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War, Grief, And The Risk Of Repeat On The Kyrgyz-Tajik Border

Damaged homes and destruction in a village in Kyrgyzstan's Batken region -- the level of military hardware and extent of the damage are unprecedented in the conflict.
Damaged homes and destruction in a village in Kyrgyzstan's Batken region -- the level of military hardware and extent of the damage are unprecedented in the conflict.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In the early morning hours of September 16, Elzada Mannanova, a 15-year-old Kyrgyz citizen, was killed amid shelling by Tajik forces as she fled from her home village of Dostuk.

Her father, Malik Mannanov, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he buried his daughter in the village of Margun in haste.

"Everyone was running from the projectiles," recalled Mannanov, one of the some 140,000 Kyrgyz forced during the hostilities from villages in the southwestern region of Batken, some of whom used a corridor opened by neighboring Uzbekistan.

It was a tragic story heard far too often on both sides of the border as civilians suffered dozens of casualties and damage to their property.

Deadly Clashes On Tajik-Kyrgyz Border Leave A Swath Of Destruction
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Later that day, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov met his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.

The agreement that the pair reached there to halt the fighting broke down almost instantly.

By the evening, it was becoming clear that the violence that engulfed their contested border was even worse than the unprecedented conflict in April last year, when 55 people died.

After the latest fighting slowed and seemed to cease by September 18, official tolls are almost twice as high as following that conflict. Kyrgyzstan has announced a death toll of 59 with more than 150 injured. Tajikistan said at least 41 people were killed and dozens injured.

For two Russian allies in a region characterized by land disputes due largely to an nondemarcated border, the risk of a bloody new normal emerging at the border seems higher than ever.

'Border Clash' An 'Irrelevant Term'

Nearly half of the 970-kilometer frontier between two of the poorest former Soviet states is still not delineated.

Border issues in Central Asia stem to a large extent from the Soviet era, when Moscow tried to divide the region between ethnic groups whose settlements were often located amid those of other ethnicities.

Below is a map of the clashes in 2021, in the same area as last week's eruption of even deadlier violence:

For the last decade or more, violent scraps between ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik communities in the area close to Tajikistan's Vorukh exclave have become common, with interventions by gun-wielding border troops a notable trend in the last few years.

Water, as well as land, is at stake. At a briefing for diplomatic missions and press on September 19, Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Sodiq Imomi implored international organizations and foreign donors not to engage in water-management programs with Kyrgyzstan without Tajikistan's permission.

Vorukh, he insisted -- indicating on maps beamed onto two large monitors -- was not an exclave (a territory surrounded by foreign territory).

He claimed, instead, that the territory surrounding Vorukh was occupied by Kyrgyz residents during Soviet times and in the early years of independence. "In no case should we make the Kyrgyz an enemy in our society. This is completely unacceptable. But our opponent is doing the opposite," Imomi complained.

Last year's war significantly expanded the zone of potential conflict beyond that area and ensured that future shoot-outs would be shadowed by the threat of much heavier fire.

The deadliest fighting between the two armies began on September 14, and blame for initiating it was soon traded, as were accusations of heavy military equipment being used to target homes and civilian infrastructure and of incursions into sovereign territory.

The last of those accusations is the most explosive, highlighting that the conflict is no longer about tracts of land that both acknowledge as contested.

In a tweet early on September 19, Kyrgyzstan's diplomatic mission to the European Union asked international partners "to refrain from using the irrelevant term #borderclash" and accused Tajik authorities of seizing seven of its settlements over the course of the conflict.

Video footage of a Tajik flag being raised over a Kyrgyz school -- Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security said Tajik forces had captured a school in the Mannanov family's village of Dostuk -- offered support for that claim.

So did footage of armed men speaking in Tajik and referring to their situation inside a village with a Kyrgyz name.

Authorities in the Batken region said on September 17 that all those settlements had returned to Kyrgyz control. Residents of the province's capital, Batken, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the city and airport were hit by shelling the day before -- another first.

Tanks, Firing, And Evacuations Amid Kyrgyz-Tajik Clashes
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The Tajik government is notorious for its tight control of information and limited media freedom makes it difficult for journalists to cross-check government claims.

