Since surrendering to authorities over two months ago, Tajik commander Tolib Ayombekov has lived in relative comfort at home in Khorog, surrounded by supporters and able to move freely about town in a white Mercedes sedan. Though he is accused of involvement in the high-profile July murder of a security services general, an incident that hastened violent clashes in remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, officials in Dushanbe are proceeding cautiously in their prosecution of Ayombekov.
Asked about what the future holds for him, he expressed doubt that he will ever face trial. Instead, he believes some sort of fatal accident will befall him. The end could be quick and unexpected, even if anticipated.
“I know they will do it, so I just live for Allah and pray,” said the popular warlord, who met EurasiaNet.org at a Khorog community center on a recent evening to discuss the violence between local armed groups and government security forces in July. The clashes marked some of the most intense fighting in Tajikistan since the end of the 1992-97 Civil War.
Just because he seems resigned to being a marked man doesn’t mean Ayombekov isn’t taking security precautions. As he spoke, eight of Ayombekov’s “guys” loitered in the street outside, most of them dressed like their leader in immaculate Adidas tracksuits and baseball caps. “We have 10 to 20 guys in each street at night,” Ayombekov said. “They’re volunteering, they weren’t asked to [protect me].”
Ayombekov, 47, is technically under house arrest in Khorog, charged with human trafficking, drug smuggling, trading in contraband cigarettes, banditry, and leading an illegal armed group.
When queried about the case against him, Ayombekov doesn’t deny any of the charges. Instead he responds by asking a simple, pointed question of his own: “why did the government trust me to guard the border, if I was doing all these things?”
As chief of the Ishkashim border unit, Ayombekov had been in government service since 2008, and, before that, enjoyed a stint as a battalion commander, thanks to the peace settlement that ended the Tajik Civil War and required the central government to give 30 percent of governmental posts to former opposition commanders like Ayombekov. “I’ve been working for the government for 16 years,” he said.
During his talk with EurasiaNet.org, Ayombekov made a controversial claim: in July, he said, officials in Dushanbe sent him to Germany to participate in a 10-day seminar on military tactics. His claim could not be independently verified, and on October 24, an Interior Ministry representative denied it. The German Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Later in July, Ayombekov -- along with three other warlords from Gorno-Badakhshan -- was accused of arranging the murder of the regional intelligence chief, Gen. Abdullo Nazarov. On July 24, claiming Ayombekov and his confederates refused to surrender, the government opened an offensive in Khorog with upwards of 2,000 troops. At least 17 government soldiers, 30 suspected criminals, and one civilian died in the fighting. Ayombekov, who was wounded in his thigh, tells a different story – a story he says he wanted to share earlier, but couldn’t because the government had blocked cell phone and Internet connections with the region. According to Ayombekov, after Gen. Nazarov’s death, authorities from the Interior Ministry began demanding that he turn over his supporters, suspects in the murder. Each time he complied, authorities asked for more.
“By 10 p.m. [the night before the assault] the government was asking for 15 guys, including me,” he said. Ayombekov says he agreed to lead the group to Dushanbe and go through the necessary procedures. “But then the government told me they only wanted me to send two guys at a time,” said Ayombekov. “They delayed and delayed, then suddenly attacked.”
The Khorog offensive was never about Nazarov’s murder, contended Ayombekov. “And I never resisted arrest. They just wanted a target.”
Political analysts suspect the government’s response to the murder was a masked attempt at consolidating authority over a mountainous region that has remained largely beyond central control since Tajikistan gained independence following the 1991 Soviet collapse. Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Gorno-Badakhshan also is a well-known drug-trafficking route, and turf wars are hard to rule out. Securing a better grip on the border region could enhance Tajikistan’s ability to cash in on the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan over the next two years.
Ceasefire negotiations in the days after the July 24 fighting in and around Khorog included a disarmament drive, with the government saying it collected hundreds of small and medium arms. Ayombekov surrendered himself to authorities on August 12. “But if they wanted me and my brother, why didn’t they just come and arrest us?” he said. “After the offensive I was wounded and at home, and the government knew this. We never resisted arrest.”
Despite the house arrest, Ayombekov moves around Khorog, but he complains he’s being denied medical treatment. “They still won’t let me into the hospital,” said Ayombekov, who’s been treating the bullet wound at home.
That’s not the only reason he remains wary of central government officials.
Ten days after Ayombekov turned himself in, Imomnazar Imomnazarov, another of the wanted warlords, was murdered at home in the middle of the night. He was a well-known community leader who had been wheelchair-bound since taking a bullet in the spine during the civil war. Ayombekov blamed the government for Imomnazarov’s death.
In the days following Imomnazarov’s death thousands of people protested in Khorog’s main square, demanding the removal of government troops from the region. The wish was gradually granted over the next month, but the Drug Control Agency has recently deployed more troops to Gorno-Badakhshan.
“People want answers,” said Ayombekov as his fingers worked over turquoise prayer beads.
Around Khorog -- a town of some 20,000 -- fresh plaster has been applied to smooth over bullet pockmarks on homes, stores and bus stops. In areas of heavy fighting, the burnt-out shells of houses sit vacant as reminders of the fragility of peace.
Ayombekov indicates he will continue to keep a low profile. “I’m afraid I could be downtown and something might happen again, and they’ll blame me,” he said. “The whole community is scared. The atmosphere here is worse than during the civil war. Not even young children or old men are forgiving the central government.”