Editor’s note: Last month GlobalPost Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder traveled in Tajikistan investigating growing instability in the former Soviet satellite. Below, she reports on growing violence involving mysterious outsiders. For a second report, she traveled Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan.
GARM, Tajikistan — A lone helicopter hovers over the near-empty streets of Garm, a village in the heart of Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley. The few people at street corners pay no mind to the loud whir of its blades. They’ve become used to it in recent weeks.
Federal troops began pouring into the Rasht Valley, nestled amid the sky-high mountains in the east of Tajikistan, in early September. They came by the hundreds, maybe thousands, accompanied by tanks and heavy artillery. Their exact number is classified as a state secret. The story of whom they are fighting is even muddier.
Minimal remarks from official sources and a de facto media blockade make the truth hard to decipher. What is certain is that it has been years since Tajikistan, an impoverished Central Asian nation that shares a long border with Afghanistan, has seen this kind of unrest. As NATO forces battle the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, the extremist training camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that were responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could be moving north, boosting instability in Tajikstan.
Violence in Tajikistan — a country with runaway unemployment, where 47 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, and where 10 percent of the population has chronic difficulty accessing food, according to the United Nations — is increasing, and taking on a new character.
In early September, 40 members of the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan tried to sneak into Tajikistan, according to the border guard service. A daylong firefight ensued, and seven were killed, while the rest retreated back across the border.
“The situation has returned to uncertainty,” said Marat Mamadshoev, editor of Asia Plus, Tajikistan’s most respected newspaper. “When there is no stability, diseases like fundamentalism grow.”
In addition to the firefight at the border, the country has seen a prison break, an attack on federal troops, and fighting in the mountains of Rasht this autumn, as well as its first-ever suicide bombings when a car packed with explosives slammed into a police post in the northern city of Khujand on Sept. 3, killing two police officers.
“All these are events that aren’t linked, but they’re moving in one direction,” said Abdugani Mamadazimov, a political analyst based in Dushanbe. “A base is being built again.”
The world took notice on Aug. 22, when 25 men escaped from a prison in the center of the capital, Dushanbe. Its high walls tower just steps away from the residence of the country’s longtime president, Emomali Rakhmon.
The prisoners were “particularly dangerous criminals,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev, including opposition fighters and Islamic terrorists. One had served as a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay after being captured in Afghanistan.
Within days, convoys of federal troops began flooding into the Rasht Valley, 112 miles east of the capital. On Sept. 19, one of those convoys was attacked in the valley’s Komarob Gorge, 25 miles from Garm. Two unarmed trucks carrying soldiers who had been recently called up in the spring draft were left riddled with bullets, with 25 soldiers and officers brutally killed.
“A man walked by in a chapan (a traditional Tajik coat) and a soldier said ‘He’s not one of us.’ He shouted ‘Allahu Akbar!’ three times, opened his coat and began shooting. There were other gunmen too,” said one local resident of Garm, recounting one of the many rumors that have spread through the valley as officials remain silent on the event.
A cell phone video of the attack’s aftermath was posted on YouTube, showing frail blood-soaked bodies lying limp in the truck’s carriage, and on the rocky ground beside.
The government instantly cracked down, imposing a nighttime curfew on the entire valley and cutting all cell phone service. Roadblocks were set up on the road from Dushanbe to Garm and journalists, both local and foreign, were denied entry. (This reporter entered the valley after a two-day drive along the Afghan border and through the mountains, entering from the southeast.)
Throughout the years, the valley, separated from Dushanbe by miles of foreboding mountains, has been synonymous with resistance. It is the ancestral and current home to the former militants who fought a losing battle against Rakhmon’s forces during the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. As part of the peace deal that ended the bloody war, many of the commanders of the opposition were given posts in government. Yet since then, most have been systematically “retired” — either fired, arrested or killed.
“Some people here told Rakhmon, ‘You are like a pharaoh, you can do whatever you want, you brought us peace,’” said Hikmatulloh Saifulozoda, a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party, the country’s leading opposition political party, which formed out of the armed opposition of the civil war but has since adopted peaceful means to attain power.
The government has blamed the recent unrest on a trio of opposition figures and says they have been aided by fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who have bled across the country’s long, porous border with Afghanistan.
“Coalition troops have started an active storm of the southeast of Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. Extremist powers in Afghanistan, in order to find a calmer place to spend their time, have moved to the north, on the border with Tajikistan,” Foreign Minister Khamrokhon Zarifi said during a press conference in Dushanbe recently. “The current situation is linked to two or three terrorist groups who are using the situation in the north of Afghanistan to try to influence the internal politics of the country.”
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has long fought to create an Islamic caliphate across Central Asia, a region that has seen the rise of corrupt authoritarian rulers since the fall of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan included. Yet the group was dealt a severe blow when its charismatic leader, Juma Namangani, was killed fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan in late 2001. Then in August, it announced that its subsequent leader, Tahir Yuldashev, had been killed during a U.S. air strike in Pakistan last year, following months of denials, and presented a new chief, Abu Usman Adil. Some analysts believe he is now trying to prove his power.
The involvement of foreign terror groups is something locals corroborate, but that critics of the government dismiss, arguing that the government is seeking to cover up yet another attack on its opponents.
“There were definite unknowns up there,” a local resident said, referring to the mountains where the fighting has raged, sparing the valley below thus far. “They were not from this area and they were not Tajiks.”
Of five dead militants brought to Garm’s hospital two weeks ago, two were Russian and one was Afghan, the resident said, citing a doctor working on the scene. That’s something the government insists is true, saying they’ve killed men from Russia’s mainly Muslim regions — Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan — and several Afghans since the operation began in September. Sometimes they cite passports; sometimes, as in the case of Asadulloev of the interior ministry, they simply say: “We can tell by their appearance.”
Asadulloev declined to say how many fighters were believed to be hiding in the mountains, or how many troops had been sent in to find them. He said “two to three” training camps had already been dismantled. He also said police had recently dismantled a 10-man terrorist cell in the northern Sogdisky region. “We seized a huge amount of explosive devices, literature, plans to carry out attacks in Tajikistan.” In Dushanbe? “In Tajikistan,” he answered, flashing a gold-toothed smile in acknowledgment of the government’s refusal to provide specifics on nearly anything.
Fighting continues to rage high in the mountains outside Garm, though the government’s near-silence continues. They have even created their own Osama bin Laden, critics and skeptics maintain. He is Mullo Abdullo, who is said to have returned from Afghanistan last year after a near decade of fighting there, though no one has ever confirmed seeing him. “He’s like bin Laden — a phantom,” said Mamadazimov, the analyst.
“This is a person who brings death wherever he goes,” said Khushnud Rakhmatullayev, spokesman for the Tajik border guard service. “Everything was calm in Rasht before he arrived.”
Many locals and government critics doubt Abdullo exists. Instead, they see a corrupt government incapable of fighting the country’s growing security threat.
“There’s a total lack of preparedness for that level of violence,” the local resident said, pointing south in the direction of Afghanistan.
Read the second part of this series, about the author’s travels on Tajikistan’s porous border with Afghanistan.