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

Uzbek-Turkmen Border: Crossing the Wire

Corruption and trigger-happy soldiers blamed for shootings on a remote section of the border.
By Semyon Andreev

Two shootings on a remote desert section of the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have highlighted a smuggling problem caused by poverty.


Turkmen soldiers shot and seriously injured two Uzbekistan nationals in separate incidents at the beginning of last week.


Officials on both sides of the long frontier declined to comment on the shootings, but local analysts attribute the problem to small-scale petrol smuggling, coupled with erratic behaviour by the troops assigned to patrol the border.


On November 1, 29-year-old Atakhan Jumanazarov, from the Klychbai collective farm in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in the north of Uzbekistan, was shot and wounded in the leg.


He told IWPR that he was in the frontier area with some other men who had travelled there to buy cheap Turkmen oil products.


Claiming that none of the party had actually crossed the line, he said, “Nevertheless, the Turkmen border guards confiscated the guys’ motorcycles. A fight broke out and one of the border guards opened fire. There was only one shot – but the bullet went into my hip.”


Such incidents appear to be centred on a 143-kilometre section where the border follows the course of the Amu Darya river.


Five people have reportedly died as a result of confrontations between smugglers and border guards from both countries in the last two years. Maksed Nagimov, a human rights activist in Karakalpakstan, said he believed the number could be higher as the Turkmen authorities did not report all incidents.


In the past, no one bothered which side of the frontier they were on in remote parts of these former Soviet republics. But in recent years, fences have been put up to demarcate the territory and stop people moving back and forth freely.


The latest incident came only a day after Jamil Rajabov, from the same area of Karakalpakstan, was shot in the shoulder and badly wounded while crossing the border to attend a celebration in a nearby Turkmen village.


“A few of us climbed over the barbed wire and discussed whether we should go over to the Turkmen side, to the neighbouring village,” said Rajabov. “We were four or five steps away from the border line, we still couldn’t make a decision. Then Turkmen border guards appeared, and from a distance of about 10 metres, without a warning, one of them opened fire from his automatic weapon.”


Like Jumanazarov, many people from Karakalpakstan are drawn to the border to buy cheap items such as fuel.


“I have two children, and I can’t even remember the last time my [farm] wage was paid,” said Jumabay, from the same Klychbay farm. “My life was hopeless. The only way to earn money is to bring petrol here from the Turkmen side, so that’s what I do, risking my life every time.”


Residents told IWPR that smuggling is rife along the border, and that the Turkmen troops often turn a blind eye in return for a bribe. Petrol is smuggled using motorcycles modified to carry two 200-litre barrels.


Some residents allege that the shooting incidents happen when would-be smugglers are unwilling or unable to bribe the border guards – or when a superior officer turns up unexpectedly.


In the last two years, one man was killed by Uzbek frontier guards and two by Turkmen soldiers, and another two died in a motorcycle accident while trying to escape from Turkmen troops. Such deaths receive little publicity in the state media on either side of the border.


Tulibay Yuldashev, an instructor at a military school in Karakalpakstan, believes poor training is the cause of some of the incidents. He said that Turkmen soldiers often fire into the air to scare intruders, but “their insufficient skill with weapons and their poor training for army service – particularly on the border – often result in tragedy”.


Shaudirbai Saliev, the head of Karakalpakstan’s legislative assembly, told IWPR that things were getting worse. “Despite the measures taken by the law-enforcement agencies, the number of people who illegally cross the state border is not decreasing,” he warned.


A woman from Mangit, the main town on the Uzbek side of the Amu Darya border area, fears that more people from both countries will die because so many turn to smuggling to alleviate economic hardship.


“Poverty and hopelessness drives people to do desperate things,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “More than half the residents of Mangit are unemployed, and life gets more difficult every year. So people have little choice but to cross the barbed wire to earn some money.”


Semyon Andreev is the pseudonym for a journalist in Karakalpakstan.