The Pamiris are forced to leave Tajikistan

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London (07/11 – 71)

For ten years now, the authorities of Tajikistan have been engaged in forced assimilation of the ethnic Pamiri people, giving away the heartlands to China for debts,” Orzu M. shared with RFI – Radio France Internationale is a French news and current affairs public radio station that broadcasts worldwide.

RFI met with Orzu in Paris, sharing the fact that more and more Pamiris are leaving their native homes in Gorno-Badakhshan Mountainous Autonomous (GBAO) Region of Tajikistan; they are driven into exile by the persecution of the authorities, who are displacing indigenous peoples.

The Tajik government continues its repression against the Pamir minority group as part of Dushanbe’s efforts to quell the opposition to the ruling government in Tajikistan. The repressive actions included forced extradition, arbitrary arrest and harsh verdict to alleged Pamiri activists.

RFI: How did it come about that you, a defender of the rights of the Pamiri peoples, ended up in Paris?

Orzu M: I am a Pamiri, and for at least the past ten years, the authorities of Tajikistan have been engaged in the forced assimilation of our people. The Pamiri peoples are a national minority. We have our own language, different from Tajik, with several dialects (Pamiri languages belong to the Iranian linguistic group – RFI). Our religion is also different; Pamiris are Ismailis, which is a branch of Shiite Islam, whereas Tajiks, the titular nation, are Sunni. We practice a more secular form of Islam; women and men can be in the same prayer house. We don’t have mosques; we have Jamaats, where men and women gather, and everyone prays together. Pamiri women often do not wear a headscarf and dress in a more European style.

We have our own culture and traditions. Tajikistan is a multi-ethnic country with Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Russians, and many other people living here, but we have our own autonomous region, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). And, of course, we are a mountainous people, which also creates distinct characteristics in our culture and traditions. There are approximately 200,000 Pamiris in total, but a significant portion of them is already in exile.

RFI: Why is there such strong emigration?

Orzu M: Emigration is indeed significant; villages are becoming empty, entire families are leaving, closing their homes, and fleeing to wherever they can, to Europe, to America. This situation has been ongoing for the past 10 years.

Ninety-three percent of our territory is covered by mountains. We are primarily engaged in livestock farming rather than agriculture, but most of the population is affected by unemployment, which is a significant problem. We have neither factories nor plants. The Aga Khan Foundation (Aga Khan Development Network, a network of private non-denominational development agencies founded by the spiritual leader of the Ismailis – RFI) is involved in the development of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. Aga Khan IV built a university, a hospital, and is involved in cultural and educational programs. In Soviet times, every second person in our region had a higher education. The thing is, we are in a remote high-mountain region, and we have very harsh winter conditions, as well as overall challenging living conditions. The only way to make progress was to study, get an education, and then develop the region.

It turned out that in the last 10 years, we have been leaving Pamir; we are being displaced. The Tajikistan authorities want us to integrate and lose our identity, including our language.

Furthermore, our territories are essentially being handed over to China as a result of Tajikistan’s national debt. For example, the Murghab region, where Pamiri Kyrgyz people live, is rich in natural resources, such as gold, silver, and precious gemstones. It’s a mountainous area, and there are even precious stones. China understands that this is a very rich territory.

RFI: You say that the problems started 10 years ago. What happened at that time?

Orzu M: In 2012, the head of the State Committee for National Security (KNB) in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) was assassinated. He was simply eliminated, and the local people were accused. It was an intra-government dispute related to the criminal business, smuggling, and drug trafficking.

Pamir is a strategic location where the path to China goes, with the border with Afghanistan and the only place that did not submit to the authorities and resisted. The people were free, acted in their own way, and cherished this freedom. In other words, it was autonomy in the true sense. The government felt that they could enrich themselves in the region, and the president’s inner circle chose the events of 2012 as a pretext. That’s when we had a “special operation,” they removed informal leaders who were defending the people.

And this periodically continues to this day, in 2014, in 2018, in 2022. There were several attempts to pacify the people. It didn’t work. There were protests, and even attempts to communicate with the president and the establishment of commissions. In other words, it was such an oasis of democracy in Tajikistan, the only region that truly knew its rights and demanded their respect. And when it so happened that they did manage to suppress us, many people, in order not to submit, leave.      

RFI: How to explain the fact that Tajiks, who themselves are victims of persecution, oppress another minority?

