En route to the Rasht Valley and rumors of militants

Tajikistan, June 15, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The rugged area around Garm is remote and fraught with challenges. Photo: Colin Spurway/Mercy Corps

Tajikistan is incredibly remote…and the Rasht Valley even more so. Hemmed in by peaks that reach 10,000 feet or higher, the landscape is gorgeous. Unreal. Lush green hills look crushed against jagged mountains still capped with quite a bit of snow in June. The horizon is nearly one-dimensional. Like an overly dramatic painting done by a painter who can’t quite capture depth and dimension. It’s unreal.

It was quite a trek to Garm and the security has been tightened since I was here last fall. I went through two security checkpoints (more on that later). According to the media, the militant Islamic commander, Abdullo Rakhimov, has returned to the area from Pakistan and is meeting with elders to garner support.

This was his base during Tajikistan’s civil war, which took place between the current government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), an uneasy alliance of democrats and Islamists. While the peace accords in 1997 brought members of the UTO into parliament, Abdullo reportedly crossed the border into northern Afghanistan.

Interestingly, I sat next to Muhiddin Kabiri — the leader of the Islamist Renaissance Party (IRP) — on my flight from Istanbul to Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital. A friendly, polite and smart man, he has been described as a moderate and a skilled negotiator. The IRP is the only legally recognized religious party in Central Asia. Kabiri said that, indeed, the rumors are true: a handful of combatants have returned to Rasht and he hopes the government can work to move towards peaceful solutions and perhaps offer them amnesty. Most people here say that the returned former mujahidin just want a quiet place to live.

However, the possible return of former combatants has nearly everyone on edge.

The day before yesterday, I was stopped at a checkpoint and asked for my passport and visa, which were in Dushanbe to be registered with the government. The photocopy I had with me was not acceptable…although it had been last year. Policemen milled about and we were detained for almost three hours. In the end, they sent me back to Dushanbe. Apparently, the “big boss” was at the checkpoint and protocol was not to be broken.

It was hot. I was wearing the black skirt and long-sleeved top that I had ben wearing since Saturday because my luggae did not arrive. Sweat was trickling down my stomach as one officer leaned into the car and spoke with me in Kyrgyz, after he learned I know Kyrgyz but not much Tajik. “I have thirteen children,” he boasted.

Yesterday, we drove up to the checkpoint again — this time I had my passport ready. The officer came to my window and apologized for the day before. “Just doing my job,” he said. When I handed my passport over, he just gave it back to me. “We already have your information,” he said.

It will be interesting to see how things develop in this remote, dramatic corner of the world. I will keep you updated.