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Tajikistan's Civil War: A Nightmare The Government Won't Let Its People Forget

President Emomali Rahmon (center) has been leader of the country since the early days of the 1992-97 civil war.
President Emomali Rahmon (center) has been leader of the country since the early days of the 1992-97 civil war.

Tajikistan is marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Tajik peace accord on June 27.

Today Tajikistan has become practically a family-run business.

President Emomali Rahmon has been leader of the country since the early days of the 1992-97 civil war.

In the years since the war ended, Rahmon has gradually rid the government and the country of political opponents and his now-adult children are increasingly taking prominent state posts.

Independent media has been battered and is now barely surviving.

Corruption is rampant, the country remains poor, and hundreds of thousands of Tajikistan's citizens work as migrant laborers in Russia due to the lack of employment at home.

Some believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and many observers ask how Tajikistan's people can tolerate the excesses of the elite and remain relatively silent.

The answer is the civil war.

A generation has grown up since the war ended. They know only stories, but the people who lived through it remember it so well that most would endure anything their government does if it would mean Tajikistan would not fall again into civil war.

So let's remember, for a moment, how bad Tajikistan's civil war was.

Knowledgeable authors have written about how the war started as a result of rival demonstrations in Dushanbe in spring 1992; of how an unlikely coalition of democratic, Islamic, and local ethnic groups formed the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), the government's battlefield enemy; and of the chaotic first months of the war that saw the boss of a state-run farm, Rahmon, propelled into a position of leadership with the support of pro-government, paramilitary chiefs.

Battles were fought in places few had ever heard of before -- villages and towns such as Komsomolabad, Garm, and Tavil-Dara in the mountains east of Dushanbe were the scenes of almost constant fighting.

Casualties were appalling for a country that at the time had a population of less than 6 million people. It wasn't uncommon for hundreds of fighters, mainly government troops, to be killed within just a week or two of outbreaks of fighting.

Cease-fires were continually reached by representatives far from the battlefield but rarely were observed for even 24 hours by the combatants. Only agreements to exchange the bodies of the dead stopped the fighting for any significant amount of time, and even then only in one or two places.

And this went on, over and over, for five years.

Somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of the population was displaced at any given time during the war.

Western neighbor Uzbekistan closed its border to Tajikistan's refugees, and northern neighbor Kyrgyzstan agreed only to allow refugees to transit its territory. Tens of thousands of Tajikistan's citizens, and many armed UTO fighters, chose to flee across the border into Afghanistan, where there was also a civil war.

Pro-government forces were bolstered by the presence of Russian border guards and the Russian 201st Division that remained in Tajikistan after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in late 1991.

Russian border guards were often involved in firefights with UTO forces trying to reenter Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Moscow continually denied that the troops from the 201st were involved in fighting in Tajikistan -- but air strikes on UTO positions, in particular, could not have been carried out by anyone else but Russian forces.

Uzbekistan sent troops and later Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan sent units also. Along with elements of Russian forces already there, they became the CIS Peacekeeping Force.

The UTO made no distinction between them and Tajik government forces. Not only did UTO forces attack these peacekeeping units (17 Kazakh troops were killed in one battle near the Afghan border) but the UTO also launched a campaign of terrorism against them, shooting them at bazaars away from the battlefield or blowing up their vehicles in towns and cities, including Dushanbe.

Pro-government forces were no better, especially the paramilitary forces known as the Popular Front. Their leaders behaved like warlords.

The city of Tursunzade, west of Dushanbe, where the largest aluminum plant in Central Asia is located, was the scene of numerous turf wars until eventually the young commander of the Tajik Army's 1st Brigade, Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, took control there.

Khudaiberdiev's unit was the best-armed and trained in Tajikistan's military and, far from bringing Tursunzade under government control, Khudaiberdiev used the city twice as a staging area to advance on Dushanbe while making demands for changes in the government.

The government's position was so weak that Rahmon had little choice but to concede to these demands, and eventually make Khudaiberdiev commander of the Presidential Guard.

Other units of the Tajik Army were equally undisciplined at times. In December 1996, two teams of UN military observers traveling to Garm were stopped at a government checkpoint. Troops there physically and verbally abused them, marched them into a field, formed them in a line, and staged a mock execution in which they fired above the UN observers' heads.

There were other groups such as the Sadirov brothers' gang. To secure safe passage for his brother and other members of the bandit group from Afghanistan to Tajikistan in February 1997, Bahrom Sadirov took UN and Red Cross workers, Russian journalists, and later Security Minister Saidimir Zuhurov hostage.

Again, the government could little but comply, though in the end the hostages were freed and, amazingly, government and UTO forces combined to attack the Sadirov band.

Noncombatants were targeted regularly. Chief Mufti Fatkhullo Sharifzoda and his family were shot dead in January 1996; the rector of Dushanbe's medical school, 65-year-old Yusuf Ishaki, was gunned down in May 1996; more than 40 journalists were killed during the civil war, many by assassins' bullets.

The people also suffered from the problems that accompany conflicts.

There were food shortages. In the northern Sughd region, Tajikistan's section of the Ferghana Valley, there was relative calm compared to the rest of the country, but lack of sufficient food led to demonstrations in Ura-Tyube and Khujand in May 1996. During rioting that erupted in Ura-Tyube, government troops opened fire on a crowd killing several people.

At the end of July that year, another riot broke out hundreds of kilometers away in Khorog, where refugees from fighting in central Tajikistan had taxed the supplies of basic goods. Three people were killed in a riot there.

There were typhoid outbreaks, made all the worse due to the near collapse of the country's medical system.

Even after the signing of the peace accord there were incidents of violence, but gradually things settled down and they became the exception rather than the norm.

The majority of Tajikistan's people remember this and much more. The conflict drained the nation and its scars are still visible 20 years later in many forms.

And if anyone has forgotten, the government makes sure to remind them by frequently referring to the horrors of the civil war, especially prior to elections, and asking if the people want the government they have now or want to risk returning to civil war.

Author's note: This is the first report on Tajikistan's civil war in Qishloq Ovozi. Another article on the peace negotiations during the civil war is coming soon and this week's Majlis Podcast will also look at Tajikistan since the civil war.

Salimjon Aioub (@Aioubzod) of RFE/RL's contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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