There are not very many books on Tajikistan, so I was more than a little curious when this title was published last year.
Ronald Poulton, Pale Blue Hope: Life and Death in Asian Peacekeeping. Turnstone Press.
Ronald Poulton is a Canadian human rights lawyer who worked for the UN in both Cambodia and Tajikistan. In this book he narrates his experiences in both countries, but focuses mainly on Tajikistan (about 75% of the book). I’ll focus just on the Tajikistan parts of his book.
Poulton briefly introduces himself and his background, but thankfully does not make the book about himself. I wanted to read a book about Tajikistan, not the existential angst of a western expat. He immediately gets to the backbone of his book: the 1998 murder of 4 UN employees on the road between Tavildara and Gharm. The local quasi-demobilized opposition commanders quickly hand over to the government the young opposition fighters they say are responsible. A trial is to commence in Dushanbe and the UN sends Poulton to the country to observe and investigate (sort of).
For those of you who know Tajikistan and/or Central Asian history, there will be a few passages that are a little cringe-worthy. Sometimes it’s the relaying of heavily biased local rumors/accusations and sometimes it’s political or historical analysis that’s quite far off the mark. Other times all you can do is roll your eyes (i.e., “It reveals the nomad in them – the Tajiks are simple wanderers.”) However, this book is valuable in illustrating the (in)effectiveness of the UN, as well as confirming what you probably already think about rule of law in 1998 Tajikistan.
Poulton is quite harsh on the UN, especially certain UN employees with their “prostitute-girlfriends,” binge-drinking, and disdain for the Tajiks. He is even harsher on the local legal processes (or lack thereof). It’s the sort of book that only a former UN employee could write. There is the UN security chief who turns up dead and naked in his apartment in Dushanbe with a single shot to the head- either by suicide, or murdered by his local girlfriend, or by her family, or etc… And Poulton provides this anecdote about hearing strange noises outside his apartment:
I am hesitant to call our security people. I have been critical of our paranoia and our distance from the locals and am already known for this. I am told repeatedly that I do not understand the Tajiks, that they are a different people, a lazy, violent unpredictable people who cannot be trusted. They are not worth knowing, I am told, and it is dangerous to know them. I can’t cry wolf until I see teeth.
Then there are the people in the “second camp” of the UN – mostly Eastern Europeans who can speak Russian. These men, who seem to have military backgrounds, get out and explore Tajikistan and make friends. They seem to like the place and the people. Unsurprisingly, Poulton is drawn towards this group.
The book is filled with anecdotes: some entertaining (a very drunk soldier getting picked up by man-beast in a dress), some horrifying (a Russian pensioner is murdered and her blood is used to write “go home” on the wall), some very familiar (constantly dealing with people who thinks that every westerner is fabulously wealthy), some extremely sad (a boy wanders onto the buzkashi pitch and dies under the hooves of a horse).
My opinions on Tajikistan are mostly settled thanks to my time spent there, which has been overwhelmingly positive. I was sad when my time there was over and I’m quite enthusiastic about returning.This book, which portrays the good and the bad, hasn’t changed my opinion of Tajikistan or Tajiks. However, it has put yet another little dent in the reputation of the UN.
Overall, the book is a quick and entertaining read. Don’t use it to write an essay on Tajikistan (unless that essay is on the effectiveness of UNMOT), but it’s definitely worth reading.