The Kirghiz: CULTURE WITHOUT A HOME
| Gilgit, Pakistan
Kirghiz tribesman Muhammed diar, wearing a fulllength black wool coat lined with sheepskin and a matching winter cap, pulls on the yak-skin boots that used to protect him against knee-deep snows.
But now his boot tips are covered with a thick layer of dust, not snow. The warm sun brings beads of perspiration to his face as he lounges in front of his tent in the Kirghiz refugee camp in Gilgit, in northern Pakistan. In the spring the temperature registers 75 degrees F. -- no more than a teasing hint of the scorching summer to come.
Even after 30 months, Diar, like most of the other Kirghiz tribesmen who fled Afghanistan to the camps, has not adjusted to his new climate and life style.
After the Marxist coup in Afghanistan in 1978, the Kirghiz fled their homes in Little Pamir and villages of Waghar, Munarar, Bicara, and Tashkapur. The Kirghiz, devout Muslims, refused to accept the communist-backed Khalqi as their president.
In Little Pamir they had led simple, nomadic lives herding sheep, goats, and yaks. Their homes were black yak- haired tents that hugged the 12,000-foot plateau surrounded by inhospitable peaks of the Wakhan Corridor, a 10-mile wide and 50-mile long southeastern strip bordering Pakistan. The Kirghiz, who are snowbound four months of the year, were self-sufficient and isolated. Where few could survive, the Kirghiz grew strong on a diet of milk and meat.
With President Taraki firmly established in Kabul, Haji Rahman Qul, the leader of the Kirghiz, decided that it was time for his people to leave. The strong-willed leader directed the tribe on a roadless journey through snowcapped peaks to Pakistan. Women and children rode horses over the mountains while the men walked. They crossed the Munara and Mulkali Passes, forded a river -- where they lost their last few animals -- and at last arrived in Imrit, Pakistan. From there they continued deep into the fruit-growing Skoman Valley.
Eventually the Kirghiz settled along the valley in four camps. Small pockets of Kirghiz are in the Yasin Valley, Chatorkhan, and about 1,000 others are equally divided between Hunza and Gilgit.
Like other Kirghiz who continue to wear winter jackets in spring, Diar cannot adapt to the hot weather of the 4,500-foot valley. He dreams of living in Alaska or "some other cold place in the States."
Of the 1.7 million Afghan refugees, the Kirghiz plight appears most "dismal," Alan Jones of the New York-based International Rescue Committee says. "They are worse off in that they were totally dependent on their animals. Now their animals are gone. Their life style was so tied to their live- stock that they are suffering from a psychological malaise."
In Gilgit, the people plant their crops up to the base of the mountains. There is no land left for grazing and the natives do not keep flocks of sheep or goats. Even the small number of Kirghiz adds pressure to the land. There would be no room for their flocks in Gilgit, even if they could replace them.
In the gilgit camp the men, shepherds without flocks, wander aimlessly. Proud of their self-reliance, they look for work as laborers in the nearby town. Unskilled but willing to work for less money than the natives, they do not make friends with them.
The women embroider and sell caps and quilts in the Gilgit bazaar. The traditional art of weaving "namdas," large blankets of sheep's wool, has ended because there are no sheep, no rupees to buywool.
Both men and women attempt to supplement their allowances from the Pakistan government of 40 cents per person per day. The Kirghiz also receive rations of wheat, sugar, and salt each month, and a little powdered milk donated by foreign nations.
Accustomed to high elevations and cold weather, more than 100 women have succumbed to heat-related diseases.
Money, distribution, and continuity of their life style remain problems, but inaccessibility to the camps looms as the major obstacle. Gilgit is a 12-hour bus journey from Peshawar over the treacherous Karakoram highway, and accessible by air only during good weather. For 20 days recently, the road from Gilgit to Hunza was closed because of flooding.
The Kirghiz move freely about the bazaar in Gilgit, but natives regard them with suspicion because they are different. Although the people of Gilgit are an ethnic potpourri of Shins, Yashkuns, and Mongols, they speak Shina, a common dialect. The Kirghiz speak only dialects of Turkish and Persian.
