Making Ends Meet in a Corner of the Former USSR

The entire village of 250 men, women, and children gathered outside the small schoolhouse perched on a small plateau in the Pamir Mountains. It was shoe-distribution day. Dressed in oversized, undersized, torn, and worn clothes, some in old army coats, the villagers waited patiently for new shoes to see them through a winter whose temperatures can plunge to minus 40 degrees F.

Some did well, receiving new thick-soled sneakers. Others got black-patent-leather or other less sturdy footwear. But all were elated. These shoes were some kind of barrier against the cold and snow. The next distribution day would be in one month's time when the schoolchildren would be given a three-month supply of wheat flour, oil, and sugar.

Both the shoe and food distribution programs are incentives to keep children in school.

Right now, aid is providing 80 to 90 percent of the area's food needs and 100 percent of its fuel needs.

When Tajikistan was part of the former Soviet Union, the Gorno-Badakshan region had preferred status. It was a strategic front-line border with China and Afghanistan. Moscow gave incentives and benefits to those who lived here, shipped in all supplies - from food to light bulbs - and kept up military bases.

Most of the Gorno-Badakshan region, almost half of Tajikistan, is a huge mountainous wasteland. There are only some 45,000 acres of arable land. And without food subsidies, this land has to produce enough to feed some 210,000 people.

So why do people stay in these tiny villages? "Because they have nowhere to go," says Paikarmu Aliorova, chairlady of the local Red Crescent Society. "They have no transport, no money."

Faced with near starvation and no easy way out, some young people have taken to drug smuggling. Opium and heroin are easily available next door in Afghanistan - and the border is relatively porous. Given the conditions, it is no surprise there is nostalgia - even among the younger generation - for the economic stability and relative prosperity of Soviet times.

"The only economic base for this area is agricultural," says Najmi Kanji, program director of the Aka Khan Foundation, the largest and most active relief agency in the region. The AKF currently feeds the entire population of Gorno-Badakshan, but Mr. Kanji says this aid must give way to sustainable food production. Apart from emergency food aid, AKF has also worked to bring about major reform in land laws and bring land previously under state control under private management.

Faced with food, fuel, and employment shortages, the people and aid agencies persist with their efforts.

"In terms of hope, for the first time we are now seeing light at the end of the tunnel," Kanji says. "The pace of privatization is going quite fast. In four to five years, Gorno-Badakshan will produce all its needs in wheat and potatoes."

At the same time, there are plans for increased hydroelectric power, better cattle stock, higher-yielding seed, and cottage industries to develop self-sufficiency in footwear and clothes.

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