Beginning in the Kyrgyz second city of Osh, the Pamir Highway – the second highest international road in the world – runs the length of Tajikistan and down through Uzbekistan before terminating in Afghanistan. Ninety tonnes of heroin is trafficked through Tajikistan each year, much of it passing through the poverty stricken, self-governing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) along this desolate route. With sporadic fighting breaking out between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, borders between the two countries are open only intermittently, securing an entry permit for Gorno-Badakhshan from the Tajik government a haphazard affair.
Said by locals to be older than Rome, Osh is a dusty spread of Soviet-era buildings with pylons and satellite dishes adorning them. A mural on one block featuring MIG fighter jets, the building next to it, in stark contrast, was decorated with ginormous care bears. A group of travellers having recently been robbed and beaten, ‘Observe curfew’ the thrice underlined sign in my guesthouse read. Having recently been dubbed the drug capital of Central Asia, parts of Osh barely smiled in the daytime, let alone at night.
An ancient Silk Road route in use for millennia, the Pamirsky Trakt ascends to the mud-brick settlement of Sary Tash. A windswept hamlet where the main roads onto Osh, Kashgar in China and Tajikistan converge, the village has become a major stopover on the so-called ‘heroin highway’. Beyond the village, high in the Trans-Alai Mountains, soldiers in fatigues and flip-flops sat listlessly smoking at the Kyrgyz Bor Döbö border post. Pulling me to one side, the lead official shook his head. The Tajik embassy in Bishkek having placed my visa on top of my Kyrgyz entry stamp, it took three hours and a bribe to negotiate my passage.
‘Shh,’ the guard hissed, finger to his lips as he folded the crisp US dollars into his pocket.
Exiting his office, I noticed a poster fastened to his door. ‘Corruption,’ it read, a large red ‘X’ drawn through the word.
Littered with green rocks, the red soil road climbed through twenty kilometres of no-man’s land before descending to the Tajik border, its open gate swinging in the stiff breeze. Among the debris scattered about were two windowless, cylindrical metal tubes which doubled as accommodation.
‘Angliya?’ soldiers in puffy jackets and saucepan caps chorused as they approached.
‘Da,’ I replied. ‘Tajik?’
‘Niet,’ a beardy conscript answered, ‘Pamiri. Welcome to Gorno-Badakhshan’.
Despite covering forty-five per cent of the land mass, the self-governing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast contains only three per cent of the population of Tajikistan. The only Central Asian country to have descended into civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pamiris had chosen the losing side. Razing villages and filling mass graves, Tajik President Rahmon undertook an ethnic cleansing which left up to 100,000 dead and over a million displaced. The Pamiris have faced privation and persecution ever since. Only surviving mass starvation during the nineties because of humanitarian aid, the region still suffers from crippling poverty and an economic exodus of those in search of gainful employment.
With the most remittance based economy in the world, forty-seven per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP is sent in by the 800,000 Tajiks working abroad, largely in Russia. ‘The fact that these people tend to settle leads to wider issues,’ Dr. Luca Anceschi told me. ‘Now Russia has become more aggressive [and] started to change their understanding of citizenship… they could become an even more permanent part of the Russian state. This is something which could be detrimental in the longer term, a brain drain if you will, or a loss of manpower’.
Whilst many of these ex-pats live in dormitory blocks overseen by gang masters, others, as Dr. Alexander Kupatadze observes, are ‘heavily involved’ in smuggling. ‘According to Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency officials I interviewed,’ he told me, ‘the leader of the Tajik diaspora has been laundering money by purchasing real estate and restaurants in Egypt and Dubai, as well as investing in agriculture in Austria’.
Skirting the border along China’s troubled Xinjiang province, the Pamir Highway follows a barbed wire fence for hundreds of kilometres. Parts of the fence sagging or missing altogether where wooden struts have been stolen, tyre tracks told of illegal entries and exits.
‘There is a widespread belief in Gorno-Badakhshan that the President’s daughter controls the shipping across this border,’ journalist Joshua Kucera observed. ‘It’s no doubt pretty lucrative’.
Beneath dark, moody clouds, the road snaked onto Murgab, the largest town in the Eastern Pamirs despite having a population of less than four thousand. Cut adrift by snow for up to nine months a year, winter temperatures here fall to-45°C. Beyond Murgab, I passed through places – declared villages by road signs – which consisted of nothing more than a few crumbling buildings. A ghostly air of desolation permeating these settlements, the ground was smattered with the skulls of sheep and ibex.
