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Tajikistan: Officials Honor UN Mission's Peace Role

The mandate of the United Nations Mission in Tajikistan -- or UNMOT -- expires today. During its six years in the country, UNMOT helped end a five-year civil war in 1997 and later, despite setbacks, did much to preserve a difficult peace. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the eyes of many Tajik officials, the presence of UNMOT during the country's darkest days has earned it a very honorable mention in Tajikistan's short history as an independent nation.

In January 1993 -- when the UN opened a small political office in the capital Dushanbe -- civil war had been raging in Tajikistan for almost a year. The conflict had started for a variety of reasons - religious, ethnic, political, regional, even old personal vendettas. Eventually, it spread to almost every part of the country. Rashid Alimov -- Tajikistan's current ambassador to the UN -- recalls the upheaval of early 1992:

"At that time, everything was in chaos. No one escaped the fire of internal conflict -- essentially, a situation of civil war. The moral and psychological atmosphere of our society was poisoned by venomous hostility and distrust. The situation on the Tajik-Afghan border was critical. There were areas where there were [border] violations nearly everyday, and they were accompanied by human loss."

By some estimates, 1 million people from Tajikistan's population of less than 6 million fled the country. For the most part, neighboring countries were not receptive. Uzbekistan feared possible contagion from the civil war and closed its border to Tajik refugees. Kyrgyzstan allowed some refugees to stay, but offered most only free passage through the country on route to Kazakhstan, then Russia. China was never an option for the refugees. That left only Afghanistan -- then itself at war for nearly 15 years -- as an avenue to escape the bloodbath at home.

Eventually, two rival groups emerged from the chaos of the first months of civil war. One was the government in Dushanbe, composed largely of former communists. The other was the United Tajik Opposition, or UTO, a coalition of opposition forces which included secular groups but was dominated by the Islamic Renaissance Party.

From the outset, UNMOT managed to establish contact with both sides. Ramero Piriz Ballon of Uruguay was the UN's special envoy to Tajikistan at the time. He spoke recently with RFE/RL's Tajik Service about UNMOT's early attempts to mediate:

"The difficult task was to bring both parties to the negotiating table, to persuade the government and the opposition to sit around the negotiating table -- as we did in Moscow back in 1994 with the first round of these negotiations. It was difficult to convince both parties to lay down the arms, at least momentarily, and talk."

In this and all that followed, the UN mission was aided in guiding the Tajik sides to talks by both Russia and Iran. The UTO's former deputy leader -- now Tajikistan's first deputy prime minister -- Hoja Akbar Turajonzoda says:

"We should not forget the participation of two important countries -- Russia and Iran, both of which made great efforts to bring peace among Tajiks. In some areas, perhaps, their participation was larger than UN efforts."

With Russian and Iranian help, the UN managed to broker a first temporary ceasefire in September 1994. Over the next three years, this and other ceasefires were broken and then agreed to again. To the credit of UNMOT, both sides seemed inclined to listen to UN calls to stop fighting after perceived violations caused one or the other side to renew military action.

When the two warring Tajik factions finally signed a peace accord in Moscow in 1997, the signature of UN special envoy Gerd Merrem of Austria was also on the document.

Ibrahim Usmonov was one of the chief negotiators for the government side. He says the UN presence was indispensable:

"Peace talks between Tajiks emerged through the mediation of the UN I believe that if the UN works hard and skillfully, it can bring peace to the whole globe or -- at least, to certain areas of the planet."

Usmonov's view is largely shared by former UN envoy Ballon:

"I think that UN participation in the peace process was absolutely essential to start and develop the negotiations between the Tajiks. But had there not been a will from both sides to come to terms, to come to reach a political solution, the efforts of the UN would have not been fruitful."

After the peace agreement, UNMOT oversaw the return of Tajik refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Later, to monitor ceasefire violations, UNMOT stationed observers with military units on both sides. Both during and after the war, UNMOT -- and, particularly, UN special envoys Ballon and Merrem -- acted as intermediaries between the government and the UTO.

No one familiar with Tajikistan's continuing problems would say the country's future will be easy. But at least now there is hope that the country has put a bloody civil war behind it. If that turns out to be true, the Tajik people will have much reason to thank the UN in the years to come.

(Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)