“Khorog is safe now. You will have no problems going through there. Please send me a message after you get to Dushanbe so we know you are safe.” Twenty-two-year-old Matrop didn’t blink an eye as he offered this subtle contradiction and poured me another bowl of green tea.
Midway through a four-week journey across Tajikistan, I had stopped on July 27 to spend the night at Matrop’s family’s home in the Wakhan Corridor village of Darshai, across the river from Afghanistan. After learning that I spoke Russian, one of Matrop’s friends anxiously informed me that Khorog, four-hours drive northwest, had a “war raging in the streets.” Huh? The fighting had already been going on for three days, but out in remoter parts of Gorno-Badakhshan province I hadn’t heard a thing.
He cursed the situation with an anger I’d find common among 20-somethings in the region over the next few days. The fighting had rekindled divisions and resentment lingering from Tajikistan’s 1990s civil war, when the Pamiri minority in mountainous Badakhshan found themselves fighting Tajiks.
“How many of our people have died already over the years? For what? Our country has been peaceful a long time, and now a new war is happening. The president’s special guard has been sent in,” he said, repeating a blend of concerns and rumors I would hear again and again. “Maybe a civil war will start again.”
Matrop’s uncle, Mubaraksho, a Russian-language teacher and avid ibex hunter, took the lightest attitude. “It’s fine,” he assured me. “You will be fine. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I think it is already peaceful. That’s what people are saying.”
Indeed, nobody actually knew anything for certain. Authorities had severed all of Gorno-Badakhshan’s communication lines, and the road connecting the region with Dushanbe was closed.
Inching toward Khorog the following day, I stopped first in Ishkashim, the Wakhan’s largest village, about three hours south of the reputed war zone.
Almost all the young people I spoke with waxed poetic about the tragedy of the Pamiri people, while older folks were less comfortable committing to anything other than, “I expect that it’s over now and safe.”
I spoke with the Tajik border guards monitoring the road to Khorog. All they would tell me was not to believe anybody in the village because they had no information. But, they insisted, all was quiet in Khorog.
“I can’t tell you what you should do,” said a senior-ish military man wearing aviator sunglasses. “But I don’t think there’s anything for you in Khorog.” Just then a car casually drove through his checkpoint without stopping and he went to reprimand a negligent soldier banging the back of his AK-47 against a rock to get dirt out of the butt.
The next morning, July 30, I squeezed into the back of a Soviet Volga sedan with four other passengers. The road to Dushanbe runs through Khorog and, I thought, maybe this was all being blown out of proportion. It's not like I could call anyone for information, with all communications still down.
Except for a few small kiosks, everything in Khorog was closed – banks, museums, cafes, shops. Soon, the illusion this was just a slow day was shattered when I saw, strutting across a pedestrian bridge, five unusual soldiers. They weren’t scrawny, lightly clad Tajik soldiers carrying AK-47s by the barrel; they were huge, adorned in flak jackets equipped like Swiss Army knives, with blades, pistols, and oddly shaped pockets. They held their superior-looking rifles with index fingers close to triggers.
Steadily I made my way up Gagarin Street and toward my guesthouse. Apartment buildings were splattered with bullet holes. I raised my camera to get a quick snap of one when, from behind a shattered second-floor window, what looked like a soldier shouted at me, first in Tajik and then, when he didn’t get the desired response, in Russian: “Put down your [expletive] camera and get the [expletive] out of here!”
A young man helped me with directions to my guesthouse. “Everything will be peaceful now,” he told me confidently. “The fighters have given up their weapons to the government.”
“I see.” Not sure what to say, I added, “Still, the event is very sad for Tajikistan.”
“No,” he corrected me. “It is sad for Badakhshan.”
About a block further on I turned up a street and was immediately stopped by three tense, weary soldiers. They shook my hand out of obligation and then demanded, in Russian, “Open your bag.” As I did so, one nosed about the contents with the muzzle of his AK-47.
Noticing my cameras one of them asked, “What are you taking photos of? Show us.” Both my memory cards already had a couple hundred images on them – some of which I was confident would be frowned upon. I started at the beginning and scrolled slowly. “This was my hotel in Murghab. This is the cat that fell asleep on my lap. This is the yurt in which I slept in the Pshart Valley….”
The soldiers grew tired quickly and after examining my passport told me to find another road and not to pass that way again.
Editor’s Note: Keith Mellnick is a freelance writer and photographer currently working in Central Asia.