Alaska: never-never land for Afghan nomads

From the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan, through the refugee camps of Pakistan, on to permanent resettlement in the chilly wilds of Alaska.

This was the dream. Some 1,000 sheepherding Kirghiz nomads would find a new sanctuary in Alaska.

This was to have been the final chapter in a 60-year retreat from advancing armies in Central Asia.

Their long flight had taken them from friction with Russia's Czarist authorities to refuge in China after the Bolshevik Revolution. After the 1949 communist victory in China, they moved to Afghanistan - and then into Pakistan in the wake of an April 1978 coup that opened the way for Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan.

In Alaska they could settle as a living memorial to the lost way of life of their brethren in Central Asia - the 2 million other Kirghiz collectivized and anchored within the Soviet Union and China.

But the dream has not come true.

Instead the Kirghiz are to face their future in Turkey, as part of the 4,500 ethnically Turkic refugees that country has pledged to resettle, beginning Aug. 3.

Those who worked unsuccessfully to give the Kirghiz story an American ending say their efforts at least have helped publicize the Kirghiz plight. This, they hope, may have contributed to Turkey's decision to offer shelter.

The dream of relocating in the New World appears to have begun in the minds of the Kirghiz themselves. Soon it was picked up by a host of supporters, including some Alaskans and cautiously supportive anthropologists. They began a campaign of telephone calls and advertisements, and attempted to gain the support of elected representatives.

Last March the dream fell apart. Its backers were unable to raise $25,000 they say was needed to fund a visit by two Kirghiz leaders. These leaders were to meet state and federal officials, and make preliminary visits to possible settlement sites.

The hope, among some, was that once a resettlement area and immigration measures were arranged, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) would fund the transfer.

Aside from money, there were formidable barriers set by immigration law. There is no provision for the importation of an entire refugee group, and there are sharp limits on intake of Afghan refugees. For example, from October 1981 through June 1982 some 3,271 Mideastern refugees were accepted by the United States, including 2,423 Afghan refugees. There are more than 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan alone.

As for Alaska, not everyone was enthusiastic. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) had expressed concern that heavily armed nomads might not easily adapt to the state.

Anthropologist Nazif Shahrani, a specialist on the Kirghiz, calls that a misconception.

Dr. Shahrani, now of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., maintains that the Kirghiz are quite adaptable. He says they became nomads precisely because they chose to retreat rather than fight in the face of Soviet, Chinese, and Afghan armies.

''They are nomads because they are weak,'' he says. Their arms have been limited largely to old hunting rifles, he adds.

This is a subject on which Shahrani is hardly neutral. Shahrani grew up in Afghanistan as a Muslim Uzbek in a community close to the grazing grounds of his fellow Islamic but nomadic Kirghiz.

''I believe the world deserves to see them survive,'' says the man who became an adviser in the move to settle the Kirghiz in Alaska.

Still, he says he has always had reservations over whether the Kirghiz lifestyle of nomadic herding could survive in the United States. He maintains that the US is a good place for traditional groups to preserve their ways only if they get special assistance with health, land, education, and animals. He says it remained unclear whether the Kirghiz could get the needed support in Alaska.

''I tried to explain these problems to the Kirghiz,'' he says. ''But they had been running so long they did not want to listen. All they could think of was security from the Soviet Union. It was their conviction that the United States is the freest country in the world.''

Shahrani concludes that it will probably be easier for the Kirghiz to assimilate in Turkey because the two peoples share a common ethnic stock. But, he adds, ''I suspect the Turkish capacity to aid them will be minimal.''

The movement was encouraged by a woman with a far different background.

Marilyn Dudley Rowley is the president of a Fairbanks, Alaska, group called the Institute for Alaskan Affairs. This, she says, is a loosely knit group of 200 scholars, scientists, and others oriented toward the humanities.

Describing herself as a Sunni Muslim and a former newswoman who came to Alaska from South Carolina seven years ago, Ms. Rowley, recalls:

''It started with a newspaper clipping quoting a Kirghiz leader as saying a photograph of Alaska had reminded him of his homeland.''

Rowley says she grew intrigued with the possibility that the Kirghiz could benefit in Alaska once they were trained in reindeer husbandry.

As for the obstacles, she says her group was making progress on settlement sites, and that special immigration legislation for the Kirghiz could have been sponsored and passed.

But at the last minute a cutback in foundation support threatened the scheduled March visit by Kirghiz leaders. A last minute fundraising campaign failed.

''Today we have just $8.50 in the kitty,'' she explains.''It took a long time to get out of debt.''

So these Kirhgiz remnants of a vanishing way of life now face the task of preserving their identity in Turkey - and not in the United States.

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