Circumnavigating a landslide, fourteen hours later I arrived in Khorog. In July 2012, fighting broke out in Khorog after the Regional Security Chief was dragged from his limousine and stabbed to death. Helicopter gunships whizzing overhead, the authorities severed phone and road links, locals responding by building barricades and calling the government’s actions an invasion. Tit-for-tat battles followed, over a hundred said to have been killed.
Many Tajiks believe that ‘the government’s interest in regaining control in Gorno-Badakhshan has to do with gaining control of smuggling routes — though not drugs as much as cigarettes and other legal goods,’ Kucera told me. ‘From the Pamiris’ perspective, though,
they see the central government as trying to eliminate their cultural and religious identity’.
Hiking up a steep alpine track out of town, buildings along the way had been plastered over, all signs of the conflict vanquished except for where the bullet holes were too high to reach. Approaching the outskirts, new mansions hugged the hillsides. Springing from the scree in circles of green, they offered easy access to the porous Afghan border. At the foot of these tors sat the ostentatious vehicles of ‘New Tajiks’. The proliferation of flash cars in one of the poorest countries in the world had led to a saying; it was no longer ‘How much did it cost?’ but ‘How many kilos did it cost?’
I asked Dr. Alexander Kupatadze about government collusion in trafficking. ‘All large-scale smuggling features some involvement of officials,’ he observed, ‘either in the form of protection [such as] large bribes or direct participation’.
Already decimated by the dissolution of the USSR, the Tajik economy has never recovered from the civil war. Since the mid-nineties, the country has seen an explosion of heroin, becoming known as a ‘narco-state’. By 1997, Tajik researchers estimated that half of 18 – 24 year olds were employed in the drug trade. As to how high up the criminality goes, in 2000 the Tajik Ambassador to Kazakhstan was arrested in Almaty with eighty-six kilos of heroin in his car. In 2001, the Deputy Minister of the Interior was murdered, the prosecution in the case arguing he’d been assassinated for refusing to pay for a shipment of fifty kilos. A statement released by the UNDP in 2001 estimated that drug money accounted for between 30 -50% of the Tajik economy.
The year Tajikistan took over policing of its border with Afghanistan from the Russians, seizures of heroin halved. Piqued by the critical international response, President Rahmon levelled counter-allegations of Russian complicity in the heroin trade. ‘Why do you think generals lined up in Moscow all the way across Red Square and paid enormous bribes to be assigned here?’ he complained to US officials. ‘Just so they could do their patriotic duty?’
In the absence of a legitimate economy though, perversely the flow of narcotics seems to keep the country from falling apart. ‘The state is really at the intersection of the benefits and detriment which come from corruption,’ Dr. Luca Anceschi commented. ‘On the one hand, having the local administration connected with corruption has its benefits, because it’s added a new layer of patronage’.
Of course, the status quo has also served the international community, who needed a stable Tajikistan to ensure flight paths for the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan were not disrupted. In any case, efforts to restrict smuggling have often backfired, an increase in checkpoints only disadvantaging small time operators and enabling cartels to take control. As Peter Reuter points out, ‘there are economies of scale in corruption’.
Leaving Khorog, aside from rumbling Chinese juggernauts, traffic was barely existent, fleets of Mercedes with blacked-out windows hugely conspicuous on the switchbacks. Dried poppy husks sprouting from the roadside, overturned tanks and buses lay in the Pyanj River, the muddy shores of Afghanistan only twenty metres away. Given ethnic and kinship ties, the 1,300 kilometre border with Afghanistan would be impossible to police, even if the will was there.
Some nineteen hours later, a rash of mansions signalled the outskirts of Dushanbe. Holding pretentions of future grandeur along the lines of the oil rich Kazakh capital, whole swathes of the city were under construction. Costing more than the country’s annual health budget, the President’s new Palace of Nations had swallowed up a fair chunk of public parkland. Their inflated prices a haven for money laundering, the poorly assembled new high rises of Dushanbe were more expensive than equivalent buildings in Europe. Hiding these building sites from public view, billboards featured images from around Tajikistan. On one, President Rahmon stood in a poppy field, grinning contentedly as he sniffed at the sweet, subtle, red flowers.
Parts of this article are excerpted from Stephen M. Bland’s (@StephenMBland) forthcoming book ‘Does It Yurt?’
A shortened edit of this piece was originally published by Vice.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist. A regular contributor to Eurasianet, his work has also appeared in The Atlantic and The International Herald Tribune.
Dr. Luca Anceschi is a Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Dr. Alexander Kupatadze is a scholar and analyst based out of Princeton University.