These Herders Lived in Peaceful Isolation. Now, War Has Found Them.
They left at night with their camels, yaks and yurts in search of refuge from a war that was finally coming to their mountain homeland.
In one of the most peculiar disruptions triggered by the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, around 350 Kyrgyz nomads attempted to flee the country this month to Tajikistan. Traveling with around 4,000 head of cattle, the shepherds spent nearly two days crossing a mountain pass of about 15 miles.
Finally, they were forced to return after their asylum application failed – but not before igniting a diplomatic dispute and illustrating how uneasy the unrest in Afghanistan worries northern neighbors worried about the sudden arrival of refugees and the prospect of cross-border violence.
The Kyrgyz caravan fleeing the Wakhan corridor in northeastern Afghanistan is one example. The corridor, a high-altitude enclave wedged between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, had remained peaceful throughout America’s two-decade military presence.
But this summer, the inhabited areas of his province, Badakhshan, fell largely under a Taliban advance, raising fears among nomadic herders that their home would be next.
“The Kyrgyz people don’t believe the Afghan government can protect them,” said Bunyamin Toker, director of the World Pamir Kyrgyz Association, named after the house of the shepherds in the Pamir mountain range.
Mr Toker, who has been in sporadic contact with the migrants by cell phone, said the Taliban had already sent envoys to the Wakhan corridor. The envoys told the Kyrgyz people they could continue their pastoral way of life, he said, but they also insisted on counting the animals, raising fears that they intended to tax or confiscate. the cattle.
The Taliban have not yet forcibly entered the area, Toker said, but the Kyrgyz believe that a newly constructed road makes possible a military operation there – an operation that could bring Taliban control to the border. Afghan 28 miles long with China for the first time.
The Kyrgyz are one of the smallest minorities in Afghanistan, around 2,500 largely illiterate herders who make a living raising sheep, yaks, horses and camels in the highland pastures near the Chinese border. . A vestige of secular population movements in Central Asia, the group is separated from its ethnic brothers in the nation of Kyrgyzstan by the country of Tajikistan.
Kyrgyz people adhere to a moderate form of Islam and, like other ethnic minorities, risk repression if the Taliban regain power. They had long enjoyed the security of the US military deployment, Toker said.
But the US military presence has shrunk to a small garrison to protect the embassy in Kabul, and the Biden administration has said it will be withdrawn completely before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
And with that, the safety of the Kyrgyz nomads is unclear. The Taliban are now threatening most of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and even Kabul, the national capital. Insurgents have invaded more than half of the country’s 400 districts and many important border crossing points, including those leading to former Soviet nations in Central Asia.
Amidst their offensive that began in May, the Taliban have swept through northern Afghanistan, home to many ethnic minorities who fear persecution.
Unfortunately for Kyrgyz herders, isolated for centuries in their mountainous redoubts, China this year continued to build a road through the Wakhan Corridor as part of its ambitious Belt infrastructure and investment project. and the Road.
The partially completed Wakhan Corridor road now paves the way for a possible Taliban advance, Toker said.
“The elders decided that the Taliban would come to the Pamir Mountains,” and decided to leave before that happened, he said. They left at night to avoid warning the Taliban scouts.
“If the Americans were still in Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz would be safe,” Toker said. “It wasn’t fair that they decided to leave in a rush. If the Americans had decided to leave, they would have had to establish stability first. Now it’s just chaos.
When the Kyrgyz arrived at the Tajik border on July 13 and 14 with their herd, including two-humped Bactrian camels laden with bales, the Tajik border patrol first let them in.
The herders said they wanted to either stay in Tajikistan or travel to Kyrgyzstan, according to a video interview by local journalists. And the Kyrgyz government offered asylum to the whole group, apparently paving a way.
But within a week, the Tajik government rejected the shepherds’ appeal and sent them back to Afghanistan, claiming that the central government in Kabul had guaranteed their safety. Although the government of Kyrgyzstan issued a complaint statement, claiming that its diplomats had conveyed “the concern and corresponding asylum requests” to the Tajik authorities, the requests were ignored.
Tajikistan’s decision reflects its growing mistrust of refugee arrivals. From June, Afghan government soldiers began to flee into Tajikistan as the Taliban invaded their positions. Arrived by nets and retreats jumbled up, several hundred soldiers crossed the border, prompting Tajikistan to put them on return flights to Kabul.
Uzbekistan, which also shares a border with Afghanistan, is preparing for instability by planning military exercises with Russia along the border. The Biden administration has asked Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to accept up to 9,000 asylum seekers.
The Russian government has also adapted. His army this month deployed tanks to the Tajik border with Afghanistan and flew over the region with ground attack jets, apparently in training exercises. Tajikistan is in a military alliance with Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
“With the departure of the United States and its allies from the country,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, “Afghanistan becomes a problem for neighboring states”.
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