complicity has led to a lack of sympathy from the authorities, who are struggling to keep the Afghan drug trade out of Tajikistan.


“Why should we pity them?” a top official from the ministry of state security asked. “Nobody dragged them at gunpoint to the Afghan side and threw them into those cells.”


However, security ministry employees are trying to free those Tajiks who have been captured by accident in raids, or taken across the Piandj River, which marks the state border, because of debts their relatives owe.


Colonel Akhtamsho Saidsharipov, a regional head of the security ministry, said 23 such hostages were released last year through negotiations. Talks are currently underway to secure the freedom of a further 28.


The drug business is a highly dangerous one, yet in Tajikistan’s impoverished rural areas, it is often the only way to make money, and many people enter into it willingly. After earning a decent sum, they often move to Dushanbe or Russia to start a new life.


Such “volunteer hostages” may initially be happy to accept their fate, convinced that their colleagues will soon ransom them, but this does not always happen. Over the past two years, many of their accomplices have been captured by the authorities and charged with possessing heroin – dooming the captives across the border to a lifetime of slavery.


The most vulnerable part of the Tajik border is the southern Shuroabad area, which is patrolled by Russian border troops. Over the past five years, cattle rustling, hostage taking and smuggling of drugs and arms have become endemic here. Locals maintain that Afghan raiders seize control of the area almost daily between 8pm and 8am, entering villages in heavily armed groups of eight to ten men, and doing what they want with the inhabitants.


Over one 17-day period in the district last May, raiders stole cattle, seized goods from the villagers and captured a well-known special operative from a local police battalion, Davlat Zaripov, who had fought against the smugglers. Zaripov spent ten days in captivity before being released.


Shuroabad locals claim law enforcement efforts are often hampered by bureaucratic interference and the unique security situation along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan.


Safar Davliatov, chair of the district’s council of youth, told IWPR that the area used to have its own defense platoon and some weapons. “We are all hunters and know how to handle weapons. We defended ourselves and did not allow such outrages,” he said.


“Then some bright spark in the capital decided our self-defense platoon should be disarmed, and this is the result: nobody protects us, and everybody tries to humiliate and insult us.”


There was no law enforcement presence in the area during the May attack, and the Shuroabad district police department head, Colonel Toirkhon Sharipov, has said that the liberation of hostages in Afghanistan was not police business. “We have no permission to work on the border of our own territory where it meets that of another country, and even more so with regard to working inside Afghanistan,” he said.


“For example, we know who killed four Porvor residents last year but we do not have access to the other side of the Piandj to take any action.” He added that all the police could do was provide information about the missing people for the border guards.


Afghan raiders also kidnap male residents of border districts for hard labour, where they are kept in cells and fed just enough to keep them from starvation. One Tajik named Safarali, who managed to escape after six months in captivity, told IWPR that his daily diet had consisted of cups of murky water and a dry bun.


Young girls and women who are kidnapped in raids can become sex slaves or second wives. In the town of Kulyab, which is about 100 km from the frontier, Tajik women with Afghan children are a sad but frequent sight. They are silently returned to their homeland as soon as they become a burden.


The Tajik secret service, border guards and police can do little to improve their lot, as the state border defence is considered the sole prerogative of the Russian border guards, and others have no access there.


“We have to ask permission even to arrest bandits,” a young Tajik agent of the security services complained. “While smugglers need no passes to stroll around the zone that the Russian border guards are responsible for, I have to seek permission to get any access. It is beyond my understanding.”


Turko Dikaev is a correspondent for the independent news agency Asia Plus .


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