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In the former Soviet Union -
Tajikistan, like many other recently independent states, is one of the lost nations of our world.

Nathan Rabe in Tajikistan
There are two things that could kill you in Tajikistan these days. The first is a massive earthquake. Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics with a population of six million, is the place where four major mountain ranges meet as the Indian subcontinent inexorably crushes and grinds northwards into Europe. You feel the earth tremor here almost every week: sometimes just a low quiver; at others a quick chiropractic snap that rattles your windows and creaks the walls.
Tajik Woman

The second way you can be deprived of your life is to be slammed by a vehicle with tinted windows (could be a Jeep Cherokee, could be a tiny Lada 1500) whizzing dangerously through the shaded intersections of Rudaki Avenue, equally scornful of traffic signals and pedestrians as of the sour-faced militia that hang thick as bats along the main drags of the capital, Dushanbe. Not too long ago the odds on being kidnapped and then murdered, or shot in the crossfire of street fights were definitely better than the first two scenarios.

So, on the face of it, things have improved in Tajikistan. Gangsters may be bad drivers but at least snipers aren't drawing a bead on you when you go shopping. Tajikistanıs society fell apart the same moment the Soviet Union declared itself null and void. Seventy years of communist wall papering had done nothing but thinly cover the rifts that had been cracking across the landscape for centuries. Northerners, long the Œblessed onesı of the political system began to squabble with uppity, uncouth Southerners. Democrats from Dushanbe and Islamicists from the isolated, honey producing Karategin valley joined forces against Communist party hacks. Ethnic Uzbeks, Russians and Germans were attacked, harassed and forced to quit the country. Fighting broke out in the streets of Dushanbe and carried on for five years. Tens of thousands Tajiks fled into Afghanistan (could there be a worse place on earth to seek refuge?) as hundreds of thousands more became refugees within the country.

Tajikistan, like many other recently independent states, is one of the lost nations of our world. Though not yet a failed state, Tajikistan is falling with increasing velocity towards the bottom of the misery stakes. It has always been a poor country and except for a couple of centuries a millennium ago, when Tajiks were the undisputed rulers of this part of the world, holding the northern borders of the first Islamic Persian empire, the Tajik people have always been lesser partners in the power arrangements of Central Asia. The fabled cities of Bukhara (ascetic and spare), and Samarkand (opulent and gregarious), are their proudest contribution to world civilization. But with the gradual loss of the northern realms to Turkic tribes the Tajiks were unequivocally usurped and subjugated to a life of cultural domination and political irrelevance. Until, that is, 1924, when the new Soviet state carved out a Tajik Autonomous Region. For the first time the Tajiks began to imagine themselves as a distinct national group. The Tajiksı feelings toward the Soviet Union were, not unnaturally, largely positive. They were grateful for bringing them into the world. And being part of a sprawling powerful Union gave the tiny land-locked country much greater security and prosperity than it would have been able to acquire on its own. If there was any doubt about what their fate could have been without the Soviet Union, one only has to glance south of the border to the basket case called Afghanistan. Ten years ago, when Tajikistan followed the general trend and declared its independence the occasion was a a cheerless event. Those once fond feelings have given way to bitterness and regret. The civil war that broke out almost immediately achieved little of positive consequence. The industry, farms and orchards of the most dependent economy of the former Soviet Union (40% of the budget had come in direct subsidy from Moscow) fell into utter neglect and disrepair. Nothing was produced and very little grown. Factories stood as empty as the revolutionary slogans that had suddenly fallen out of vogue. Bazaars were deserted. Restaurants beyond imagination. Since an UN-brokered peace settlement four years ago Tajikistan has struggled to find its way in the big bad frightening world marketplace. It will be years before the people of this country enjoy the standard of living they had as Soviets when time extended securely into the future and holidays in Georgia were assured.

Ten years after independence there remains little warm feeling for the capitalist, free market and democratic jargon their leaders mouth each day in the smudgy, thin, state controlled newspapers. Hunger and poverty are growing in Tajikistan. The World Bank estimates that 96% of the people live on less than $28 a month. More than a third live on less than $5. Forty one percent of children under five years of age are seriously malnourished and weigh less than children their age in all except the poorest countries. Basic buying power is the issue in this country. Most Tajiks donıt have any. There is no work and what is available pays a paltry sum. Many agriculture workers working the old state and collective cotton farms have not seen a wage for three years. In most households outside of the capital (and increasingly here as well) the dayıs meal is a loaf of round naan bread and tea. Russians, once the prime beneficiaries of the system, but now among the poorest, have taken to stewing dogs in some urban centers. Poverty can be measured in any number of ways. But if you calculate the degree to which a peopleıs standard of living has fallen (evaporated nearly overnight) then the collapse of most of the Soviet-dependent societies has produced one of the cruelest forms of privation. Recently I visited the home of deaf pensioner who receives a small donation of American wheat flour and vegetable oil. The effects of a stroke twist his face. His flat, on the first floor of a concrete tower on the outskirts of Dushanbe, is shabby and dark. His trousers are pinned together and his shirt collar is worn; old spectacles off kilter. "I used to be a highly skilled type setter at a publishing house. Now all I can do is cry." As I left the building I recalled what one man said to me when I asked him what he thought of the new world order. "The Russians used to say ŒWeıll screw you but then weıll feed you.ı Nowadays we just get screwed."

© Nathan Rabe May 2003

Nathan Rabe is a writer, novelist and senior organiser 'out in the field' for the Red Cross

Sometimes I lay awake and Wonder

Read Nathan Rabe's wonderful photographic journal about Pakistan
Black Taj Press
Chicago, Melbourne - Australia.

Nathan Rabe is a writer, novelist and senior organiser 'out in the field' for the Red Cross
GBP 45.00
Available direct from the author

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