Orzu M: I wouldn’t say that Tajiks oppress the people. Tajiks suffer even more than we do, and they have always suffered. We are the only region that openly and boldly talks about this. Tajiks tend to be more submissive; they are more adaptable. The temperament of the mountain peoples does not allow them to submit. But Tajiks have also always suffered from this regime, and there were events in Rasht, in the Sughd region, in Vahdat.

The authorities have broken the people and subdued them. All the terrible facts – rape, murder – were attributed to the lawlessness of ISIS terrorists. For the Tajik authorities, anyone who opposes them is labeled a terrorist.

RFI: Is Russia’s influence a factor in this?

Orzu M: We, the Pamiris, are a small community, and we all know each other. When the special operation in GBAO began, we realized that the only possibility was to shout, speak, and write. We have always won against the authorities with the information war. But now, the Tajik government has very strong support from Russia.

So-called “special operations,” similar to what Russia conducts in Ukraine, are carried out in our Pamir. It’s all part of the same Soviet playbook that Putin is spreading among authoritarian regimes. Emomali Rahmon, in order to pass power to his son, is creating all the conditions for the destruction of a free society, so that there are no people who can shout, speak, and obstruct his actions.

RFI: How has the war that Russia is conducting in Ukraine affected the situation?

Orzu M: It has made the situation even worse because the regime realized that if Ukraine wins, it will set an example for other nations, and everyone would strive for freedom. As a result, it has tightened its grip. For example, in GBAO, there are hardly any NGOs left; everything is closed.

A significant portion of civil society representatives are in prison. We have around 1,000 political prisoners who had an influence on the youth and held some authority. They were either imprisoned, disappeared without a trace, or emigrated.

RFI: Am I correct in understanding that fleeing to Russia is not possible?

Orzu M: There is no refuge for us in Russia. Many, even those with Russian citizenship, have been extradited to Tajikistan, where they are subjected to torture in prisons.

Russian citizenship is zero; it’s a fiction. There have been cases where people with Russian citizenship had it simply revoked, even though they grew up and lived their whole lives in Russia. The war in Ukraine has frightened our president, and he is afraid that this whole kingdom could disappear. Everything now depends on the outcome of the war, on Ukraine’s victory.

RFI: How does the proximity to Afghanistan affect the situation?

Orzu M: Afghanistan is a trump card for the Tajik authorities in order to promote the issue of terrorism, extremism, the influence of Islamists, and the movement of the Taliban to our borders in Europe. Although, in my opinion, such a threat does not currently exist. Badakhshan was divided by the Russian Empire along the Kokcha River, and now its southern part is in Afghanistan, while the northern part is in Tajikistan. Families were divided, and I still have relatives in Afghanistan. It’s just an opportunity to blackmail and use strong words in Europe, claiming that we are protecting the European Union from Taliban incursions and Islamists.

RFI: But is Islamism a problem in Tajikistan itself?

Orzu M: It’s a problem in Central Asia as a whole. In countries with dictatorial regimes, the youth turn to conservative Islam, Salafism, and mosques engage in propagandistic activities. This was never the case before; there used to be a secular state. Now, the youth don’t see a future and are searching for answers or simply escaping from this reality.

Poverty is rampant, and many become labor migrants, leaving their children with grandparents. Women, daughters-in-law, are oppressed within their husband’s families. This is the standard situation throughout Central Asia. The authorities have abandoned the people to their fate, leading to poverty, unemployment, and making the population vulnerable to the ideas propagated by mosques. Islamic madrasas are established not only in Tajikistan but also in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has always been secular, but now the sentiments are changing.

RFI: Does Iran influence the situation?

Orzu M: The relationship with Iran is variable. Sometimes they are friendly and exchange visits, and sometimes the love disappears. Russia usually dictates who to be friends with and who not to. But right now, the closest friendship is with China. All road construction and projects are Chinese.

The small republic is deeply indebted to China, and China is already dictating its terms. The Chinese government doesn’t like that Pamir, its closest neighbors, values freedom and that people there are well-educated. They see this as a threat. Every time after meetings between representatives of the Tajik government and China, the pressure on the GBAO intensifies. The way we understand it is that China is an accomplice in this process. This is a union of dictatorships.

RFI: Do you see any way out?

Orzu M: Right now, the only way out is the victory of Ukraine. Then, this entire dictatorial pyramid will collapse.

*Orzu M. prefers not to give its full name, fearing persecution from the authorities.

Source: RFI