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The forgotten Kyrgyz nomads of Afghanistan's Pamir mountains

By Hermann Kreutzmann

Tajikistan, on the Afghan border - The Russian-made trucks laden with wheat flour creep their way along the road that stretches across the eastern Pamir Mountains. The Tajiki border guards and the KGB commander in Murghab have decided to allow humantarian goods to be distributed among the Kyrgyz people in Afghanistan's Little Pamir area.

The convoy starts moving away from the Russian outposts that have been here for 110 years. It rolls along a metal fence that marks the "System", heading for the last checkpoint before the border with Afghanistan. From here on out the trucks are accompanied by four Russian officers who lead them into the "System": the quasi-demilitarised zone between China and Tajikistan. Here, at the outer tip of the Wakhan corridor, four nations that confronted each other throughout the Cold War meet: China, the former Soviet Union, westward-leaning Pakistan and the buffer state of Afghanistan.

Global political events have left deep wounds even in this remote corner of central Asia. Humanitarian relief became necessary due to the failure of Tajikistan to respond to requests from the Kyrgyz nomads of the Big and Little Pamir regions to help them cushion the impact of severe supply shortages. Tajikistan was hardly in a position to help the nomads. Being poor itself, it can't even feed its own population without foreign aid. For three years the organisation Focus International has delivered basic supplies to the nomads once or twice a year.

The Afghan border is marked by a simple post; this "inofficial" border crossing has no guards or barriers. Waiting for the convoy not far from the border is a delegation of Kyrgyz people with their leader, Abdurrashid Khan. Focus International has gathered information and compiled lists of the needy in advance.

Over the next two days, nomads will be arriving with their yaks and tow ropes from camps across the entire Pamir region to pick up rations for their yurt communities. The food is distributed at an altitude of 4,000 metres: about as high as the trucks can go. To go any further requires a horse or a yak. Each person receives 35 kilos of US government-issue flour - just enough to avert a dire food emergency.

The Kyrgyz nomads used to be among Central Asia's wealthiest peoples. The profile of their legendary leader, Khan Rahman Qul, and his sumptiously decorated yurt adorned the reports of numerous expeditions in the 1970s that had been searching for the breed of sheep known as Marco Polo that is common to the area. With 16,000 animals, Qul was one of Afghanistan's richest local leaders.

Qul had good connections with the royal Afghan regime, which awarded the khan with the title "Pasbani Pamir" - defender of the Pamir - for his role in securing the country's northeastern border.

Qul's downfall began with the April revolution in 1978, when a faction of the Communist Party assumed power in Kabul. In the year prior to the Soviet invasion, Qul led his 250 Pamir yurt communities into Pakistani exile.

While in exile, Rahman Qul negotiated with the US government over the possibility of Kyrgyz nomads being allowed to breed cattle in Alaska. In the end, however, Turkey was the only country to provide the Kyrgyz political asylum, as it had done before with other Turkic-speaking groups. Qul eventually decided to resettle his group in the eastern Anatolian highlands near Lake Van.

After four years in exile in Pakistan, however, the Kyrgyz nomads were split over Qul's decision. For some time, rival leader Abdurrashid Khan had maintained contacts with the Russian army in Pamir. Khan's and 50 other yurt communities refused to follow Qul to Turkey.

In 1982, then Pakistani president Zia-ul Haq allowed the group around Abdurrashid Khan to return to Pakistan. Khan's people subsequently took control of all the pasture lands in the Little Pamir and Big Pamir regions.

This group of Kyrgyz nomads remembers that time as the beginning of the heydey of trading in the region. Until the withdrawal in 1983 of 1,300 Red Army troops from their base in Bozai Gumbaz, say the herders, clothing, food, cigarettes and medical supplies had all been available in ample supply.

The current situation looks bleak by comparison. The 1,200 Kyrgyz nomads living in 237 yurts own a total of just 1,400 yaks and 9,000 sheep and goats. Barely any goods are exchanged and there is neither a medical clinic nor a school. Money is unknown. All the nomads are illiterate. The man who handles their correspondence is Niyoz Ali Patuwani, a member of the Wakhi from Khandut in Tajikistan and Abdurrashid Khan's secretary.

The Kyrgyz are suffering without their traditional markets that they used to supply in winter with cattle from the Pamir. The yearly caravans to Kabul to unload the nomads' fattened sheep have not taken place for ages and badly needed items from the capital do not arrive here anymore, either. Small-scale trade has been taking place for eight years between the Kyrgyz nomads and their Pakistani neighbours in the Hunza Valley. The nomads offer their sheep and yaks in exchange for flour, tea, matches clothing and shoes.

Opium dealers from the autonomous Tajik region of Badakhshan bring their stuff to the pastures of the Pamir where they trade it for the Kyrgyz nomads' sheep. Controlling the trade are local commanders from the anti-Taliban movement, who demand road use fees and other contributions. Like the Taliban, the rebels finance their fight with money from the opium trade. Both groups proclaim their imminent victory and promise to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state.

The small Kyrgyz minority in Afghanistan has seen many of its members become addicted to opium over the past few years. In the winter, opium serves as both a medication and a hedge against despair. It is estimated that as many as 90 per cent of the Kyrgyz nomads are addicted to opium.

Despite the fact that the nomads inhabit one of the most isolated regions of the world, their traditional herding economy has proven incredibly vulnerable to regional developments. When Qul's group emigrated to Turkey in 1982, one report called it "The Last Journey of the Kyrgyz." But it was not to be the group's final migration.

The sons of Qul (who died in 1990) are now seeking asylum in Kyrgyzstan. Qul's grandchildren already study there. Qul's opponent, Abdurrashid Khan, attempted a similar move. The government of Kyrgyzstan was ready to allow Kyrgyz nomads living just over the Tajik-Afghan border in Afghanistan to resettle in the Sary-Tash region of Kyrgyzstan. But prominment Kyrgyz nomads in Pamir decided to stick with their leader's plans and refused to pledge their loyalty to an unknown land. By all accounts, the nomads are not prepared to trade what little they can call their own - the pastures of the Big and Little Pamir - for an uncertain future in Kyrgyzstan.

But despite the terrible conditions, a glimmer of hope persists that things will soon be better. The lorries have left the pastures of the Pamir, but the aid workers from Focus International promise they will be back again before winter to distribute food and warm clothing.

Anyway, in October some of the cattle breeders will set off for the closest store in Hunza, travelling some 150 kilometres to trade their sheep and yaks for flour to see the yurt communities through the brutal, eight-month winter.

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