TAJIKISTAN: Post Soviet Fragmentation a Risk in Asian Republic In a Village in the Tajik Countryside

September 13, 1992|By Kathy Lally

Kubshevko, Tajikistan. -- In this Tajik village, the male members of the Kurban family gather on a warm September evening as the men of Tajikistan have gathered for generations. They are poor, but resplendent somehow in their long blue, black or purple quilted coats sparkling with bright gold threads.

Waiting for the women to send out the food, they sit atop platform about 3 feet off the ground, settled cross-legged on colorful cushions. The platform has a roof, supported by four carved columns. It is painted bright red, and the carved designs are decorated in blues and greens.

The image recalls the past, the exotic days when Tajikistan lay along the Silk Route from China. Once there was a glorious civilization, but that disappeared 800 years ago under the sword of Genghis Khan. Mongol hordes, oblivion, 70 years of communism -- all have taken their toll on life in these remote mountains.

Now the Tajiks are trying to recapture their future. In the capital of Dushanbe, about 60 miles to the northwest of Kubshevko, the last avowed Communist party boss in the former Soviet republics was ousted as president last week.

Many here hope the future will take them back to the past, to the days when men worked in the fields and women worked at home, to the days when lives were organized around an understanding of Islam and the worship of Allah.

Communism put the women in the cotton and grape fields, and it made worship a dark secret.

Last September, when I visited Tajikistan, the struggle was just beginning that resulted last week in the fleeing of the president, Rakhmon Nabiyev. We were invited to this village by Khaji Kurban.

Mr. Kurban, a 40-year-old welder at Kubshevko's collective farm, named after the 22nd Party Congress, wanted three Western reporters to see how the people of Tajikistan live beyond the Sovietized city of Dushanbe, with its dreary apartment buildings, its crumbling sidewalks, its fading hammer-and-sickle pennants.

At the wheel of an old but meticulously maintained Russian car, Mr. Kurban drove us off through the mountains, passing vineyards, people selling pomegranates at the side of the road and men riding horseback along distant paths.

"Here we are at the plantation," Mr. Kurban said in Russian as we arrived, "like you had in the South."

The people of the village spoke little Russian, so Mr. Kurban translated from Tajik -- which is indistinguishable from Iran's Farsi -- into Russian.

An unseasonable rain had begun to fall, but September is cotton-picking season, and the women, teenage girls and boys and barefoot children of the village were in the fields at work.

They pushed slowly through the thickly grown fields, laboriously pulling off the cotton and stuffing it into burlap bags. They called to each other as they worked, and laughter rippled across the dense plantings as the girls and boys teased each other.

The women wore long, heavy cotton dresses and thick sleeve guards to protect against the snagging plants. (Out of the fields, they wear brightly colored silky trousers under knee-length cotton dresses, and their heads are covered by brightly flowered scarves glinting with gold threads. Some women cover part of their faces in public.)

The cotton is hard to pick, and until two years ago the Soviet authorities made the job easier by spraying the fields from the air with a defoliant. When all the leaves fell off, the cotton was much easier to pull from the plant. The authorities didn't seem to mind that the toxic chemicals made many women and children extremely ill.

The women were looking forward to the end of Communism -- they thought it would mean they could return to their children and homes and leave the rough field work to the men. The men said if only the Communists would leave them alone on some land, they could provide for their families. Families of 8 and 10 children were living on a few dollars a month.

But things are unlikely to change very quickly here. Russia built ,, the cotton manufacturing plants within its own borders; Tajikistan was a colony that shipped raw cotton. Tajikistan has no money to build its own factories and is resting its future hopes on foreign aid.

We left the fields, which were quickly turning into bottomless vats of slick mud, and headed for the car. It was then, juggling camera and notebooks while trying to leap across a trench, that I fell face down in the mud -- fortuitously as it turned out.

Mr. Kurban, a man with a big smile that shows off his four gold front teeth to advantage, was mortified. That this should happen to a guest of his! To have a foreign woman covered with mud here, in the village of Kubshevo!

The other men gathered around us in alarm, horrified at this breach of hospitality. I tried to reassure them -- I had saved my notebooks. My story was in my hands, safe, clean and dry. It's all part of the job, I said -- some days you're interviewing Communists, some days you're falling in the mud.

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