The sign of Isfara, a town in northern Tajikistan, on the border with Kyrgyzstan. The town lies in the homonymous valley which is crossed by the Isfara river. Media reported that the clashes in September broke out along the frontier between Tajikistan's Sughd and Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken provinces because of a dispute over a reservoir and pump, claimed by both sides, on the Isfara river.
The sign of Isfara, a town in northern Tajikistan, on the border with Kyrgyzstan. The town lies in the homonymous valley which is crossed by the Isfara river. Media reported that the clashes in September broke out along the frontier between Tajikistan's Sughd and Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken provinces because of a dispute over a reservoir and pump, claimed by both sides, on the Isfara river. © IWPR

“We Don’t Want War,” Say Kyrgyz and Tajik Citizens

Over 100 people died in renewed violence along the border in September 2022 as long-standing issues remain unresolved.

Zakhro Khakimova has lived in Khodzhai Alo all her life. She grew up, studied, worked and was married in the village, in Tajikistan’s northern district of Isfara, right by the border with Kyrgyzstan. More recently, she was also widowed there.

Her husband, Bakhrom Khakimov, a teacher at a local school, was killed on September 14 during an outbreak of violence between Tajik and Kyrgyz forces along the long-disputed border between the two Central Asia nations.

“When the shooting started, Bakhrom took the pupils to a safe place, and went toward the Kyrgyz frontier guards trying to tell them not to open fire on the children. But someone from there took a shot and killed him,” she told IWPR, recalling how he taught wrestling to children in a rural gym in his free time.

She cannot come to terms with his husband’s death. As a nurse Khakimova used to give injections and intravenous infusions to both Tajik and Kyrgyz from the other side of the border. Sometimes, she visited her patients with serious diseases at home.

“We were good neighbours; there were no quarrels or conflicts between ordinary people. When my Kyrgyz acquaintances learned that Bakhrom had died…they messaged me, sent condolences,” Khakimova said.

The fighting is over, but villagers still live in fear. 

“Both Tajik and Kyrgyz mothers are tired of war,” echoed her mother-in-law.

LONG-STANDING BORDER ISSUE

Since the two countries gained independence in 1991, a long section of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border has remained unmarked. The authorities have agreed on only about 600 out of 972 kilometres of their common border. The complex geography, a legacy of the Soviet Union, has fuelled disputes over water, land and pastures.

September’s conflict claimed over 100 lives among both military and civilians and left hundreds of houses, schools, administration buildings and mosques in ruins. Over 136,000 Kyrgyzstanis reportedly had to leave their homes, and just a fraction have returned.

On October 20, Kyrgyzstan asked the Moscow-led security bloc Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to deploy peacekeeping troops along the border to ensure the ceasefire held. Entangled in its war against Ukraine, Russia may not have the military capacity and political focus to attend such troubles as it did in January when Kazakstan was embroiled in social unrest and deployed a mission within hours of the president issuing a call.

Authorities in Dushanbe and Bishkek continue to trade accusations over who initiated the September 14-17 violence. The political and ethnic jigsaw has caused regular clashes that have de-escalated quickly; but their frequency and intensity have grown in recent years. In April 2021, for instance, more than 50 people died in fighting that almost led to a full-blown armed conflict.

Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations have held several rounds of talks in recent years but have not yet managed to end the border controversy.

Local residents are angry at this failure to deal with the issues.

Kamildzhon Tuchiev, a farmer in Tajik’s Khodzhai Alo village, said he was “sick and tired”.

“Just above our village, there are 22 Kyrgyz families. We lived peacefully, shared the water from the same dam,” he told IWPR. “Now I wonder what happened to them. So many civilians have died, so many young soldiers, so many houses and households have been destroyed. Thats enough. We don’t need it anymore.”

A few kilometres away, in the village of Zhashtyk in Kyrgyzstan’s Leilek district, Ainura Zhaparova also that people “want to live in peace.”

“When will we stop running away, suffering?” she asked. “It’s high time for the authorities to address the border issues.”

Zakhro Khakimova’s husband Bakhrom Khakimov is one of the over 100 victims of the violence that erupted along the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on September 14. The couple lived in Khodzhai Alo, a village in Tajikistan’s northern district of Isfara, right by the border with Kyrgyzstan. © IWPR Central AsiaAbdirashit Kudaiberdiev stands by the ruins of his house, in Batken district’s Ak-Sai village. The Kyrgyz village is across the Tajik’s settlement of jamoat of Chorkukh. “Everything is burned, my neighbours’ houses are also destroyed…I have six children, four daughters and two sons, and two of my grandchildren left for Bishkek. I won’t take them here until I’ll build the new house,” he said. © IWPR Central AsiaSodzhida Khalikova, a resident of Lakkon village in Tajikistan’s Isfara district, said that she heard shooting as she returned from the market and was not allowed to enter the village. “I saw that all residents of our village fleeing to the mountains. I did too. I was searching for my grandchildren, thankfully I found them. When the situation calmed down, I got back home and saw that my house was burned to the ground,” she recalled. © IWPR Central AsiaAfter the Tajik and Kyrgyz authorities signed a ceasefire on September 19, Khalikova returned to the village to find her house burned to the ground. “We have lived in this village for almost 40 years. We are neighbours to the Kyrgyz, we have never had war between us. Our district was good. We shared joys and sorrows of each other…Ordinary people need peace,” Khalikova said. © IWPR Central AsiaGulnara Isiralieva walks over the ruins of her destroyed house in Arka, a village in Kyrgyzstan’s Leilek district. She built it with her husband over 20 years with the money he sent from Russia, where he still works. “It all started on Friday morning. We were out in the field for the harvest, when I got a text message that the war had begun,” Gulnara Isiralieva told IWPR. “The children and I rushed into the house, and suddenly explosions and shooting began. We could not start the car and we had to run to reach a safe place. The kids cried, they were terrified.” © IWPR Central AsiaThe school in the village of Aksai, in Batken district, was hit in the fighting. According to Kyrgyzstan’s ministry of education, nine schools and one kindergarten were damaged in the area. Pupils have been transferred to schools in neighbouring villages. © IWPR Central AsiaKyrgyzstan’s ministry of emergency situations reported that the fighting resulted in 640 destroyed houses, 423 of which cannot be restored and 217 in need of repair. It stated that 11 administrative and strategic facilities, 27 social facilities, 335 utility rooms, 197 utility facilities were destroyed as well as a car bridge and 61 cars. © IWPR Central Asia
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