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Lawlessness Reigns In Tajik-Afghan Border Region

Tajik security troops in the Shuroobod district, which borders Aghanistan (file photo)
Tajik security troops in the Shuroobod district, which borders Aghanistan (file photo)
Every stranger is treated with suspicion in Dashti Jum these days.

It flies in the face of Tajik tradition, but residents of this southern village along the border with Afghanistan feel their caution is justified. Dashti Jum is one of a handful of communities in the district of Shuroobod with a well-deserved reputation for lawlessness.

The sound of gunfire -- rumored to be between border guards and drug smugglers encroaching from Afghanistan -- surprises no one. Young men are employed as drug mules, often landing them in prison, and abductions of local residents and livestock thefts by smugglers are frequent occurrences.

Officials claim some residents collaborate with Afghan drug dealers and they call on villagers to cooperate with authorities to restore law and order.

But villagers blame authorities for doing too little to exert control in the region.

"No one would cross the border if it were properly watched," says Nazokat, a local housewife who provides only her first name. "Policing the border is the state authorities' responsibility. They should put sufficient number of troops there."

Colonel Qadamsho Khushqadamov, who heads border troops serving under the State Committee for National Security in the district, declines to provide figures but insists that an "adequate number of border guards are deployed in the area."

The military is also involved, with new barracks recently erected in Shuroobod to house troops to be used in case of emergency, Khushqadamov explains. District police are stationed at a central headquarters, with some villages equipped with small police posts.

But despite their numbers, the odds are stacked against law and order.

Stolen Humans, Livestock, And Walnuts

Located along a 150-kilometer stretch defined by the Panj River, the district of Shuroobod is among the most porous sections of Tajikistan's 1,344-kilometer frontier with Afghanistan. Its mountainous terrain and proximity to Afghanistan make it uniquely suitable as a drug route, with many remote roads neglected since the Soviet era, making them inaccessible to all but the most determined.

Colonel Khushqadamov admits that his forces lack a crucial tool in the effort to keep watch on the border: a helicopter.

Davlat Safarov, a retired border guard from the village of Qavoq, says the area has become a virtual no-man's land over the past two decades.

"It feels like about 12 villages here are under Afghan [drug dealers'] control," Safarov says. "They kidnap people, steal livestock -- they even stole our neighbor's walnuts."

Bloody history: The bodies of five drug smugglers are returned to Afghanistan after a clash between Russian soldiers guarding Tajikistans border with Afghanistan in 2004.
Bloody history: The bodies of five drug smugglers are returned to Afghanistan after a clash between Russian soldiers guarding Tajikistans border with Afghanistan in 2004.

There are no reliable kidnapping statistics, but at least five cases have been documented this year. One involved the disappearance of a young woman whose family received a telephone call from an Afghan number informing them that she had been made a bride and would not be returning home. Local authorities have reported securing the release of four men kidnapped in separate incidents by armed groups of men who entered from Afghanistan.

In May, around 80 cows from a state-owned farm were stolen, according to district prosecutor Ghiyosiddin Umarov.

Desperate Measures

Pervasive kidnappings prompted residents of the village of Qavoq to take matters into their own hands by expelling a 72-year-old man from the village in the belief that his sons were linked to drug smugglers.

"That's not the way to tackle the problem," says Askarsho Navruzov, district chief of the State Committee for National Security.

He says community involvement is key helping establish law and order. "We have hot lines in each village for people who want to cooperate with authorities in this fight, to anonymously pass information," he says.

He says Tajik officials believe that some locals collaborate with narcotic smugglers, adding that authorities look for such connections when investigating kidnappings. As a preventive measure, he says, officials meet with local residents to explain the dangers of the getting involved in the drug trade. In addition, a reward of 1000 somonis (roughly $210) has been offered for locals who provide useful information about drug smugglers.

Dozens of residents of border areas have been imprisoned in recent years for illegally crossing the border to Afghanistan and smuggling narcotics back to Tajikistan.

Husnigul Qurbonova, a housewife from Qavoq, is among those who are open about the problem. She says her three brothers are currently serving prison sentences after being detained with drugs.

"Every family in Qavoq has at least one or two relative serving time in prison for assisting drug dealers," Qurbonova says.

Complex Problem

Retired border guard Safarov agrees that kidnappings and drug smuggling are "very much connected, and should be dealt with together."

But he also suggests that poverty and a lack of jobs in the impoverished region have made many villagers easy targets for Afghan drug smugglers seeking to recruit couriers.

"This problem initially begun during the Tajik civil war [in the1990s] when nobody was paying attention," Safarov says. "Drug smugglers use secret pathways, they come in donkeys through minefields. Some locals know that very well. If they had cooperated with authorities and passed the information, this problem would have been resolved quite easily."

"But people are afraid," Safarov says. "On one hand, they are being kidnapped by drug dealers; on the other hand, the authorities treat them with suspicion. There is no trust."

RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Abdumumin Sherkhonov contributed to this report
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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.

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