CHORKUH, Tajikistan -- For a place that was the center of a bloody confrontation between police forces and alleged Islamic militants
only days ago, the northern Tajik village of Chorkuh seemed remarkably peaceful.
The streets were full of people going about their everyday routines. Children played outside their homes. Groups of men drank tea in local teahouses and outside mosques.
Nothing seemed unusual when we arrived in Chorkuh, or Four Mountains, a village, as its name implies, surrounded by mountains in all directions.
However, the moment we tried to talk to people, we sensed the change. People in Central Asian villages are usually talkative and hospitable, but that was no longer the case in Chorkuh.
A burned Koran found in a Chorkuh home raided by Tajik authorities
The climate of fear in Chorkuh -- the largest village in Isfara district -- is palpable.
"Please don't ask me. I don't know anyone here. I don't know anything," a middle-aged man said when we approached him.
Then, like many others, he turned away and disappeared behind the gate of his house, shutting the door. Houses in Isfara are surrounded by high mud-brick walls, and once the gate is shut, you can't see anything.
It's been especially difficult to approach any woman in Chorkuh, even to ask for directions. Women in Chorkuh -- many of whom are covered head to toe in chadors -- simply don't talk to strangers these days.
"You're wasting your time," advises an elderly man, sitting on a bench while holding his toddler granddaughter. "People are afraid to talk here because they think the police will arrest them. You, too, should be careful or you can get arrested. People are afraid after what happened here the other day."
A woman in Chorkuh wearing a chador.
According to local officials, at least three militants were killed during a police operation in Chorkuh's Tagi Sada neighborhood on October 28. Authorities said they arrested several others during the raid, including one Kyrgyz national. Officials say the men were members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Just a few days after the Tagi Sada operation, two other alleged IMU suspects, including a woman, were killed during a police raid in Chorkuh's nearby Childukhtaron area. Police said the 35-year-old female suspect, Mukhtasarkhon Miramonova, blew herself up with a grenade when policemen approached to arrest her. Miramonova was the wife of Rasul Okhunov, an alleged regional leader of the IMU, who was killed by government forces in 2006.
We went to the Tagi Sada neighborhood to see the three houses where the operation had taken place. All of them are cordoned off. No one was around, so we sneaked into one of them through a neighboring house. All we could see was a burned building, mud, and dirt.
Tagi Sada street in Chorkuh, where the police operation took place
A young boy from a neighboring house showed us a burned copy of the Koran, saying he had recovered it from the ruins of the house.
There were reports that police had confiscated weapons and propaganda material from the house. The boy showed us something more unusual.
"I was following the policemen when they were searching the house. I saw them taking much of this stuff," he said, pointing toward packs of condoms scattered about. Hardly terrorist weapons, but you can never be sure, can you?
Discarded condoms allegedly found by police at the home of the IMU suspects home in Chorkuh
Shortly after the operation, local officials told RFE/RL that militants fired Kalashnikovs and used grenade launchers against police forces.
Isfara, a district of some 130,000 people, is located in the heart of the volatile Ferghana Valley. It is considered one of the most religiously conservative pockets of Tajikistan's otherwise relatively liberal Sughd Province.
In recent years, dozens of Isfara inhabitants have been arrested for alleged membership in the IMU or for providing support to the group.
In October, the country's Interior Ministry announced that at least 40 Isfara residents are wanted in connection with their association with the IMU and other banned extremist groups.
Tajik authorities and experts have repeatedly voiced their concern about what they see as growing support for the IMU and other extremist groups in the area.
The district, which is situated at the border junction of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, has been dubbed by local media as the Islamic Triangle of Isfara.
We went to a local mosque in Chorkuh to find out more.
"Authorities exaggerate the risk of Islamic militancy in Isfara," says the mosque's imam, Rashidkhon Saidmuhammadov, who has been preaching in Chorkuh for nearly 20 years.
Despite a government ban on head scarves, girls wear the hijab along with their compulsory school uniforms in Chorkuh.
However, he says he does not "rule out that the IMU and similar groups have some support among local communities, especially those who are unhappy with governmental pressure on Islam."
The imam says people are unhappy that employees are not allowed to pray in mosques during office hours, that the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, is banned in schools and government offices, and that "men are not even allowed to grow a beard."
Despite the ban, however, we didn't see any women or even one young girl in Chorkuh who was not wearing a head scarf.
"These pressures backfire and according to the hadiths of Islam's prophet, when you put pressure on that precious value [of religion], naturally you have to expect some kind of reaction," the imam said.
The Hoji Haidarkhon Ibn Mirzojura Grand Mosque in Chorkuh
Men praying in the Chorkuh Hoji Haidarkhon Ibn Mirzojura Grand Mosque