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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tajikistan's Dwindling 'Town Of Giants'

Published 6 March 2016

Depshaar, which translates as "Town of Giants," is a tiny Kyrgyz village in the Jerge-Tal district of Tajikistan. The place has never really enjoyed the potential benefits from its proximity to Ismoil Somoni, the summit of the Pamir Mountains, which was known during the Soviet era as "The Peak of Communism." The village was depopulated by Stalinist deportations, and it now faces an exodus of residents to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. (Photos by Janyl Jusupjan)


Depshaar is a village of postcard beauty at an altitude of 2,300 meters in the western Pamir Mountains. It is one of the last villages on the route to the "Peak of Communism," now renamed Ismoil Samani -- after a medieval Persian king. The houses and walls are built using the local paksa technique -- a mixture of mud with dry grass. People keep goats and grow potatoes, apples, and wheat.


A lonely woman sits next to her house.

In the 1940s, roads were built, and a new secondary school was filled with teachers from Kyrgyzstan. But in the summer of 1952, the entire population was deported to the Shaar-Tuz district in southern Tajikstan to work on cotton plantations. Many children and old people died when exposed to unbearable heat and a lack of clean water. 


A woman poses with her bread in front of ruins.

Not long after the deportations, a landslide destroyed the school, homes, and most of the agricultural land. Some of the houses still stand in ruins -- a daily reminder of those tragic events. Some of the deported villagers returned to Depshaar after about 15 years and started a new life here.


Children, like most of the grown-ups, speak only Kyrgyz. They attend an elementary school built recently. From the age of 10, they go to a secondary school in a village called Mök, 5 kilometers down the road. Some ride donkeys to get there.


A girl stands next to her house.

There are 18 families living in the village. Many have relatives who left to Russia or Kyrgyzstan. Relations between the villagers are very tight, and they celebrate holidays together. If a guest comes to one family, neighbors invite them in, too, or they send over a meal to show respect.


Writer Akim Kojoev came to visit his home village from Kyrgyzstan.

He sits on the steps of the new school in the village. Akim graduated university in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Upon his return, he founded an elementary school in Depshaar, but he later left Tajikistan, citing discrimination. He then wrote a novel called Dragon, describing the deportation of the villagers to the south, and the horrors of a civil war in the 1990s.


Avaz, Akim Kojoev's brother, is a veterinarian serving several villages.

Their grandfather escaped the Stalinist deportation by taking children across the mountains to Kyrgyzstan. Avaz was born when his family returned to Depshaar at the end of the 1960s and planted poplar and fruit trees. He keeps cows, goats, and bees, and sells honey to merchants from Dushanbe.


Avaz with his daughter, wife, and youngest son in front of the unfinished house. His oldest son studies English in Kyrgyzstan.

The introduction of obligatory paperwork in the Tajik language made Avaz feel alienated as a veterinarian, so he is planning to move to Kyrgyzstan.


Bed covers embroidered by Avaz’s wife, Dilbarkan.

The handiwork of women in Jerge-Tal is exceptional, but Dilbarkan’s daughters are not interested in learning this heritage of their ancestors.


The household of Avaz.

Meals are cooked on a stove fire around the year. When electricity is provided in the evening for a few hours, villagers watch satellite TV programs from Uzbekistan and Iran. No video signals reach them from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.


Salim, a resident of Depshaar, next to his potato cellar.

Salim was born in Shaar-Tuz in southern Tajikstan where his family was deported. In the spring of 1992, he was sent to Depshaar to build a family house. A few months later, the civil war erupted and he was forced to remain in Depshaar. One of his sisters lives in Kyrgyzstan, but his father and eight other siblings still live in Shaar-Tuz.


A view of Salim's house, where he lives with his wife.

He grows potatoes and takes them to Shaar-Tuz to sell. It's an excuse to visit his family in his town of his birth. He studied in a Kyrgyz school in Shaar-Tuz and had many Uzbek friends who were also deported to the cotton plantation from the north of Tajikstan.


Nazim (left) with his son Akhtam (center) and grandson. Nazim was deported to Shaar-Tuz with his family when he was 12. He came back to Depshaar in 1968 as one of the first returnees. He worked for 40 years in various state positions, and now receives a monthly pension of 200 somoni (about $25).


Nazim’s son Akhmat (second from the left) with friends.

They spend most of their free time riding horses to train for buzkashi, the popular sport that involves dragging a goat by horseback toward a goal. It is the major winter entertainment in all of Jerge-Tal district. Sometimes they also act as volunteer guides for the occasional foreign tourist.


A bridge on the Mök River, which starts from the glaciers of what the locals call Muz-Too or "Ice Mountain."

The bridge is built every autumn from money the villagers collect between themselves. In spring, they remove the bridge, or it is taken away by strong currents, as happened last April.


A memorial to flood victims.

The stones are inscribed with the names of those killed when the major bridge connecting the village with the district's commercial center was washed away 10 years ago. Five local residents were killed. That bridge, built in 2003 with the help of a United Nations agency, was never reconstructed. Now, villagers have to travel 70 kilometers to get to the regional market town, instead of 15 kilometers.



The village was given some 100 yaks from East Pamir’s Murghab, another Kyrgyz district. They were transported on trucks to Depshaar via Kyrgyzstan. But since the snow is often heavy in this area, the yak keepers have to stock feed for them, removing much of the benefit of having them. But as it is a state program, they continue to look after them.


A view of the village of Depshaar, from the southern slopes of the Pamir Mountains.

During the Soviet era, the villagers made many friends with Russian and other foreign mountaineers. Today, the adventure trade is a monopoly of the Tajik central government. Foreign tourists wishing to climb the former "Peak of Communism" are brought to the base camp or to a higher elevation by helicopter directly from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. The former tourist camp near the village is now occupied by the military.