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Heartbreak And Sorrow: Remote Tajik Region In Mourning After Bloody State Crackdown

"It was impossible to identify him -- his whole body had been burned. They treated him like an animal."
"It was impossible to identify him -- his whole body had been burned. They treated him like an animal."

KHORUGH, Tajikistan -- With tears in his eyes, Akbarsho Muborakshoev hangs a photo of his brother, Nekqadam, in the house he was building.

"[He had] returned from Russia four months ago and started building a house next to mine," Muborakshoev told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "His three children work in Russia and were sending him money."

He said his 57-year-old brother went to the bank in his village of Derushon in Tajikistan's remote Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region on May 18 to collect a money transfer from his daughter.

"But his corpse was returned to us," he said. "It was impossible to identify him -- his whole body had been burned. They treated him like an animal."

Nekqadam was one of dozens of people reportedly killed by Tajik security forces at a protest on May 18 in which demonstrators blocked a road leading to the provincial capital, Khorugh.

Relatives Of Victims Of Tajik Police Crackdown Still Waiting For Answers
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After carrying out a violent crackdown on protesters in Khorugh on May 16, the government sent additional forces there. The following day, a group of residents from the Rushan district blocked their path on the only road that connects the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to mountainous Badakhshan.

The residents of Rushan who came out in protest said they wanted to block the soldiers to prevent further bloodshed in Khorugh.

But the next day, the authorities announced that "armed criminal groups" had killed a police officer and wounded 13 others in the district. This was the basis for the security forces to conduct what it called a counterterrorist operation.

According to the Interdepartmental Headquarters for Security and Public Order in Gorno-Badakhshan, "16 people were killed and more than 200 were detained" during the operations it carried out in Khorugh and Rushan.

But independent sources report that more than 30 people were killed and some 300 were detained, with claims of some people being abused or tortured. Others have reported more than 50 killed and some 500 detained.

'The Bodies Were Unrecognizable'

Many of the relatives of those killed told RFE/RL that "they were not guilty of anything," rejecting claims by officials who said they had "neutralized" those who "had weapons and opened fire on the military convoy."

Akbarsho Muborakshoev insists his brother did not have a weapon. He "did not even ever carry a knife with him.

He said his brother's house is now where he goes to sit and cry alone in grief.

Many relatives of those killed are still in a state of shock and refuse to speak with journalists about the events in May that led to the death of their loved ones. And although they are outraged by what happened, they say filing an official complaint or going the Prosecutor-General's Office is futile.

Several people told RFE/RL that complaining would not lead to justice but rather would "create problems for them."

Shodi Zevarshoev, another resident of Derushon, lost his 22-year-old son, Tojiddin Hussainiev, who was killed on May 18. But he does not know under what circumstances he died.

"Why complain? What will you prove? I don't know what happened there. This is the fate of my son," he said.

'There Was No Other Way Out'

A 45-year-old resident of the village of Vamar, who did not wish to be named, told RFE/RL that these events show that the government does not negotiate with its people and does not listen to them. "People are very depressed," he said. "Through a peaceful action, they wanted the military not to go to Khorugh and shed blood. Everyone is disappointed in the government."

After more than a month since the events in Rushan, most of the locals agree and condemn the government for the operation that led to so many civilian deaths.

But among them are some who hold a different opinion. Iskandar Aydarov, a retired teacher from the village of Pastkhuf in the Rushan region, said he witnessed the negotiations between officials and the protesters blocking the road.

"They blocked an internationally important road and did not listen to anyone," he said. "Neither the chairman nor his deputy. If they hadn't blocked the road, none of this would have happened. 'We will stand our ground, we will not leave the road,'" he says they declared.

What Happened On May 17?

A young man who helped to block the road on May 17 told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that "on the evening of May 16, residents reported the movement of a military convoy from the Darvaz region" toward Khorugh, where the previous day, a demonstration in the provincial capital ended in bloodshed when a man named Zamir Nazrishoev was killed by police. The authorities claimed he "threw a grenade at police, as a result of which three were injured and Nazrishoev was killed as the police counterattacked."

This round of protests in Gorno-Badakhshan started on May 14, when demonstrators demanded the resignation of the region's chairman and the mayor of Khorugh; a fair investigation into the events of November 2021, when a protester was killed; and the release of demonstrators who had been detained.

They threatened to resume their protest if the authorities did agree to their demands by 4 p.m. on May 16.

What's Behind The Continuing Violence In Gorno-Badakhshan?
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After the regional authorities refused to consider the resignation of the officials and declared the other demands to be illegal, a large group of young people went to the regional administration in Khorugh on May 17.

They were met by Tajik law enforcement officers near the village of Chinak who used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them.

"At night we called everyone we knew. We wanted to gather people at the Vamara Bridge to block the road for military equipment and prevent bloodshed in Khorugh," said a resident of Vamar who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We arrived at 7 a.m. and the chairman of the district and [war] veterans came and spoke to us. We asked for guarantees that there would be no military operation in Khorugh in exchange for our dispersal. But no one would give us such a guarantee."

He added that he was with the protesters until noon on May 17 and that none of them had weapons except for "a few sticks held by two or three young people."

The government said on May 17 that an armed group had attacked the military convoy.

Were The Protesters Armed?

A Vamar resident told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that he saw the demonstrators gather and that he "saw two young people with a hunting rifle and I asked them to go and leave their weapon [in my shop]. I don't know if the gun was loaded but I didn't see any other weapons."

He added that everyone was quite surprised when state TV showed a huge arsenal of weapons and ammunition that it alleged were being kept by the protesters. "Where could they all have come from?" he asked.

Since the deadly events last month, life in the area seems to be slowly returning to normal, though residents live with apprehension.

In the center of Vamar a young man who had returned from Russia two days before the deadly events said that Tajik labor migrants in Russia had collected money for dozens of disabled children in the Rushan district that he was going to distribute.

"Now I'm afraid to hand out the money," he said. "I fear that I will be arrested for bringing money from abroad. They came and searched our house. They asked me where I had come from. My friends who did not participate in the protests but were in Vamar that day were fined for 'disturbing the peace.'" He added that some 20 others that he knows were arrested and five villagers were killed.

'Our City Was Left Without Men'

After the deadly violence in Rushan, the military column moved toward Khorugh. Residents say there were a lot of soldiers in the city those days.

On May 22, one of the informal leaders of Khorugh, Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, was killed in mysterious circumstances. After his death, several members of Commission 44, a civic group formed to investigate the November events, were detained.

Along with that, retired army Colonels Tolib Ayombekov, Niyozsho Gulobov, and Munavyar Shanbiyeva were arrested, while informal leaders Zoir Rajabov and Khursand Mazorov were killed.

It means a total of about 12 influential leaders in the region were either detained or killed.

Gulanor, a resident of the Roshtkala district, told RFE/RL that "our city was left without men."

By June 16, a long convoy of military personnel had finally left the region and there were no longer any military personnel on the streets of the capital or in other places where they had been omnipresent.

But some residents told RFE/RL that despite the drawdown of security forces, people were still getting summoned by police for interrogation and that detentions continued.

So while some things are returning to normal in the region, tensions are still high. And the pain in the hearts of the people whose loved ones have been killed has not healed.

Written in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service in Gorno-Badakhshan

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