Rumors, dust fill Afghan neighbor's air

Tajikistan depends on Russia as fighting occurs on its border

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

October 05, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - The faint rumble of an approaching war is transforming this run-down capital of a hitherto forgotten part of Central Asia.

Dushanbe has suddenly awakened from years of isolation to find itself nearly the center of the world's attention. Vans stuffed with foreign diplomats tour the city's Soviet-era monuments. Black Mercedes with flags flapping on fenders fly down the streets, passing jitney vans and rattletrap taxis.

And there are the rumors - that American troops are on their way. Or that they are already here. Or that an attack on Afghanistan is about to begin.

Dushanbe should be having a season of quiet, after years of strife. There is ordinarily little reason for foreigners to be here. Tajikistan is desperately poor, isolated by some of the world's tallest mountains and smothered every year about this time by what Tajiks call the "Afghan winds" - a boiling dust cloud that blows in from the south, blots out the sun for days and brings a choking cough to everyone outdoors.

But Tajikistan has the sudden importance that geography brings: The country borders parts of northeast Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance, the opposition forces that have been battling the ruling Taliban since the mid-1990s.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the United States recognized that the alliance could play an important role in organizing or carrying out military strikes within Afghanistan. There seems little doubt that the United States and the alliance will at least coordinate military efforts.

Russia, which has emerged as an important U.S. ally, is the key intermediary. Tajikistan was once a Soviet republic, and Russia wields enormous influence here. Russian troops patrol Tajikistan's frontier with Afghanistan, and Russia has promised to supply food and arms to the Northern Alliance

Dushanbe has served as a transit point for goods being shipped out of Afghanistan. Smugglers bring tons of heroin and raw opium from poppy fields south of Afghanistan's Panj River, then north through Tajikistan on their way to European markets. Authorities here last year intercepted more than 4 million pounds of heroin and more than 10 million pounds of raw opium, according to United Nations figures. Officials estimate that 90 percent of the heroin shipments get through.

Profits from this lucrative business have probably contributed to the capital's construction boom. Big new houses are being built, and office buildings are undergoing renovations. Wealthy residents of Dushanbe can spend their money in a casino that opened about a year ago in Lenin Park, or dine in a recently opened Georgian restaurant, built like a California hacienda, where imported wine starts at $40 a bottle.

The luxury exists in close proximity to startling poverty. Of the 15 former Soviet republics, Tajikistan is the poorest. Eighty percent of its citizens live below the poverty level. School teachers earn $10 a month; farmers are suffering through the second year of the worst drought of the past 75 years. Aid agencies estimate that 1 million people will face malnutrition this winter.

Tajikistan has been in trouble since the breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991. When independence arrive, fierce fighting erupted along ethnic and clan lines, fighting that killed 1 percent of the population during the early and mid-1990s. A peace accord took hold in 1997 because, people say, the clans and factions were exhausted by the bloodshed and chaos.

Now, the capital's streets are jammed. Russian border guards buy ice cream at sidewalk stands. Pedestrians watch a trained bear in front of the opera and ballet theater. Russian teen-agers roller-skate down the main street, Rudaki Prospect.

Like most states in the region, Tajikistan has long suffered a succession of invaders. The latest are journalists dressed in jeans and safari vests and who have commandeered every taxi, mobbed the Soviet-era hotels and helped drive up prices. They have spent much of the week loitering in the garden of the Northern Alliance embassy, waiting for the Afghan wind to die down enough for helicopters to ferry them into Afghanistan.

Tajiks don't seem worried about the threatened conflict beyond their borders. They feel protected by Moscow, and the 25,000 Russian troops at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

International aid officials, though, warn of a potential catastrophe. If the war goes badly for the Northern Alliance, they say, tens of thousands of ethnic Tajiks may flee north into the hardest areas hit by the drought.

An uncontrolled frontier, officials say, could also invite the dumping of tons of Afghan heroin onto world markets. "This is a border that needs to be completely controlled," said Matthew Kahane, the United Nation's Resident Coordinator here.

Dushanbe is also home to about 4,000 Afghan refugees, most of them ethnic Tajiks who fled earlier fighting. Aimal Amir, 12, and his twin brother, Ajman, lived near the northern Afghan city of Baglan. When the Taliban won control of the city, the boys said, Taliban members went to the local school, piled all the chairs and furniture together, set them on fire and told the students not to return. The Amir family decided to leave. And three months ago, the family reached Dushanbe.

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