Mountainous Ex-Soviet Nation Travels a Rocky Road to Peace

After years of civil war, cease-fire in Tajikistan may last

Any little-league baseball player could easily lob a ball across the Pianj River into Afghanistan from here. At this distance, Afghanistan - and all its political and religious upheaval - is too close to be ignored.

Moreover, there are some 4 million ethnic Tajiks living across the border, inextricably tying Tajikistan and Afghanistan together.

Military checkpoints manned by Russian and Tajik soldiers dot the border road. They are all aware that the battle lines of Tajikistan's own low-intensity civil war are only six hours away and that the opposition is trained and supplied through Afghanistan. Many worry that the religious and ethnic war crippling Afghanistan could spread to their homeland.

"No, I don't want the border open, because the mess over there [in Afghanistan] is even bigger than here, and I don't want it coming here," says Langar Paishanbiev, a house builder in Khorog.

The fighting in Tajikistan seems to be concentrated just west of this Gorno-Badakshan region. "It's becoming like Afghanistan," says Charlotte Lindsay, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "The opposition is living in small groups, living among the population. They don't want to alienate the locals, and [so they] treat them well.... The government force tends to be young and inexperienced, untrained boys that have been taken from the market on a Saturday roundup and put on the front line."

The fighting in Tajikistan has been going on since a civil war divided the country in 1992. At that time, several Muslim opposition groups banded together to oppose the pro-Communist government that had taken over an independent Tajikistan during the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The fighting split along ethnic and clan lines, massacres ensued, and Russian soldiers were flown in to restore order. Thousands of refugees fled the capital, Dushanbe, flooding Gorno-Badakshan and other neighboring areas.

Until the war in Chechnya, the fighting in Tajikistan had been the most brutal in any former Soviet state. It was the first substantial conflict in newly independent Central Asia. The war has alarmed Russia, which wants a stable southern flank, as well as adjacent republics like Uzbekistan, which don't want similar uprisings.

For four years local fighting has continued along the main roads linking Dushanbe to northeast Tajikistan. Territory has switched hands regularly. The opposition has not been strong enough to hold onto its gains, so it has seemed content to try to demoralize the government.

[Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmonov and rebel leader Syed Abdullo Nuri are scheduled to meet in the Russian capital today, eight days after signing a cease-fire in northern Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported.

The cease-fire was largely holding in the war zones of Garm and Tavildara in eastern Tajikistan, according to Tajik government spokesman Zafar Saidov in Dushanbe. Opposition forces have withdrawn from key positions in the foothills of the rugged Pamir Mountains near Tavildara, he told Russian news agencies.

The latest truce follows weeks of heavy fighting between Mr. Rakhmonov's government and the rebels that left dozens dead. Numerous cease-fires in the former Soviet republic have failed.]

A small opposition camp is based here in Khorog. Privately, some aid officials dismiss the roughly 280 soldiers as ineffective. But the local Pamiri people see them quite differently. "The opposition protects us from the government," Mr. Paishanbiev says.

The Pamiri peoples living in Dushanbe lost out in the 1992 civil war. They had made a tactical alliance with the fundamental Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) to bring down the pro-Communist government. When they bowed out of this alliance and the Russian-backed Government won, the Pamiris fled back to their original homeland in Gorno-Badakshan.

Tension here since that time has reduced dramatically, and some aid officials say the pro-Communist government in Dushanbe no longer regards the Gorno-Badakshan region - which occupies more than 40 percent of the country's land mass but has only 3 percent of its population - as a serious threat.

Nevertheless, the presence of an opposition camp here, just 500 yards away from a major military base, puts into question just how much control the government has over the region.

And Afghanistan cannot be ignored. In spite of the military guards, the border is porous. The IRP is trained and supported by the Afghan Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massood. Mr. Massoud is fighting the radical rebel Taliban group that has taken over much of Afghanistan, including the capital, Kabul.

Perhaps because one of their major backers is now busy fighting his own battles, the opposition in Tajikistan has not been eager to start another campaign against the government in Dushanbe.

Despite the tension and uncertainty, President Rakhmanov seems to be gaining legitimacy. The World Bank is working with his government, and economic and political change may slowly come about in this republic, where the economy is near collapse.

While Tajikistan's civil war has aggravated problems, it is not clear that peace would bring quick recovery. Gradual economic reforms may be the only solution.

For little boys here like Imamdod Imamdadov, whose only heroes are soldiers and whose only toys are homemade automatic weapons, it could mean a future of hope rather than continued violence.

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