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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The man who has seen it all

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

Central Asia has been in turmoil for decades, and one old man who has been both a resistance fighter and refugee several times over, has seen it all.

By Mervyn T. Patterson
Northern Afghanistan Program Manager for Save the Children Federation, USA

The history of Central Asia is etched deeply into the wizened face of Khodai Nazar. He is 90 years plus he can't recall his exact age and what Khodai does not know about the turbulent region during this century, is probably not worth knowing anyway. He can recall the decline and fall of Imperial Russia and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Conflict and flight have been his constant companions, and he has been both a resistance fighter and a refugee several times over.

The Czars had earlier conquered the central Asian khanates where Khodai Nazar's family lived and, following the collapse of the House of Romanov in 1917, the Bolsheviks pursued ruthless policies toward local tribes. Revolt and famine gripped the land as Moscow enforced a disastrous policy of collectivization and tried to eliminate religion, tribal leaders and the whole traditional way of life.

Khodai's father was a prominent Turkmen tribal leader from near Kerki, which was originally part of the Emirate of Bukhara, and was a natural target for the men from Moscow. "The Russians told us that we should give up our property, that we would all be equal," Khodai recalls. "They promised us everything. Then our sheep and children started to die; our wells had been poisoned. Then they started arresting and killing or deporting people." For the first time, but not the last, Khodai's tribe fled, battling its way into Afghanistan as executions and deportations swept its Bukhara homeland.

Turkmen, Uzbeks and Tajiks have wandered this region for centuries in a constantly changing tribal mosaic, and when Khodai reached northern Afghanistan, in some ways it was almost like a home away from home because many of his fellow Turkmen already lived there. The northern Afghan border was a legacy of imperial rivalry and though it was a convenient administrative marker for central governments, it signified little in the day-to-day lives of the region's tribesmen.

At one point, Khodai became a resistance fighter with the Basmachi, an anti-Bolshevik group led by the legendary Enver Pasha. The Basmachi were initially supported by the central government in Kabul and then fought against it when Moscow's influence in the Afghan capital began to increase.

When Soviet troops invaded the country, Khodai and many of his fellow Turkmen became refugees again, fleeing to neighbouring Pakistan for several years. He returned home in 1992, wearied by a lifetime of flight and war, hopeful he would spend his last days in peace. But conflict has proved as constant in Khodai's life as peace has been elusive, and in May this year, there was renewed fighting around his village as Taliban forces tried to impose their authority on the region. The old man said this latest round of warfare only underlined a painful lesson learned the hard way throughout his life that tribesmen like himself can trust no-one and can safeguard their families and future only by relying on themselves and their clansmen.

Once more his family loaded him onto a cart and headed off into the desert toward the Turkmenistan border and possible safety. The fighting came and went as it has done in the past, but this last, aborted flight, proved one journey too far for the old Turkmen. "I am too old to move again," he said. "I will see out my remaining days here."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)

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