They’re known as the Men Who Complain.
Shams Zarifov and Jurakhon Kabirov, two pensioners from the southern Tajik region of Kulob, have written thousands of letters to local, regional, and state authorities about what they believe to be unlawful conduct by officials or social injustices in their communities.
The men send -- or sometimes personally deliver -- their letters to the office of the country’s president in Dushanbe, to various government agencies locally, and to Tajik media outlets.
“We fight for justice,” says Kabirov, a 66-year-old former farmer from the village of Laghmon.
The topics of their complaints are wide-ranging -- from suspected bribery and other alleged misconduct by government officials to the alleged illegal distribution of land or the suspected misuse of funds allocated to the sick and the poor.
Such crimes are far from unusual in Tajikistan. The country ranks near the bottom (151st) of Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Index of 176 countries. Half of the households surveyed in Tajikistan said they had to pay bribes on a regular basis.
Zarifov and Kabirov are familiar -- though not necessarily welcome -- faces to those working in government agencies in Kulob. Dilovar Akobirzoda, the head of Kulob’s anticorruption agency, says his office alone receives up to 100 letters a year from the two men, and that each letter must be looked into.
“We investigate all complaints by citizens,” Akobirzoda says. “In three instances in recent years, we found violations that had first been pointed out in their letters. As a result, some $5,000 in misappropriated funds were returned to the government budget.”
Not all complaints are resolved so neatly.
Kabirov says his current fight involves farmland that he believes was unlawfully sold by Kulob authorities to build new houses and businesses.
After exhausting all other avenues, Kabirov said he sent his latest letter about the land issue to security services two weeks ago. He’s still waiting for a reply.
Zarifov and Kabirov say they have dedicated their later lives to creating a society free of corruption and lament the fact that the authorities don’t seem to appreciate their efforts.
Ahead of every visit to the region by President Emomali Rahmon, the two gadflies say they are kept in police custody until the president departs.
An officer at Kulob’s police department confirms to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that the men are, indeed, detained -- for “public safety” reasons.
“They have tried many times to disrupt the president’s visit,” the officer said on condition of anonymity. “We temporarily detain them to prevent a potential disruption of public order during the visit.”
It was during one of these presidential detentions that Zarifov and Kabirov first met, some 10 years ago. Neither man knew of their counterpart in complaint just a few kilometers away.
While the two say they have a “shared goal” of fighting for a clean society, they write their letters separately. Kabirov focuses mostly on social injustices in his neighborhood, while Zarifov, of Kulob’s Vose district, says his efforts are often aimed to exposing corruption in all levels of government.
Zarifov, 78, says he penned his first letter to authorities when he worked as a teacher in Vose during the Soviet era. One letter he wrote in the late 1980s – in which he warned the leadership of the ruling Communist Party in Moscow against the dangers of corruption -- landed him a four-year jail sentence. He was later cleared of all charges of acting against the government and released from prison.
Zarifov’s second jail sentence came in 2002. He proudly holds up a yellowed copy of the newspaper in which he published an open letter to Rahmon, accusing the Tajik government of “genocide” over a family planning law that Zarifov believed encouraged women to have fewer children. He was found guilty of insulting the president by calling the law an effort to destroy the nation by peaceful means.
Zarifov escaped imprisonment, however, after doctors diagnosed him with a mental illness. He describes the jail terms as temporary setbacks.
Zarifov has turned one room in his small, one-story house into his own private complaint cave, where he keeps his notebooks, a record of his letters, and copies of Tajikistan’s various laws, as well as two suitcases of archived letters.
For Zarifov and Kabirov, writing letters has become something of a full-time job. And it can get expensive, both in time and money.
“I invest my time talking to people to hear their problems,” Kabirov says. “And I spend money to type and print out the letters because sometimes officials return them, saying my longhand was impossible to read.”
He also said his 1.5-hectare plot of farmland was set ablaze by unknown saboteurs just days before he was set to harvest wheat in 2012, an incident he believes was punishment by local authorities.
The two men say their ultimate goal is to personally meet with President Rahmon and talk to him about the injustices they say they witness in their everyday lives.
“I believe that officials are hiding the truth from the president about the real state of affairs in the country,” Kabirov says.
Zarifov, meanwhile, says he’s determined not to let police get in his way when Rahmon next visits Kulob.
He takes down a plastic bottle of yellow liquid from the top of a cabinet.
“It’s petrol,” Zarifov says. “I’m going to tell the officers that I will pour it on myself and set myself on fire if they don’t let me talk to the president.”
While the men proudly say that people approach them with their problems, Zarifov and Kabirov insist that they “go and check personally if their claims are true before writing letters” on their behalf.
And in an authoritarian country where few dare to criticize the government, the two men are often accused of receiving money from people in return for delivering these messages to officials.
Kabirov, however, says nothing could be further from the truth.
“The only reward we get is the satisfaction of doing something good for our people and country,” he says.
“If I had money, would I be living here?” he says, pointing to his dilapidated house. “I’ve never ever written one single letter to complain about my own situation.”
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service correspondents Mumin Ahmadi and Mahmudjon Rahmatzoda