Stuck in Afghanistan, Kyrgyz nomads dream of returning home
Kyrgyz families travel on yaks on October 7, 2017 in the Wakhan corridor in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan
When they were grazing their animals in the Pamir mountains, the ancient Kyrgyz nomads would never have thought they would ever be stuck in a corridor, fighting for their survival in an icy hell in Afghanistan.
For centuries, these groups of itinerant herders roamed freely in Central and South Asia, leading their herds between crystalline rivers and snow-capped mountains. Then geopolitics intermingled: borders were drawn in the nineteenth century, which East-West rivalry locked in the great upheavals of the twentieth.
Formerly free as air, these nomads and their descendants – now numbering a thousand today – found themselves trapped in the “Wakhan corridor”, a 350 km long territory with a hostile climate forming the northeastern extremity of Afghanistan, sandwiched between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.
The place can hardly be more inhospitable: 10,000 km2 of peaks and valleys, at 4,000 meters altitude, where crops are impossible, the temperatures being too cold 300 days a year, often negative.
A Kyrgyz child in front of a yurt in the Wakhan Corridor, October 8, 2017, in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan
“We are accidental Afghans,” says Jo Boi, a local chef, sickly under his warm clothes, who says he does not know his age. “We did not choose this land, but we have nowhere else to go.”
Some 1,100 Kyrgyz, according to the Afghan government, survive rather than live on one side of Bam-e-Dunya, nicknamed “the roof of the world”. Wakhi, another ethnic group, populate the other side of the massif.
The nearest town, Ishkashim, is three days horse or yak. Some steep paths are as narrow as they are dizzying. The slightest difference can be fatal.
No government agency ventures into the Wakhan. No more NGOs are present. Kyrgyz people have only one school and no health center. The slightest cold, if it degenerates, represents a major risk.
Wakhi men smoke opium using a traditional pipe under the yurt on October 8, 2017 in the Wakhan corridor in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan
“It’s normal for mothers here to lose three, four or five children,” says Tilo, a shepherd who has only one name. And this strong man with a chiselled face adds: “Here, death is more common than birth.”
– ‘Precipice’ –
One in three women die from post-natal complications and a majority of children do not reach the age of five, says Jeff Walkes, director of Crosslink Development International, a Bishkek-based NGO in Kyrgyzstan that tries to help the castaways of Wakhan.
“As the world advances in terms of education and care, the Kirghizes of Wakhan are forgotten,” he said. “They live above a precipice.”
A herd of yak graze in the Wakhan Corridor on October 8, 2017 in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan
The Wakhan Corridor, at the confluence of three very high mountain ranges at the westernmost point of the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir, is one of the culminations of the “Big Game”, which lives on Russian and British empires compete in the nineteenth century in Central Asia with local conflicts, diplomatic maneuvers and espionage.
This very narrow earthen arm – 60 km wide at most – was to serve as a buffer zone separating the two great powers.
For centuries, Kyrgyz people only came to Wakhan during the summer, says Kate Clark of the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN). They spent their winters in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Chinese Xinjiang, where temperatures are less harsh.
“After the communist revolutions of 1917 (Russia) and 1949 (China), many fled to the Wakhan, preferring numbing cold to forced collectivization,” she says. Then they realized their mistake and kept trying to fix it.
In 1978, after a communist coup in Kabul, the Kyrgyz people, led by their leader Haji Rehman Qul, crossed the Irshad Pass, at over 5,400 meters above sea level, to go to Pakistan, south of the corridor. . But hundreds of them perished there after drinking contaminated water. Desperate, the survivors returned to Wakhan.
– ‘Die young’ –
After this tragic episode, Haji Rehman Qul begged the American government to welcome his family to Alaska, a territory chosen for its yak-friendly climate. In vain.
Turkey later granted asylum to a small group of Kyrgyzs.
But the majority of them remain stranded in the Wakhan corridor.
In Kyrgyzstan, where the fate of the Kyrgyz people of Wakhan is not perceived as an emergency, various decrees and initiatives have been taken over the years to help the return of some 22,000 Kyrgyz women currently living abroad, including those in Afghanistan.
But few of those from Wakhan benefited.
“The Kyrgyz government has finally started repatriation, and some families have left this year,” said Jo Boi.
The Kyrgyz Embassy in Kabul, however, denies the existence of such a policy, noting that “ethnic Kyrgyz people (from Wakhan) are Afghan citizens” and that the Kyrgyz government is limited to sending them every year humanitarian.
The few people who were able to leave for Kyrgyzstan did so for educational reasons, his business manager Uchkun Eraliev told AFP.
The shepherds of the corridor therefore remain in transit, in spite of themselves.
“Who would like to live here?” Asks Tilo, who also dreams of Kyrgyzstan.
In a bitter smile, he adds: “We have no other choice, here we never live old, we die young.”