On the first day of 2019, 42-year-old Turahon Nurmatov was out in the pastureland of southwestern Tajikistan, tending a local family's flock. Nurmatov never brought the animals back that day.
Armed men from nearby Afghanistan had appeared and taken Nurmatov back across the border with them. Nurmatov’s abductors want an astronomical sum -- $40,000 -- for his release.
While Nurmatov might be Afghan drug traffickers' latest hostage, he is far from their first and extremely unlikely to be their last. Such hostage-taking has been going on for two decades, despite the help that Tajikistan has received over the years to improve border security.
Nurmatov’s case seems even more unfortunate than most. He is simply employed by the Kurbanov family as a shepherd, and the Afghan drug smugglers apparently came looking for a Kurbanov family member when they showed up at the village of Sari Chashma, some 10 kilometers from the Afghan border.
The hostage-takers possibly intended to abduct Saymuddin Kurbanov. His uncle, Abdughaffor Kurbanov, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that the kidnappers phoned him from Afghanistan several times and said Saymuddin owed them $40,000 for narcotics they had passed on to him. They told him to pay the money and the shepherd would go free.
However, Saymuddin Kurbanov was convicted of drug smuggling in 2015 and is serving a 17-year prison term.
Nurmatov is more unfortunate than he probably knows. Abdughaffor Kurbanov told Ozodi that the Afghans came to him first.
“They were curious what I was doing in the pasture. I told them I lost my cow. I gave them a different name, so they did not know the flock belonged to me,” he said, adding, “After a while, they took the shepherd away with them.”
Abdughaffor Kurbanov gave the kidnappers’ phone number to Ozodi and, amazingly, someone answered and acknowledged he was holding the shepherd. The man on the phone did not give his name, saying that Nurmatov was not going hungry.
“I well understand the herd does not belong to him,” the voice said.
The kidnapper had his own hard-luck story.
“Those narcotics belonged to another person, who recently took away my house and my wife. The government of Afghanistan didn’t help me, so I decided to take someone hostage, too. I don’t have any other way,” he said.
After Nurmatov was abducted, Tajik law enforcement reportedly scoured the area but couldn’t find the shepherd. Moreover, during the search, one border guard was accidentally shot dead by another border guard. Nurmatov’s captor claimed to have moved to the Shahri Buzurg area in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province.
The head of the police force in the Kulob region, Bahodur Vahhobzoda, told Ozodi that a rescue operation was not currently feasible.
So, the tragic abduction of Tajik citizens by Afghan drug smugglers continues.
In July 2001, I wrote about Afghan narcotics smugglers taking away livestock and sometimes family members in bids for payments for drugs they had often forced someone in Tajikistan to take and carry farther on the way toward a desired destination. That happened in Shuroabad, not far from Sari Chashma.
At the end of September 2005, then-deputy border-guard chief Nuralisho Nazarov said 28 Tajik citizens were being held captive by drug smugglers in Afghanistan. Tajik Interior Ministry troops and border guards occasionally launched cross-border raids and freed captives.
And during these years, Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Belarus, China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the United States, NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, and others have all provided financial and material support to help Tajikistan secure its border with Afghanistan.
But Afghan drug smugglers are still able to cross the border and travel several kilometers inside Tajikistan and seize livestock and villagers.