Yet Dushanbe also claimed that Kyrgyz forces violated its state border by entering villages close to the Tajik town of Isfara. But no visual evidence has emerged to support this alleged incursion.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondents were prohibited from traveling to the border by Tajik forces on September 16. But they witnessed significant damage in a series of frontier villages that became targets of Kyrgyz fire on September 18.

In Ovchi-Kalacha, where Tajikistan accused Kyrgyzstan of launching a drone attack, reporters found large blood stains on the ground and buildings badly damaged by projectiles and fire.

Villagers said that multiple people had died in the village during the shelling of a mosque at around 5 p.m. on September 16.

Resident Bizainab Berdieva said she had witnessed the death of a young medic, Karomat Sattorova. "[She] was standing there when we heard the sound of shelling. I said, 'Do not be afraid!' Then a shell fragment struck her in the back," she said.

Russia The Reluctant

On a national day of mourning in Kyrgyzstan on September 19, 53-year-old Japarov made an emotional national address.

He offered condolences to families of the dead, thanks to servicemen who had fought in the conflict, and acknowledgement of a massive aid-collection drive for people in Batken. "Every man clearly knows his mission -- it is to stand up in difficult times and protect his fatherland from enemy invasion," Japarov said.

The day before, the Tajik Foreign Ministry had objected to one of Japarov's earlier references to the country as an "enemy," calling it out of keeping with "the spirit of friendship and good neighborliness."

But Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are neither friends nor good neighbors and the question of how they arrived in such a state is a vexing one.

Shifts in domestic politics might be part of the answer.

In Tajikistan, speculation that long-ruling Rahmon is seeking to install his son, Rusam Emomali, in his place have coincided with Tajik authorities' pursuit of what might be deemed unfinished business.

Earlier this year, Dushanbe launched an aggressive and deadly military crackdown in its autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region, killing or arresting a series of local leaders known for their opposition to central rule.

Some analysts suggest the contested border with Kyrgyzstan could be another item on the to-do list.

Tajik commentators prefer to point to the dramatic, overnight rise to power in Kyrgyzstan two years ago of Japarov and his headstrong ally, Kamchybek Tashiev, as conflict catalysts.

In March 2021, just weeks before last year's border crisis, Tashiev had publicly floated the idea of a land swap involving Vorukh, where some 30,000 Tajik citizens live.

On the eve of the fighting that broke out on September 14, Tashiev and Japarov attended a ceremony to inaugurate a control station for the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone. "I have always said that Kyrgyzstan is a peaceful country," Japarov said at the ceremony. "I emphasize that our efforts to strengthen our armed forces are focused only on defense."

Bishkek's purchase of the vaunted Bayraktar in December 2021 seemed to rattle Dushanbe. In January, Tashiev and his Tajik counterpart, Saimumin Yatimov, reached an agreement not to use unmanned aerial vehicles in the border area.

Tajikistan's distaste for Tashiev is summed up in a newspaper op-ed written last year by former Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi, who ridiculed Tashiev's tumultuous past as an opposition politician and accused him of offending Tajik sovereignty.

On September 19, in the aftermath of the fighting, the Tajik state information service Khovar republished Zarifi's article.

But it isn't just Tajikistan's media space where Kyrgyzstan's leadership has taken a hit. In the first half of this year, Tashiev and other top officials were targeted by a wave of critical articles in the Russian tabloid press raging against supposedly "pro-Western" politicians in the administration.

And this year, like in April, online Kyrgyz chatter has focused on whether Moscow was giving Tajikistan a free hand to attack its neighbor.

Japarov railed against that idea in his national address. "Do not listen to the speeches of the provocateurs who slander our strategic partners, friendly countries, and peoples in solidarity with us," he said.

But at minimum, Russia has shown little will to intervene in the growing conflict between two states that host Moscow-controlled military bases and hold membership in Kremlin-led regional blocs.

On September 18, President Vladimir Putin spoke to both Rahmon and Japarov by telephone and "called on the parties to prevent further escalation and take measures to resolve the situation as soon as possible exclusively by peaceful, political, and diplomatic means," according to the Kremlin press service.

But by then the damage was already done.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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