Scraping along in Tajikistan


Poverty: Desperate women gather their children and flee the countryside, devastated by war and drought, for the capital, where making a precarious living requires paying exorbitant bribes.

November 14, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - Laylo Karimova readily agrees that life has gotten much better the past two years. After all, she has a roof over her head, and even if there's no glass in the windows she can get her hands on plastic sheeting.

She works at the local bazaar and can sometimes make 40 cents or 80 cents a day. What more could a poor woman from the countryside, living in a small room here with her four children, ask for?

Mauvjida Khikmatova feels the same. She left the drought-stricken Kulyab region three months ago, and now, living in a dormitory settlement with other migrants, she even has running water from a spigot in the courtyard, to wash her clothes and those of her five children.

"Here I can make salads," she says, "and sell them at the bazaar. At home, no one has any money."

Guli Fayozova has lived in these dorms seven years, since a civil war began to devastate her native Gharm, northeast of the capital. "Husband killed, house burned, nothing to eat," she says. "So I came here."

At the bazaar she sells a locally produced soured milk, delivered to her from surrounding villages; she makes about 80 cents a day.

"It's enough or not enough, but it's what I have," she says.

Her five children used to go to school but dropped out because she has no money for clothes or books.

Tajikistan was a desperately poor country when it suddenly found itself to be independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago. Today the poverty is considerably worse. The countryside was ruined first by civil war and then by three years of severe drought. The United Nations calculates that 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Moscow once provided fuel and seeds to keep the agricultural economy going here, but that stopped a decade ago.

All the countries of the region fear instability and Islamic unrest.

Tajikistan's five-year-long civil war had an Islamic-vs.-secular component to it, and now that Afghanistan has become an international war zone Tajikistan is in danger of becoming even more isolated. Neighboring Uzbekistan already wants nothing to do with it.

Now, as in poor countries all over the world, rural Tajiks are migrating to the big city - Dushanbe - or beyond.

Tens of thousands - among them former doctors and physicists - work in Russia, taking the lowest-paying jobs and putting up with constant harassment by police, thugs and customs officials.

Recently, train service to Russia was cut off in order to stymie shipments of Afghan heroin, stranding thousands of Tajik migrant workers who cannot afford the $130 airfare to get home

But about 300,000 have settled in Dushanbe, swelling its population to 1.1 million. Dushanbe isn't exactly bursting with prosperity, but the attractions are evident.

It's no longer dangerous to go out after 6 p.m. Even in the outlying districts, there is electricity, though it might be on for only one day out of three. Malaria, typhoid and diarrhea are not rampant, as they are in the rest of the country.

Most important, there's a little bit of an economy stirring here, and the families from the countryside have come to catch a few of the crumbs.

Some manage to live with relatives. Some are living as squatters in unfinished buildings - unfinished ever since construction stopped 10 years ago. And thousands live in dorms, paying $3.20 a month for a small room, with a toilet and kitchen down the hall that they must share with 23 other families.

Today, international aid agencies are gearing up to return to neighboring Afghanistan, devastated by more than 20 years of war. Some who work for those agencies worry that, with the world's attention turned on Afghanistan, interest in Tajikistan will be minimal.

So be it, says Lyutfiya Sharipova. When she was living in the village of Obigharm, she says, the only people who got any of the humanitarian assistance that was delivered there were the relatives of the local men hired to distribute it.

Sharipova has the disadvantage of coming from a region that was not only particularly devastated by the civil war but also was one of the territories controlled by the losing side.

This makes her suspect in the eyes of those with whom she must deal - the commandant of her dorm, the management of the bazaar, and the police. Or it might be more accurate to say that her background leaves her vulnerable to their preying instincts.

Sharipova, who at 38 is divorced, moved to Dushanbe with her five children three years ago, to a four-story yellow-brick dorm with no heat and no glass in the windows. Her two older sons wash cars that come to the nearby bazaar, unless warned by the driver not to or until they are chased out by the police.

They make enough money to buy a lepyoshka, a loaf of the round flat bread that is ubiquitous here. By morning, it will be gone.

Sharipova herself tried to set up a stand at the bazaar, selling crackers, cookies and cigarettes. She bought a vendor's license, but the men who run the bazaar demanded a bribe.

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