What is happening on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border?
A recent conflict over disputed territories left at least 46 dead, and hundreds more injured
Last week, a 12-year-old girl, Madina Rakhmatzhanova, was buried in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region – one of the youngest victims of the tragic conflict that erupted on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border at the end of April.
The day before, Rakhmatzhanova had tried to escape shelling by Tajikistani forces, fleeing her village together with her mother and younger sister. But as she did so, she was hit by a shell fragment. Rakhmatzhanova died before reaching hospital.
In this mountainous corner of Central Asia, conflicts between residents, and border guards, flare up from time to time over disputed borders between the two states. But last week’s conflict was the largest in recent years, with dozens of people killed and injured, and hundreds left homeless.
Kyrgyzstani officials have reported that on their side, 36 people died and 183 were wounded. It’s unclear what the real casualty figures are in Tajikistan, though regional authorities have confirmed that 10 civilians died.
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While Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani officials blame each other for the conflict, it is clear that the lack of joint resolution over disputed border territories, and mutual mistrust between the two governments, contributed to the chaos of the border events. Approximately 40% of the 972km-long border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remains without final agreement between the two sides.
Officials have discussed these disputed borders for years, yet progress has been slim for people on the ground, and residents of border villages are forced to live in an atmosphere of constant conflict, which often leads to human casualties. Most often, disagreements arise due to unresolved issues related to the distribution of water and land, drug smuggling and illegal border crossings. More than 150 incidents have occurred on the border since 2010.
“Many unresolved issues gradually led to what happened,” said Sarvar Turdiboyev, a resident of a Kyrgyz village, Borborduk, which borders Tajikistan, who saw looting and burning during the conflict.
“But this is not the fault of the Tajiks, nor the Kyrgyz,” Turdiboyev continued. “This is the fault of our leaders who could not agree with one another. What prevented them is another question. Maybe ambition, maybe even something else. Whatever it is, there is no excuse for those who allowed these events to take place.”
Kaktus Media video from 30 April in the village of Arka-1, Kyrgyzstan.
One disputed area between the two states is the Tajikistani enclave of Vorukh, which is located on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, and home to more than 30,000 people.
Officially Vorukh belongs to Tajikistan, but since the end of the Soviet era, it has become an ‘island’ of Tajikistani territory amid Kyrgyzstani land. At the end of March this year, Kyrgyzstan offered to exchange Vorukh for other similar territories in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region. In response, President Emomali Rahmon said that Vorukh would remain a part of Tajikistan.
Parviz Mullojanov, a political scientist and independent researcher from Tajikistan, said that while “negative energy has been accumulating for a long time on both sides of the border”, “no one expected an escalation” in 2021 given the effect of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Mullojanov, the new Kyrgyzstani leadership’s exchange offer for Vorukh acted as a ‘trigger’ for hostilities by Tajikistan. “The proposal was made in a very strong form immediately after the trip of [Kyrgyzstani] president, Sadyr Japarov, to Moscow and simultaneously with the announcement of Kyrgyz military exercises in the Batken region,” he said.
As Mullojanov puts it, there was strong concern and anxiety in Tajikistan over Vorukh. Social networks began to “practically accuse the government of treason” regarding a possible handover of the enclave, Mullojanov said, and tensions in Tajikistan’s border areas began to grow rapidly.
As official reports put it, the recent clashes erupted over the struggle for water at the Golovnaya water intake of the Tortkul reservoir, located on an undemarcated section of the border in Batken region.
According to the Kyrgyz border service, on 28 April Tajikistan decided to install CCTV cameras on power transmission poles near the water intake, allowing them to monitor the distribution of water. Residents on the Kyrgyzstani side objected to this, and asked that the cameras be removed, but residents of the Tajikistani village refused. Later, Kyrgyzstani citizens decided to cut down a pole that a camera was installed on, which led to a confrontation. As a result, about 150 people gathered from both sides. A fight broke out, people threw stones at each other. But by the evening the situation had stabilised.
The next morning, however, the conflict escalated into a more serious confrontation. It was reported in the Kyrgyz press that citizens of Tajikistan first threw stones at the houses of Kyrgyz citizens, after which they fired at passing vehicles.
The situation escalated to the point where a firefight took place between Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani forces, which lasted almost until midnight. The Tajik side opened fire on five border posts. As a result of the mortar shelling, the Dostuk outpost caught fire. In response to these actions, Kyrgyzstan seized a Tajikistani border post. Additional military forces from both sides were deployed along the entire perimeter of the border.
At that moment, the situation escalated out of control. Submachine guns, mortars, machine guns and military helicopters were deployed. Tajik servicemen fired on residential areas, and civilians were hit by bullets and shells.
“On the first day, the shots continued with short interruptions until four in the morning,” Sarvar Turdiboyev, who watched the conflict unfold from his village of Borborduk, told openDemocracy. “It seemed to me that then the mass evacuation had not yet begun, but some of our neighbours left the village because of fear – after all, we are not used to such serious conflicts... I also decided to take my family away from the border and gave my friend our car, and returned home.
