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As An Afghan River Border Shifts, Murder Follows

Village elder Hadji Khaleq inspects the ruins of a home in Yaz Ariq Dinar destroyed by the advancing Amu Darya river
Village elder Hadji Khaleq inspects the ruins of a home in Yaz Ariq Dinar destroyed by the advancing Amu Darya river
Every spring, as the Amu Darya floods, the border it marks with Turkmenistan moves deeper into this corner of northwestern Afghanistan.

Now, the river is as much as 25 kilometers farther south than it was 30 years ago in parts of Jawzjan Province. In the village of Yaz Ariq Dinar, just a stone's throw from the advancing border, fear runs high.

The villagers are losing their land to an advancing foreign country. And though both they and those across the border are ethnic Turkmen, there seems to be little room for understanding.

Abdul Jabar, a cowherd from Yaz Ariq Dinar on the Afghan side of the border, was unwilling to give up the grazing land that once adjoined his village. So, he put the cattle aboard a makeshift raft and poled it across the water. Then he moved out of sight with the animals through the scrubland and scattered trees.

When Turkmenistan border guards returned his badly mutilated body to the Afghan side the next day, it was clear he had suffered a terrible fate. "From the pelvis to the chin, the front of the body had been cut open and then stitched back together," says the village notary, Nur Mohammad, who saw the corpse. "The doctor said there was no need to look more, it was obvious everything [all the organs] had been removed from inside. There was also a bullet wound that was stitched up at both the entry and the exit."

Jabar's wife, Ana Beg, says he "took two loaves of bread and went away," adding that "when [his body] came back like that, I understood."

A Series Of Victims

Turkmenistan's authorities have offered only the sketchiest of explanations.

They told officials in the provincial capital, Sheberghan, that the 31-year-old cowherd was beaten by border guards, then taken to a hospital for treatment. They said his body was opened as a routine part of an autopsy.

The bizarre removal of Jabar's organs has only added to the shock of his killing. Some in the village think the hospital removed them to put in an organ bank, others think they were stolen for the illegal organ trade. But the truth will probably never be known.

What is certain is he is far from the only person who has crossed the river to graze livestock or collect firewood and then paid with his life.

At the start of this year, three people were killed and their bodies thrown into the river to float downstream until their bodies washed up on the Afghan side.

Ten months ago, shepherds crossing over the river found the body of one of their neighbors lying burned almost beyond recognition in the scrub. His body had apparently been doused with gasoline.

Another villager is still missing after disappearing. And these are just the cases of recent years.

Just who is doing the killing is unclear. But other villagers who have crossed the river say they have frequently been harassed by border guards claiming the grazing land has now become part of Turkmenistan.

Sometimes, the villagers are released after giving up one of their animals as a fine, sometimes they are released after a beating.

Each year, the situation seems to get worse as the river inexorably moves farther south.

Lost Land

Hadji Khaleq, one of the elders in Yaz Ariq Dinar village, recalls that when he was young the Amu Darya River was far from his door.

"The river has already taken one part of our village and now it is taking more. But when we were children, the river was 1 and 1/2 hour's walk away," he says, adding that the village has no other grazing land other than that which is now across the water.

The river changes course when it swells with snow melt because its mud embankment in this area easily erodes under the pressure of the fast-moving water. Once part of the embankment caves in, the river gouges out a bigger and bigger section, changing the river bed.

The same thing happens locally in other places as the Amu Darya -- Central Asia's longest river -- flows from the Pamir Mountains to the Aral Sea. And there, too, the changes create land disputes.

But the dispute in Jawzjan Province is particularly brutal and difficult to understand because it contrasts with otherwise good relations between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

The good relations include Ashgabat's sponsoring of several development projects on the Afghan side of the border, where the ethnically Turkmen population speaks the same language and shares the same culture found in Turkmenistan.

In the neighboring Shortepa district of Balkh Province, the Turkmen government has provided the funding for a model school in Hazara-Toqai village.

Inside the school building's main entrance is a plaque noting it is a gift from Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The Afghan-Turkmen parents and teachers show their gratitude by hanging his portrait, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai's, beside the blackboard.

Ashgabad also funded a clinic in Karamkol district of Faryab Province last year.

Appealing To Kabul

At the national level, too, ties are good. Turkmenistan is the one neighbor which Kabul has never accused of trying to back various factions in Afghanistan's past 30 years of warfare. And both Ashgabat and Kabul hope for Afghanistan to become the transit country for a lucrative future gas pipeline running from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India.

But if that means interstate hostility can be ruled out in the killings it seems to do nothing to safeguard Afghan Turkmen villagers who cross the Amu Darya from being killed.

The villagers themselves have appealed to Kabul for help but so far with little effect.

"This confused situation with the border has continued for several decades. Until now, Afghanistan has not reached the point where it could solve the problem," says Khalid Pashtun, a member of parliament who serves on a committee overseeing border security.

"In my view, the only solution is to strengthen the embankment and to reach an interstate agreement with the neighboring country. The other is side is always doing a lot to strengthen its own embankment to avoid such problems."

Pashtun has promised to bring the matter up in parliament, but that is only the start of what is sure to be a long decision-making process.

Meanwhile, the villagers do temporarily what they hope the government will one day do permanently.

As the river floods with this year's snow melt, they are trying to sandbag places where they fear it might break through further into their fields.

"Just now we are at Kabek village (also in the border area) and we have no resources except that a member of the provincial council is here and he brought 4,000 bags for us to fill with sand. There are 200 people two nearby villages volunteering," says Khaleq, the village elder.

But there is little likelihood the sandbags can hold the river long or that villagers will stop crossing over the river to try to retain use of their already lost land. And those two conditions make it certain that the situation along this part of the Amu Darya will remain deadly for months to come.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Shahmurdan Muradi, who recently traveled to northern Afghanistan from Kabul, contributed to this report

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