Teaching Tools, 19 September 2006
published by Oxford
University Press © 1995 UNHCR
Restoring stability in Tajikistan
Tajikistan's civil war aroused barely a flicker of international interest when fighting broke out in May 1992. The country had existed as an independent state for only nine months, and prior to that it had been almost completely closed to the outside world. With Afghanistan to the south, China to the east, and the vast expanse of the former Soviet Union to the north and west, Tajikistan was – and still is – difficult to reach and easy to ignore.
Since the tentative conclusion of the conflict in January 1993, Tajikistan has been the scene of a particularly innovative UNHCR programme. Unfortunately, the organization's efforts have been plagued by persistent funding difficulties. Nevertheless, with the firm support of a small group of donor states, UNHCR has been able to implement a strategy which combines the search for solutions with the protection of returnees and displaced people and the prevention of further population displacements.
A brutal war
The civil war in Tajikistan – a complex conflict with ethnic, ideological and religious dimensions – was short but extremely brutal. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people were killed. Half a million were displaced inside the country and 60,000 fled across the Amu river to Afghanistan. In the south-western province of Khatlon, which bore the brunt of the fighting, dozens of villages were razed. Many other villages, and most of the towns, bore the hallmarks of persecution. While certain houses were burned down or reduced to a pile of mud bricks, others were left intact.
The people displaced by the conflict were mainly ethnic Tajiks, who constitute just under 60 per cent of the country's five million inhabitants. Between the 1930s and the early 1970s, thousands of people were moved from the Garm valley in central Tajikistan to the south-west of the country, where the communist regime was seeking to boost the production of cotton. The descendants of these settlers, known as Garmis and Pamiris, were the principal group to be forced out of Khatlon during the civil war.
Many thousands of ethnic minority members, including Russians, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Jews and Germans, have also left Tajikistan since the country gained independence in 1991. Although for the most part not directly involved in the civil war, they moved to other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States because they were afraid of being caught in the crossfire, or because they wanted to look for new economic opportunities. Tajikistan's economy – the poorest in the former Soviet Union – is in a disastrous state. During the winters of 1993 and 1994, for example, the situation became so bad that some people were reportedly reduced to eating grass.
Despite the deep-rooted problems which still affect Tajikistan, including continued clashes between the government and its opponents, by mid-1995 all but 18,000 of the refugees and 12,500 of the internally displaced people had returned to their homes, mainly in Khatlon. Some 14,500 houses have been repaired with roofing materials paid for, imported and delivered by UNHCR. Villages which only a year earlier were devastated and abandoned have now sprung back to life.
But it takes more than a new roof to convince a refugee that it is safe to go back home, particularly in the circumstances of Tajikistan's civil war. For in many cases, the returnees are once again living next door to the people who forced them out of their homes, stole their possessions and killed their relatives. Important though UNHCR's shelter programme has been, the key to the refugees' return lies in the dramatic improvement in the security situation in Khatlon, a development which in turn owes much to the strong protection role assumed by UNHCR staff in the area.
The Tajik influx into northern Afghanistan occurred in December 1992, during the last few weeks of the civil war. By January 1993, UNHCR had deployed a mobile team on the Tajik side of the border, so that the organization could prepare for an early repatriation programme and help the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide emergency assistance to large numbers of internally displaced people.
The reason why some people became refugees while others were displaced within Tajikistan was quite arbitrary. Those who could tended to flee to the capital city of Dushanbe. But those who found themselves on the wrong side of a front-line were forced south and into Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the UNHCR programme in Tajikistan, the organization has provided protection and assistance to both groups on an equal basis.
Establishing conditions that were conducive to the return of the refugees and displaced people was far from easy. Initially, the rule of law in post-war Khatlon was negligible. The first returnees were vulnerable not only to victorious neighbours, who were intent on keeping any property they had stolen, but also to a formidable array of armed groups that were roaming around with virtual impunity. These included some of the semi-official militias which had helped the government to fight and win the war, and who were now (often literally) drunk on victory. The extent of this problem became clear during June and July 1993, when a number of returnees were murdered, robbed or beaten up by armed gangs.
UNHCR's mobile teams, operating from bases in the most devastated areas of Khatlon, followed up such incidents and drew the attention of the local authorities to potentially dangerous developments.
If the response to such representations was inadequate, the matter was taken up with the relevant ministries in Dushanbe.
In some particularly tense situations, the prompt deployment of UNHCR staff helped to ensure that the local authorities provided protection to the returnees. In addition, UNHCR encouraged the authorities and local leaders to ensure that disputes were settled through negotiation, rather than the use of violence. In criminal cases involving organized gangs or armed individuals, UNHCR staff monitored the judicial process to ensure that attacks on returnees did not go unpunished. By 1994, more and more such cases were coming to court and the problem of the rogue militias was subsiding, enabling UNHCR to establish an organized repatriation programme from Afghanistan.
In addition to these activities, UNHCR has been working in close cooperation with the government of Tajikistan to establish legislation relating to refugees and returnees. Thus in April 1993, Tajikistan passed the first in a series of amnesty laws. In November 1993 the country acceded to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. And in 1994 the Tajik parliament passed a special law concerning house occupancy. These legal instruments have to a large extent been respected, with the result that returnees are now rarely subject to any kind of official harassment.
Tajikistan as a whole is still plagued by political instability and a dangerously debilitated economy. A further collapse into armed conflict cannot be entirely discounted. Nevertheless, by mid-1995, the returnee areas of Khatlon Province were generally recognized to be safer than the streets of Dushanbe. With its task approaching completion, UNHCR is now planning to hand over some of the activities which it has initiated to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the UN Development Programme.