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Uzbek, Kyrgyz, And Tajik Lives Collide In Sokh

Residents of the village of Sogment gather at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Political tensions often mean that enclave residents are cut off from the wider world.
Residents of the village of Sogment gather at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Political tensions often mean that enclave residents are cut off from the wider world.
Kamol Azizov's daily routine isn't so different from that of any other villager in the Ferghana Valley: He walks to work every morning, gets his weekly supplies from a nearby bazaar, and runs errands for his elderly parents, who live just around the corner.

Except that, to complete his tasks, Azizov must trek across an international border multiple times. Azizov's native village, Chashma, is located in the Uzbek exclave of Sokh, which is located inside the southern Kyrgyz province of Batken. What this means for Azizov is that the nearest bazaar is in a foreign land, Kyrgyzstan, as is his parent's home, while Azizov's work at the local job center is located in Uzbekistan.

"My house is located less than 300 meters from the Kyrgyz border," Azizov explains. "There are some houses in our neighborhood -- my house is on Sokh territory but its veranda is on Kyrgyz territory. And there are many split families in Chashma. Parents registered as Kyrgyz citizens, their sons and grandchildren as Sokh residents [and thus Uzbek citizens], and their homes are separated by barbed wire. There are Kyrgyz border posts everywhere and it's very difficult to move around."

Like other Sokh residents, Azizov has become accustomed to carrying his passport at all times. "Being stopped and searched at Kyrgyz checkpoints has become a part of our everyday lives," says Azizov.

Recent tensions between Sokh residents and their Kyrgyz neighbors over the right to graze their animals on local pastures have further complicated an already complex cultural and political situation.

Kyrgyzstan last month stopped allowing Sokh residents to graze their livestock on Kyrgyz pastureland, affecting many Sokh households' livelihoods. With pastures no longer available, having to keep their sheep, goats, and cattle penned up inside barns poses tremendous difficulties for the villagers.

Some Sokh residents reportedly responded by attacking Kyrgyz cars passing through the Uzbek enclave territory. Their Kyrgyz neighbors, in return, blocked the main highway connecting the exclave with the rest of Uzbekistan, and demanded protection.

Pacifying Measures

Officials from the both sides met on June 1 to discuss the rising tensions in the area as well as other longstanding disagreements over the enclave, and managed to sign an agreement.

To ease the tension between the two countries, Uzbekistan began to withdraw armored vehicles it stationed in Sokh after a 1999 incursion into southern Kyrgyzstan by Uzbek militants.

The Kyrgyz side has yet to allow Sokh residents to use the pasture land. But Kyrgyz officials agreed to eliminate several checkpoints in the area.

"It's welcome news," Azizov says. "When we travel from Sokh to the provincial center, Ferghana, or to the nearest city, Rishton, we have to pass at least five Kyrgyz checkpoints. They stop us, check our passports and cars, and sometimes they keep us for longer. And some of them have a habit of extorting money."

"And even in my village, Chashma, when we go to the nearby market, which is on the Kyrgyz land, we need to pass a checkpoint, where Kyrgyz soldiers check us and ask for money," Azizov says.

With 325 square kilometers of mountainous land, Sokh is the largest Uzbek enclave on Kyrgyz territory. To further complicate things, the majority of its some 65,000 citizens are ethnic Tajik.

In all, there are eight enclaves in the Ferghana Valley, including four Uzbek exclaves inside Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz village of Barak on Uzbek territory. Tajikistan has two exclaves on Kyrgyz territory and the village of Savak inside Uzbekistan.

The exclaves were carved out during the Soviet era based on the main language spoken by the majority of the population living there.

Sokh, however was an exception. No one can explain how an area that had a vast Tajik majority was made an Uzbek exclave. Many people in Ferghana Valley believe the exclave of Sokh has proven to be one of the strangest creations of Soviet-era leaders.

There are 26 schools and four colleges in Sokh's roughly 20 villages. All the schools and colleges operate in Tajik. So does the local media, including a news and entertainment television channel and the weekly newspaper, "Sadoi Sokh" ("Voice of Sokh").

Politics Felt In The Village

Sokh's unusual circumstances have made its inhabitants vulnerable to fallout from political tensions in all three countries.

"When there are tensions in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan -- in Bishkek, or, for instance, in Andijon -- Uzbekistan closes its borders and intensifies controls and checks," says Bolta, a Sokh resident who did not want to give his full name. "When the Uzbek border is closed, it cuts us off too; we can't enter Uzbekistan easily. Imagine, you need to go to a funeral, or you're seriously ill and want to visit a city hospital, but you can't go there because the border is closed, and no one knows when it will reopen."

The nearest airport or railway station for Sokh residents is some 120 kilometers away in Ferghana city, which is also a provincial center. The nearest Uzbek town is Rishton, 70 kilometers from Sokh.

There are no regular buses or trains connecting Sokh to any other city. Private cars or taxis are the only means of transport, but not everybody can afford to use them.

Further adding to Sokh inhabitants' isolation, Uzbekistan closed its borders with Kyrgyzstan following the April riots in Bishkek. Sokh has also suffered from long-standing political disagreements between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

For many decades, Tajik universities were the main destination for further education for graduates of Sokh's schools.

With souring relationships between Tashkent and Dushanbe, Uzbek education officials no longer recognize Tajik university degrees. Sokh school graduates were left with no other choice but to enroll in Uzbek universities.

After severing cultural and educational ties with Dushanbe, Sokh libraries no longer receive Tajik-language books and publications from Dushanbe. The district's main library is almost devoid of any new books.

"But it's not all bad news," says Azizov. "Living in an enclave has its positive sides, too. Everyone in Sokh is fluent in three languages -- Uzbek and Kyrgyz in addition to our mother tongue, Tajik -- without getting language classes."

"We don't care about politics, but politics have so much impact on our lives," says Akramjon, a 41-year-old amateur singer who didn't want to give his full name.

The realities of every day life are emerging even in Sokh villagers' traditional folk songs, known as "yovailo." Yovailo are love songs, sung by young men at wedding parties and other gatherings, as well as during wheat harvests.

In recent years, however, yovailo lyrics have come to include new themes -- such as long roads, long waits, and isolation.

In one song, Akramjon sings mournfully about being stuck in the enclave. "I sit on a rock and wait for you in Sokh," he sings. "It's a faraway place near the mountains. I would move to Tashkent or Jizzah to be closer to you, but I can't leave Sokh behind."
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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