Communities Struggle to Overcome Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Tensions

By Nargiza Ryskulova - Central Asia
RCA Issue 731,
3 Apr 14

Low-level tensions that sometimes escalate into more serious conflicts over disputed areas on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are gradually eroding trust between the communities living on either side.

This growing alienation among people who once enjoyed good neighbourly relations was all too apparent during my recent trip to the southern Batken region.

The Kyrgyz government closed its borders with Tajikistan following a January border clash which led to fatalities on both sides.(See Kyrgyz-Tajik Row After Border Clash.)

The dispute centred on the route of a bypass road that will enable residents of Batken region to avoid having to drive through Vorukh, an enclave of Tajikistan wholly enclosed by Kyrgyz territory. The Tajiks do not want the road to go through what they say is a disputed area of land. The Kyrgyz authorities insist this is not the case, but talks between the two parties have so far proved unsuccessful.

Communities are closely intertwined in this densely populated area of the Ferghana valley. During the Soviet era, they all shared the same roads, electricity supply and water sources.

But in the early 1990s, they found themselves citizens of separate sovereign countries.

Maseittin Jeri, a Kyrgyz village consisting of just 17 low-rise brick houses, sits right on the border of the Tajik enclave. It is not far from the village of Ak-Sai, which was at the centre of the recent border tensions, and its residents are in the same predicament – they can only reach the main regional town 45 kilometres away by passing through Tajik territory. Their village is surrounded by Tajik lands on three sides.

The only source of drinking water, a stream, runs between two villages some ten metres inside Tajik territory, so every time the locals fetch water they are effectively crossing a national border. The same happens when children from Maseittin Jeri go to school as they have to pass through Tajikistan on their three-kilometre journey.

Until a year ago, Kyrgyz and Tajik neighbours here were on friendly terms, inviting each other to weddings and other festivities. But an incident in April 2013 seemed to mark a turning-point for relations. The bypass issue was again at the heart of the stand-off, with a group of Vorukh residents trying to stop Kyrgyz construction workers. The ensuing confrontation resulted in Tajiks from passing cars being taken hostage by Kyrgyz, and in retaliation some houses in Maseittin Jeri were set on fire. Several locals on the Kyrgyz side and two Tajik policemen were injured. (See Tajiks, Kyrgyz Grapple With Frontier Issues.)

The atmosphere remains tense but it is difficult to avoid encounters when people need to use the same source of water and share the same roads.

Following these two major incidents – in April last year and again this January – locals on the Kyrgyz side of the border are increasingly calling for their government to speed up the demarcation of boundary lines so as to prevent further conflict.

The house of Karim Saparov, a resident of Maseittin Jeri now in his early seventies, is the last one in the village, right on the border with Vorukh. It was one of three that were set on fire during last year’s clashes. The local authorities later helped to restore Saparov’s house, and after the trouble this January, they sent a policeman to guard it during the day.

Saparov understands that things are different now, but he cannot help feeling nostalgic about Soviet times. He told IWPR about how he and his friend from a neighbouring Tajik village served together in the army.

“We served together in 1968,” Karim said, referring to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Since last year’s incident they have tried to avoid each other, but not because they hold a grudge – it just feels awkward. Saparov said it was difficult to behave as they used to in public, as they are afraid their respective neighbours might condemn them for being friendly to the other side.

“But if no one is around, we always greet each other and ask how things are,” Karim said.

The closure of the border has also hit locals trying to visit relatives on the other side of the boundary. There are Tajiks within Kyrgyz territory and vice versa in this area.

Another resident of Maseittin Jeri, Iradia Bostonova, told IWPR about her relatives living in Isfara, a nearby district of Tajikistan proper.

“As the border is shut, we cannot contact or see them. We would want to go there if someone fell sick or died, or if they wanted to invite us for a wedding,” she said.

Jenish Razzakov, the governor of Batken region said the presence of a substantial Tajik minority was another reason to maintain good relations between the two communities. He noted that there were 25,000 ethnic Tajiks living in the Batken region, and warned of border tensions spilling over into the wider community.

“If conflicts on the border increase, there is a possibility of conflict in the region itself, among its people,” Razzakov said.

From Maseittin Jeri, I travelled some 12 kilometres by car to Kok-Tash, a settlement where Kyrgyz and Tajiks live alongside each other.

The central street in Kok-Tash marks the border between the two states, and I headed there to visit a checkpoint manned by Kyrgyz border guards. The Tajik checkpoint lies some way away.

A Kyrgyz border guard told me about the joint patrols that had been introduced after border talks between Kyrgyz and Tajik officials following the January flare-up. He said that twice a day, the Kyrgyz forces patrol Kok-Tash and the surrounding areas on their own, and twice on a joint tour with their Tajik colleagues. They maintain constant communication with each other by mobile phone.

Kok-Tash resident Saliha Egemberdieva invited me into her house, and when I said I would like to talk to Tajiks, too, she offered to call over Umedjan, a Tajik whose family live just across the road.

Egemberdieva, a Russian-language teacher who also speaks fluent Tajik, told me that neighbours try to maintain cordial relations despite the tensions.

Umedjan’s wife is a nurse who comes over if someone in Egemberdieva’s family falls ill. In return, she offers them milk. Umedjan himself says he does his shopping in Kyrgyz stores.

Egemberdieva does not want to see this community spirit disappear.

“If they mark out the border and put up barbed wire between the houses, it will become complicated for all of us,” she added.

“When there are shootouts or confrontations, both Kyrgyz and Tajiks leave the area to stay away with relatives, and then return,” said Umedjan.

Umedjan does not speak Kyrgyz but understands the language, while his daughter Ramila has picked up some phrases while playing with neighbourhood children.

The linguistic gap means that communication is sometimes hard, and Egemderbieva regrets the fading role of Russian as a lingua franca for communities here.

“In the past everyone spoke Russian,” she said, adding that brawls were often caused by misunderstandings between young people, few of whom speak Russian.

The way things stand now on the border, it seems that unlike Saparov and his old Tajik army comrade, a whole generation of Tajiks and Kyrgyz might grow up without enjoying friendships or celebrating a shared past.

Nargiza Ryskulova is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.