Uzbek Border Guards Anger Tajiks

Excessive passport stamping on the Tajik-Uzbek frontier is causing problems for shuttle traders and border residents.

Uzbek Border Guards Anger Tajiks

Excessive passport stamping on the Tajik-Uzbek frontier is causing problems for shuttle traders and border residents.

Tajiks who try to cross the border into Uzbekistan are losing patience with overzealous Uzbek border guards.

While citizens of both states can pass back and forth without a visa, the Uzbek frontier guards’ practice of stamping their passports at every crossing has led to a number of problems.

Now hundreds of Tajiks - particularly shuttle traders, who are the worst affected - are having to replace their passports after simply running out of pages. This costs six US dollars; a prohibitively high price for the poverty-stricken people of this civil war-ravaged country.

Sharifakhon Kholmatova works as a shuttle trader, buying dried fruit in Uzbekistan and selling it in Tajik markets. She has made so many trips recently that her documents are now unusable, so she is facing a stark choice – pay for a replacement passport and do without vital goods for her husband and four children, or stop working.

In the Kanibadam region alone, 1,500 passports were replaced in the first quarter of 2003 – and border guards fined thousands of travellers and traders because, they said, their papers were in poor condition.

Dushanbe has also noted an increase in cases where Uzbek border guards have confiscated Tajik passports and then failed to return them to their point of issue – a violation of the visa agreement signed in 1999.

Many border residents and shuttle traders are considering moving to another part of the country – simply to avoid the border hassle.

One Tajik frontier checkpoint has launched a tit-for-tat action, stamping Uzbek passports on their bearers’ trips in and out of Tajikistan, in a bid to bring the situation to the Tashkent authorities’ attention.

For Tajiks stranded on the wrong side of the border without the necessary money to pay the fines, the problem can become a deadly one.

Following an unsuccessful job-hunting trip to Russia, 27-year-old Ikhtior Akramov elected to walk home. After three months, he arrived at the city of Kokand and presented his passport to the Uzbek police. When officers demanded 500 Russian rubles for its return, Akramov set off without it and tried to smuggle himself across the border into Tajikistan.

Walking across some rough land in the dark, he triggered a trip wire and set off a mine. But despite injuries to his abdomen and legs, Akramov somehow managed to walk the eight km to his house before collapsing. His mother told IWPR, “When I saw the blood on my son’s shirt, I was horrified. I thought that Ikhtior had hurt himself or been beaten. I didn’t even suspect that he had stepped on a mine.”

Akramov, who had been his family’s only breadwinner, is now an invalid. Ironically, his disability means that he is now eligible for a new passport free of charge.

The landmines are a legacy of more than five years of wrangling between the two republics.

The border was closed in November 1998, following a failed coup by Tajik colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdyev in the north of the country. Dushanbe later accused Uzbekistan of supporting the renegade officer.

The following year, Uzbekistan introduced a visa regime between the two states following a series of explosions in the centre of the capital Tashkent.

These bomb attacks were blamed on the leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU – Uzbek citizens who had fled to Tajikistan in the mid-Nineties to fight for the Islamic opposition in the 1992-95 civil war.

Later in 1999, the Uzbek government planted landmines along the border with Tajikistan to deter IMU raids after the organisation’s earlier incursions into Kyrgyzstan.

This caused so many deaths and injuries to those living in frontier communities on both sides that in 2000, Dushanbe and Tashkent agreed that border residents could pass without a visa as long as their visit was for no longer than three days.

The current stamping problem has prompted Tajik border guards to give Uzbeks a taste of their own medicine, by carrying out the same procedure at one of their frontier posts.

The Patar checkpoint, which lies between the Kanibadam region of Tajikistan and the Besharyk region of Uzbekistan, is one such post.

Its senior inspector, Lieutenant Sharaf Pirov, told IWPR that so far the guards’ actions have not drawn any complaints from the Uzbek travellers – but that may change when they have to start replacing their passports.

Muzaffar Yunusov is a journalist with Internews in Tajikistan

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