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

The Trials of Life on the Uzbek-Tajik Border

Tight security measures continue to force citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to resort to bribery to visit relatives on the other side of the border.
By IWPR staff
There is complete silence as dawn breaks over a small village in the Sariosio district of southern Uzbekistan, where barbed wire at the end of a nearby wheat field marks the border with Tajikistan.

Suddenly, a loud whistle breaks the silence and a boy of 12 jumps out of his hiding place, signalling frantically with a flashlight.

“That’s my brother,” he says, pointing to a young man of about 20 who, with three women carrying sacks, has just emerged after crawling underneath the barbed wire.

The young man is acting as guide for the women. He makes his living by taking people across the border in both directions – a busy job given the difficulty of obtaining a visa to travel legally between the neighbouring countries.

He gets 50,000 Uzbek sums, about 40 dollars at the official exchange rate, from each person he takes across. Nearly half of it goes on bribes to Uzbek border guards and a further 15,000 is for their Tajik counterparts, who agree in advance when he can cross – either late at night or just before dawn. He keeps what is left, which is still a relatively large sum in this remote part of rural Uzbekistan.

As the women approach, they are clearly scared – they stumble as they rush along and there are tears in their eyes. Unable to cross the border legally to attend a wedding inside Uzbekistan, they have been forced to find a middleman to get them there.

Their best clothes, donned for the wedding, are wet as they have had to wade through a shallow river to get here.

Their guide explained how the border guards are happy to look the other way in exchange for extra cash, as long as he is not helping armed militants or drug smugglers to get across.

However, things are getting more difficult, he added. “They are strengthening the border guard units, putting up more and more barbed wire, and they’re even going to put up an electric fence. So we’re forced to work only at night time as it is far too dangerous to work in daylight,” he said.

One reason for the stepped-up border controls is the Uzbek government’s concern that the area is vulnerable to incursions by Islamic militants. In 2000, guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, crossed into the Surkhandarya region, where Sarioso is located. Thousands of villagers were forcibly deported inland from border areas, in what many believe was collective punishment for their alleged collaboration with the militants.

In practice, the border guides say the tighter controls have simply resulted in a demand for higher bribes.

Ordinary Uzbeks and Tajiks living on either side of the border suffer huge inconvenience from the travel restrictions.

Last October, Uzbekistan applied to join the Eurasian Economic Community, EEC, a regional grouping now comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Since the current members have agreed that their citizens can travel within the EEC region without needing a visa, many people in Uzbekistan have been looking forward to joining in the hope that they will enjoy the same benefit.

But the Uzbek leadership has a history of imposing tight border controls on Tajikistan, first because of the civil war there and later because of IMU incursions. Many believe the tough measures allow Uzbekistan to exert political pressure on the Tajik government.

As things stand, Uzbek and Tajik nationals who want to visit relatives or trade in the other country have to apply for visas from a hopelessly bureaucratic system. Many abandon hope and opt for the illegal route instead.

A 65-year-old pensioner from Namangan described the labourious process she had to undergo to bring her sister in from Tajikistan, “I had to try to get permission from the local citizenship affairs office. After I finally got it, I had to take it to Tashkent, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I had to fill out another form - an official invitation for my sister – and once that had been reviewed and approved, it was faxed to the Uzbek embassy in Dushanbe, where she finally got her visa.”

The process cost 20 US dollars plus the cost of a trip from the Fergana valley to Tashkent.

“People told me it would be easier to pay a bribe on the border, but I’ve never broken a law in my life, so I wanted my sister to have a visa,” said the pensioner. “But later my sister rang up and said she was bringing her daughter with her. I didn’t have the energy to go through the whole invitation process again.”

Instead her sister paid 10,000 Uzbek sums at the border and her daughter was allowed in without a visa.

“Can’t they make it legal for people to pay for their visas on the spot when they’re crossing the border?” asked the pensioner.

A doctor who left Tajikistan to study in Tashkent said she seldom sees her parents these days. They are too elderly to go round collecting all the papers needed to obtain a visa.

She and her Uzbekistan-national husband have suffered unpleasant incidents at the border crossing, “Last time, we were detained by some high ranking officer from the [Tajik] special forces who interrogated my husband for quite a while, asking him whether he’d participated in terrorist attacks and saying he looked very much like one of the suspects.”

“I was really frightened then,” said the doctor, “We had to give them all the money we had on us just to be able to leave without getting into bigger trouble. After that, my husband said that he wouldn’t set his foot on Tajik soil again.”

She says she is reluctant to travel without her husband, “Young soldiers and officers give single women crossing the border the eye, and if you’re crossing without a visa, they literally can do anything they want to you. So it’s been a year since I last visited my parents.”

Even once travellers are well inside the country, they are still vulnerable to harassment.

A Dushanbe resident told IWPR that the Uzbek police treat all Tajik nationals as suspicious. On one visit to Uzbekistan – with his visa in order - he was stopped by police at the bus station in Kokand, in the Fergana valley, and taken off to a police station where officers demanded money, saying that if he did not pay they would plant drugs on him.

“I didn’t have much of a chance of defending myself in a foreign country, so I had to pay them 20,000 sums. After that I never went out unless I was accompanied by one of my relatives,” he said.

As there is no rail link between northern Tajikistan and the rest of the country, many travellers go by train through Uzbekistan. Since the journey counts as transiting the other state, it can be stressful.

A male student who uses the train to get home to Khujand in the north from Dushanbe told IWPR, “Every time the customs officers do a routine search of my belongings, they ask me to remove my clothes. Once, I couldn’t take it any more and asked why I was being searched so thoroughly. One of the customs officials replied that I had a suspicious face.”

The authoritarian rules mixed with corruption often lead to ridiculous situations. A man from Sokh in Uzbekistan, which has a large ethnic Tajik population, recalled how he tried to bring in some Tajik singers from across the border in Isfara to perform at his son’s wedding.

After realising it was going to be impossible to arrange visas in time, he decided instead to pay off the commander of the local Uzbek border guard checkpoint. “But on the day of the wedding, [the commander] went off to Tashkent on a work trip, and there was a completely different guy left in charge,” he said.

“I had to beg the officer - I almost fell at his feet. I was desperate as I had 300 guests sitting at home. Eventually they did let the singers through, but only after I shelled out a large sum of money. All they wanted was to get as much money as possible.”

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