A border confrontation between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is creating hardship for citizens of both countries in remote villages along the undelimited frontier, and, in at least one case, is stoking a food shortage.
Ask an ethnic Kyrgyz in the cramped village of Tash-Tumshuk what country he lives in and he will reply confidently, “Kyrgyzstan.” Shout over the mud-brick fence to the ethnic Tajik next door and he will, with equal conviction, say he lives in Tajikistan, in a village called Hojа Alo.
For over 20 years now, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two poorest republics to emerge from the Soviet Union, have failed to agree on the location of their border in the most densely populated parts of the Ferghana Valley.
In a workshop in the heart of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, Nigora Akhonova is seated over a steaming vat of silk cocoons. With measured movements she stirs the pot and pulls out some of the off-white, almond-sized cocoons using a stick to hook the gossamer threads spilling out of them. Slowly unraveling the strands, she feeds them across to Maryam Madaminova, who winds them onto a spindle.
A powerful earthquake registering 6.2 on the Richter scale struck Ferghana Valley early July 20, affecting Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The epicenter of the quake was about 45 kilometers south of the Uzbek city of Ferghana.
Until recently, Aksai, an ethnic Kyrgyz village on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, had seemed so small and insignificant that most cartographers failed to include it on their maps. But now it has become a flashpoint, with a recent standoff there underscoring the potential for interethnic violence along the poorly defined frontier.
Land scarcity in the Ferghana Valley is a growing cause for concern in Kyrgyzstan. The slow governmental response to the long-standing problem means the issue could create a spark that reignites inter-ethnic conflict.
The Ferghana Valley, the fertile heartland of Central Asia, looks like paradise at this time of year. Fat-tailed sheep graze on the slopes, green after the winter snowmelt. Boys on donkeys chivvy cattle alongside blossoming fruit trees, and the urban bazaars have their usual bustling air.