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new internationalist
issue 257 - July 1994

Zarbadoh’s children
Olivia Ward reports from Tajikistan on a civil war
with an unmatched reputation for brutality.

Men mean trouble in this village of children that is no longer a village but a collection of rearranged rubbish. Men fire guns, leave family members lying in pools of blood and send children scurrying into the fields or burrowing under flimsy mattresses.

The children remember and are afraid.

One summer day two years ago gangs of armed men from the neighboring countryside invaded their quiet, prosperous farm community and stripped it of cars, machinery, food and household goods. The children didn’t understand why. Their parents had no time to explain. When the militants came back the next day with guns and torches the children saw only blood and ricocheting bullets and sheets of flame that devoured everything in their small, limited world.

Now about 500 babies and young people have returned from refugee camps and villages near the Afghan border. Fifty women are with them. The only men here are four grey-haired elders who braved a trail of violence to accept the Government’s offer of resettlement.

But the war – the stealthy, confusing, terrifying war – has never really ended. Night and day gunfire echoes through the muddy plain on which the settlers cannot afford to sow more than a handful of vegetable seeds.

Tajikistan’s civil war is one of the most complex in the former Soviet Union. During its course it has displaced 500,000 of the country’s 5.5 million people and acquired an unmatched reputation for brutality. Strife began when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Communist Party boss Rakhmon Nabiev seized power. The Pamiri minority from the east of the country and fundamentalist Muslims from the Garm Valley formed an alliance and clashed violently with government forces. As turbulence spread, the storm centre shifted to the area around Zarbadoh, 25 kilometres north of Afghanistan. By the time Nabiev was driven out of the capital at gunpoint and a hastily-installed Islamic-Democratic coalition collapsed, the southern villages were awash in blood. The battles died down when neighboring Uzbekistan sent troops, and a new communist leader, Imomali Rakhmonov, was elected.

The six-month war had a shattering effect on families who were forced to flee. The devastated villages are now settlements of children – lively, dark-eyed children who are strangely quiet and seldom leave their mothers’ sides. Marauding men turn up suddenly, searching for the children’s fathers. One of them was the father of 15-year-old Gueraftor Hajieva, a slender, serious teenager who has only a mother and sister left of her family of seven brothers and sisters.

‘I think about them all the time. I can’t get through the day without crying,’ she says, hiding her face in embarrassment.

Gueraftor’s days are bleak and cheerless. Fear, boredom and endless, repetitive chores are her daily fare, predictable as toothache. Day by day the women and older children work together, rebuilding shelter for themselves by hand. During the worst days of winter most of the villagers huddled in the damp-smelling basement of a destroyed schoolhouse where classes were no longer held. Now, as spring turns the frosty soil to a sea of mud, darkness puts an end to bone-wearying days. While the younger children are wrapped up in donated blankets and laid out for sleep like tiny papooses, older ones can only listen in the dimness for what they fear most – the vehicles of armed men.

‘I’m afraid to go very far from here,’ Gueraftor says. ‘Men might come and... insult me.’

They have come in the past, swooping down and demanding ‘a girl’ to take back with them. So far groups of angry shouting women have driven them away. But no-one is safe and fear is like a sour coating on a life that has already lost its savor.

The youngsters, confined to their shelters or carried around by their mothers because they lack proper shoes, cannot live as normal children do. The sound of cars or gunfire fills them with panic as violent memories surface and some have fits of nervous trembling.

The capital, Dushanbe, is now an armed camp awash in terrorism, crime and poverty. Young men in their teens carry guns openly and the violence they have witnessed has taken root and grown.

‘Many children in this country are suffering from the war,’ says psychiatrist Minhoj Gulyamov. ‘It isn’t just physical diseases, it’s mental anguish.’

‘I have spells when I feel as though I’m going to die,’ says Nigora Vohidova, a tall, gentle girl of 15 with a face of exotic beauty. ‘It’s terrifying and I don’t know what to do.’

Nigora’s anxiety attacks began after the street battles ended in Dushanbe. They were sudden, unexpected and completely terrifying.

‘She would stand up and scream “I don’t want to die!”,’ says her mother, Maya Vohidova. ‘We did everything to comfort her, but it didn’t have any effect.’

At the Internat children’s home across the city, Nadezhda Tsayova cares for 130 parentless children under harsh conditions that have improved little since the war.

‘God will help us,’ recites a tiny five-year-old with sandy hair and a pixyish face.

The children gather round excitedly to talk to the first foreigners they have ever seen. They are quick to smile and hug each other playfully. Most of them, Tsayova says, eat uncontrollably when food is put in front of them. ‘It’s as though they remember the days of the war when they were hungry. They eat even when they really don’t need the food... After everything they’ve been through I think they will grow up determined to prevent more violence.’

The children giggle and clasp each other’s hands. But one little boy gets up and sings:

‘My brother patrols the border, that’s why I sleep so well... because he is carrying a gun’.

Olivia Ward is the Moscow Bureau Chief of The Toronto Star.

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New Internationalist issue 257 magazine cover This article is from the July 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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