Unlike Pakistanis, whose national dress is the shalwar chemise, Kirghiz men stand out in the bazaar with straight- legged pants and shirts. Women wear long , brightly colored dresses with waistcoats and caps and "jholoks," long scarves which cover their waist-long braids. It is their headdress that sets them apart from their Pakistani counter- parts, who wear veils over their faces.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Kirghiz have found refuge in Gilgit and Hunza , strategic areas with an ominous sense of Russian, Chinese, and Indian presence. Only 150 miles away lies their last home in Wakhan Corridor. Inside Afghanistan, the struggle against Russian occupation continues. Beyond the surrounding haramosh Range, beyond the Baltro Glacier and still farther beyond the 20,000-foot Sila Pass lies China, now connected for commerce with Pakistan by the Karakoram Highway -- where 2,000 perished in the making.
To the east from Ladakh, the Indus River flows into the Skardu Valley, which borders Hunza. Below lie the disputed areas of Kashmir and Jammu, guarded by both Pakistan and Indian armies.
Uprooted three times by communism, the Kirghiz have left bits of their history in Russia, China, and Afghanistan. In 1930, 2,000 Kirghiz escaped from their villages in Russia after communists entered by force and killed many tribesmen.
"I was five years old then," Haji Rahman Qul recalls. "The Russians injected me with poison. I nearly died. The Russians are not only the enemy of the Muslims. They are the enemy of all mankind," he says
Five times a day the "azan" or Muslim call to prayers is heard in the Kirghiz refugee camp. In Gilgit refugees built an open-air mosque with stones collected from nearly mountains and the fast-flowing Gilgit River. Every day, children gather to read the Koran under the strict surveillance of a white- bearded mullah.
After religious instruction -- except on Fridays -- 40 boys of all ages meet for classes of arithmetic and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, with their native teacher. The boys sit on the dusty ground with slates in hand. Not a single tent can be spared, so the boys sit on the hot sun.
Despite their hardships, the Kirghiz retain the generous and warm-hearted spirit of mountain people. Like Tibetans, they exude an air of calm and peace. Poor by any standards, the Kirghiz always serve tea to guests. Sometimes treasured pieces of hard candy or bisquits are offered.
Often in the evening after their unvarying dinner of thick nan and tea, the men listen to the sitar, a simple, handmade three-stringed instrument. Usually the music leads to a solo dance of the slow, majestic Turkish usal, with delicate hand movements. With the Kirghiz, a love of life is as natural as breathing.
The men remember wild games of buzkuzi, the national sport of Afghanistan, played to celebrate a wedding. Buzkuzi is a game in which players ride horseback while trying to score goals with a goat's head wrapped in skins. Horses, their most prized possessions, were sold at the border. In the camps, there have been weddings, but the days of buzkuzi are gone.
Then talk turns to the future. Like Diar, the other Kirghiz hope to move to Alaska, where they can again live the life they know. They have heard the weather is cold and there are pastures for grazing.
More than a year ago, Haji Rahman Qul applied for visas for his tribe to move to Alaska. He was told by the US Embassy in Islamabad that such a mass move would require an act of Congress.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, who fears the Kirghiz would create their own governmental structure, does not encourage their prospects.
Haji Qul, who wants his tribesmen to preserve their culture and practice Islam, says Steven's fears are groundless. He says that America's guarantee of religious freedom means everything to the Kirghiz and that they would adapt to the nation's political system.
Some Tibetans who faced similar difficulties with climatic adjustments and who resemble the Kirghiz, have successfully resettled in Colorado.
Some experts reason that it is too soon for the Kirghiz to consider leaving Pakistan when the future of other Afghan refugees remains undecided.
One UCLA anthropologist who visited the Kirghiz camps last year argues that the Kirghiz are a special case because they are linguistically and culturally different from other refugees. He insists they do face special problems.
According to the district commissioner in Gilgit, the government is studying options to move the Kirghiz to a higher and colder climate. Meanwhile, summer is fast approaching and the temperatures will mount as high as 110 degrees.