“Then we began receiving WhatsApp messages that Kyrgyz troops were about to enter our village, and that we needed to climb to the wasteland and wait out the clash there, which is what we did with our neighbours. One of the villagers came up to us and said that Tajik soldiers had started to enter other people's houses. This alerted me and I immediately went to my house.”
“When they came up to me, I told them in Tajik that this was my home. One of them asked what my nationality and citizenship was. I said that I was Uzbek and my citizenship was Kyrgyz. They replied: ‘We’re not interested in you.’ After that they left”
Turdiboyev admits that he would not have been able to fight off soldiers. However, he hoped that they would not harm peaceful people. According to him, Tajikistani men in civilian and military uniforms were seen several times on the streets of his village, and a car with a Tajikistan state license plate passed by. He also reported an encounter with Tajikistani soldiers in his village.
“When they came up to me, I told them in Tajik that this was my home. One of them asked what my nationality and citizenship was. I said that I was Uzbek and my citizenship was Kyrgyz. They replied: ‘We’re not interested in you.’ After that they left,” he said.
According to Turdiboyev, while he and his neighbours slept in their courtyard, shops and cafes were burned on the village’s main street – which runs right along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. “On another street, where there were no locals left, looters robbed houses and stole cattle. But our street remained intact,” he said.
After several rounds of negotiations, on 1 May Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan reached an agreement on a complete ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops. Yet despite this, shots from the Tajikistani side continued.
In response, the Kyrgyzstani military blocked the road to the Vorukh enclave and the Leilek region. Local residents and 25,000 refugees in Isfana were cut off from humanitarian aid. Shooting continued in the border villages of Arka and Maksat, where dozens of residential buildings were burnt down. Only on 1 May, the day of the ceasefire agreement, did Tajikistani military leave Kyrgyzstani villages, according to Kyrgyzstani media.
Human Rights Watch called for an immediate investigation into the deaths of civilians and the destruction of property, as well as bringing those responsible to justice. The Kyrgyzstani government has promised to restore the homes of residents affected by the conflict on the border – not at the expense of the Tajikistani side, as many believed, but at the expense of Kyrgyzstan.
Not everyone is rushing to return home, however. “Women are constantly crying, they don’t trust anyone,” said psychologist Gulmayram Attokurova, who is providing psychological assistance to refugees from Kyrgyzstan’s border villages. Indeed, Kyrgyzstani society has mobilised to guarantee humanitarian aid, buying up necessary goods and providing transportation.
“They don’t understand why their neighbours, whom they lived side by side with for years, suddenly attacked. For them, this is a betrayal. On the other hand, they are worried why the authorities didn’t raise the alarm when the Tajik side began to attack. There was no warning system,” Attokurova continued.
In addition to dozens of dead, displaced and injured people, the sides now have to figure out a way to move forward. After the stabilisation of the situation, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan opened 11 criminal cases into murder, riots, crimes against peace and security, hooliganism and illegal border crossings.
Shortly after this news, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Tajikistan opened a criminal case against Kyrgyz military personnel in connection with the attack on Isfara, accusing them and individual citizens of Kyrgyzstan “of murders and conducting an aggressive war”.
According to Kyrgyz political scientist Emil Dzhuraev, what happened last week was not just another dispute between residents of border villages, but a military incursion into Kyrgyzstani territory by Tajikistan’s military.
“Recently, there have been many provocations and tensions on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,” Dzhuraev said. “All this began after the Kyrgyz side made a proposal regarding Vorukh and its exchange for other territories. In Tajikistan, this was not received well. In these situations, protest, discontent or rejection should be expressed through diplomatic channels. However, none of this happened and Tajikistan used military force instead.”
“These actions suggest that there were not just provocations in the form of verbal skirmishes between local residents, but some kind of calculation. Seeing the relative weakness and disunity of the Kyrgyzstani authorities, the Tajikistani authorities took advantage of this moment, perhaps they even developed a sudden desire to win. Most likely they began to prepare ahead of time for a military attack,” Dzhuraev said.
On 6 May, both governments made a joint statement expressing regret over the border conflict, and stated their intention to avoid such actions in the future. A working group, the joint statement said, has been charged with demarcating disputed border territories.
The lack of agreement over borders is at the core of the tension between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, said Parviz Mullojanov. Yet for him, the solution does not only lie in the demarcation of borders, but in agreeing the joint use of land and water resources and cross-border roads.
“It is difficult for the two sides to come to an agreement, as each of them uses maps from different years, which completely contradict each other, as evidence,” said Mullojanov.
“Another reason is the wrong approach to resolving the conflict. As a rule, all decisions are made in the highest echelons of power, within a group of negotiators of ten to 15 people, even if they are professionals. But the peace process is not limited to simply drawing new borders on the map. It is a long process that includes tens and hundreds of influential professionals.”
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