THIS farming village on the outskirts of the southern city of Kurgan-Tyube looks as if a cyclone hit it. Roofs have been ripped off every home, and the stucco walls of the buildings lie partly in rubble. The empty shells of buildings are barren, stripped of every possession.
This devastation, however, is not the result of a natural disaster, but a human one. The village inhabitants were among the tens of thousands of victims of the vicious civil war that raged across this part of the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Tajikistan in the second half of 1992.
The people of this village ended up on the losing side of that civil war, all of them fleeing for fear of being slaughtered by the victors. A year ago the villagers started to drift back, and today they live among the rubble, sleeping in cellars, tending gardens, and planting cotton in the surrounding fields.
The harassment and killings that met returnees in the initial months have subsided, and a tentative peace reigns. Such conditions have encouraged half of the estimated 60,000 refugees who fled to Afghanistan and some 90 percent of the half-million displaced persons who sought refuge elsewhere in the country to return, according to officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Young men are absent
Compared to what occurred before, ``the situation is now stable,'' says Pierre-Francois Pirlot, head of UNHCR's mission in Tajikistan. ``The tensions will continue for some time,'' he says of the past conflict, ``but everybody has agreed to bury it for some time.''
The villagers here agree that things are better, that they and their enemies are managing to get along. But the fear that lurks just below the surface emerges quickly in talks with villagers.
The village is inhabited almost entirely by women, children, and a few elderly men. ``Our young men are in different places,'' explains Zebinyso, a woman of the village. ``They are afraid of being killed. The machine gunners might kill them.''
Every day, armed units of the victorious Tajikistan Popular Front, which have now been transformed into regular troops of the regime in Dushanbe, come to the village to look for weapons and to see ``if the young men come back,'' she says.
The women won't let their children go to school for fear they will be beaten up. Life is hard. The people live mostly from relief supplies of bread. A supply of wood has been provided to start rebuilding homes, but without tools and without the young men to do the work, it lies unused.
The UNHCR, along with other international organizations, is mounting an effort to encourage and support the return of refugees, particularly those gathered at camps across the border in Afghanistan. Hundreds are still crossing the border regularly, Mr. Pirlot reports.
The regime in Dushanbe, the capital, claims to be eager to aid their return and guarantee their safety. Izzatullo Kuganov, commander of the Faizail Brigade, the local Popular Front militia that has been converted into a unit of the Tajik Army, claims to be helping this process. But he also admits they are seeking militants of the opposition, who operate guerrilla units from Afghan territory, in the ranks of the returnees.
The ``security forces,'' as he calls them, randomly take returning refugees prisoner. Even if they are not supporters of the opposition, ``This person knows others.'' Eventually ``they would tell us the truth and tell us who is conspiring against us.''
In a war shaped partly by religion and ideology, but also by ethnic conflict, this southern region was the principal battlefield. Three ethnic groups lived in almost equal numbers here - the Garmis, a Tajik group from the mountains that was moved here during the Stalin era to tend the cotton plants; the Kulyabis, Tajiks from the neighboring province; and Uzbeks, from across the border in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan.
The Garmis formed the basis of the Islamic political movement that challenged the former Communist regime in mid-1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kulyabis and Uzbeks formed the bulwark of that regime's support here. This village was entirely populated by Garmis, a particularly religious group that listened closely to their mullah.
``The mullahs started agitating against the Communists,'' recalls Zarif Kurbanov, a 70-year-old villager. ``Some people followed the mullahs, some people followed the Communists, and they attacked each other.''
He describes the villagers as bystanders who took up arms only to defend their houses against the Kulyabis. Other Garmi militants came to enlist them to fight. ``We said, `we are just protecting our kishlak [village].' ''
But when the tide turned in favor of the Kulyabis, they came and destroyed the village in systematic fashion.
Ethnic ties improve
Everyone who could, fled, some across the border to Afghanistan, others to Uzbekistan or Russia or within Tajikistan. When they started to return in February 1993, ``There were cases that people came and killed our people,'' says Mr. Kurbanov. ``Now everything is calm. Nobody bothers us.''
Just to make sure, Zafarali Abdulayev, a Kulyabi from a neighboring village, occupies an unofficial position as the village boss. He tells quite a different version of what happened here.
``The Islamic fundamentalists came here, and they wanted to slaughter all the Kulyabis and Uzbeks,'' he says, interrupting our conversation with some old men of the village. ``They wanted to organize slavery here.''
The Garmis agree that relations are now better between themselves and their Kulyabi neighbors. But that is because both have been joined by a common fear of the Uzbeks, who make up some 40 percent of the region's population and are angry over what they see as a Kulyabi attempt at domination. ``The Uzbeks feel strong, stronger than the Kulyabis,'' says Ms. Zebinyso.
* Last of three parts. Parts 1 and 2 ran on May 12 and 13.