Afghanistan's role as the world's primary provider of heroin has meant hard times for residents of neighboring Tajikistan, which acts as a key conduit in drug-trafficking routes to both Eastern and Western markets. Tajik villagers living near the Afghan border say the growing narcotics trade has turned their lives into a nightmare. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that kidnapping, robbery, and murder are on the rise as Afghan drug-smugglers engage Tajik help in their illicit and dangerous trade.
Prague, 13 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Tajikistan's southern Shuroabad district, the narcotics trade from neighboring Afghanistan is jeopardizing the lives of local residents. Addiction is not the problem. Instead, many Tajiks say they have become the victims of Afghan drug dealers who rob them, kidnap family members, and sometimes even resort to murder -- all in an attempt to persuade the residents to aid in the narcotics business.
The problem has existed for nearly a decade, but Shuroabad Tajiks say the violence has worsened in recent months. Since May, four people have been killed, more than 20 reported kidnapped, and scores of livestock stolen. The situation has grown so bad that many residents are leaving the area. Others are asking how -- with the area's heavily publicized border control -- Afghans are continuing to enter their villages at will.
The United Nations has estimated that some three-quarters of the world's heroin supply originates in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. As the drugs begin their trip to markets in Western Europe, Asia, and North America, their first stopover is usually Tajikistan's mountainous Shuroabad district.
Shuroabad's key location has made its residents an easy target of Afghan dealers looking for Tajiks to carry the drugs on to the next point of transit -- the capital Dushanbe, or even a location outside the country. The involuntary couriers are given a strict selling price for the drugs they are conveying. If the money they bring home is insufficient, the Afghan dealers may seize property or even a family member until the balance is paid. Some dealers have reportedly kidnapped relatives to ensure that the family will take their instructions seriously.
One local resident said he was leaving the district because he does not feel safe:
"Our village was attacked by these Afghans last autumn. We are always afraid. Our borders are not secure. In Soviet days, not even a fly would dare cross the border [with Afghanistan]. Now groups of Afghans cross back and forth and no one says anything."
In poverty-stricken Tajikistan, the problem has left residents destitute. Since the start of May, some villagers estimate, Afghan dealers have taken about $50,000 worth of property -- primarily cows and sheep, which represent virtually the only source of income for Shuroabad residents. A number of village homes have been taken over by Afghans.
Local Tajik security officials say they are aware of the problem. Safar Majikdov, the head of the Shuroabad district's security committee, can give a precise count of the number of livestock stolen in early May:
"On the first of May this year, a group of armed Afghan drug dealers stole 67 head of livestock from the village of Pariharyon. On 3 May, in the Chasma Saeb region, 64 head of livestock [were taken] from the village of Syrdara."
Many villagers in Shuroabad wonder how the situation has been allowed to spin out of control. Thousands of Russian border guards are stationed along the mountainous Afghan-Tajik border, in a highly publicized attempt to fight drugs and weapons smuggling from Afghanistan. Reinforcing them are soldiers from Russia's 201st division, Tajik border guards, and Tajik Security Ministry troops.
But Majikdov says that crossing the border is still relatively easy:
"The checkpoints along the border are seven to 10 kilometers apart. That allows [the Afghans] to enter and conduct their illegal activities."
Jumakhan Olimi, a political analyst at Tajikistan's International University in Kulob, told RFE/RL that porous borders are not the only reason for the steady flow of Afghan drug dealers into the country: "It's a society where the authorities are corrupt. According to our information, anyone who pays $50 can cross the border. So how can you talk about security?"
Some estimates indicate that Shuroabad villagers already owe Afghan drug dealers hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug-sale deficits -- an insurmountable debt in a country where the average monthly wage is just $10. Without improvements to the border-security system, the drug business is likely to continue growing, and with it the chronic cycle of violence and poverty in Shuroabad.
(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)