We have become accustomed to hearing the phrase “it was impossible to verify this information” accompanying news about Russia’s war against Ukraine – it even seems that we need to introduce a special acronym. This phrase accompanies not just the social media posts of eyewitnesses, but also official statements from the warring sides, even though the entire world is anxiously following the war in Ukraine, and journalists, human rights defenders, and a special group to document war crimes are working there.
Meanwhile, in a part of Eurasia far removed from Ukraine – Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan (GBAO) – another “special operation” the authorities are calling anti-terrorist is unfolding. This operation has unfortunately not been properly portrayed in the international media and has been viewed as a local event since the very beginning of the escalation. Even human rights defenders write infrequently about the non-recognition and discrimination of the Pamiri people, an ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority, but the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues did recently address the situation in the GBAO. It is impossible to verify the scanty information from there not just because Pamir is remote and mountainous, and not just because journalists are under tremendous pressure and cannot freely report on the events, but also for the simple technical reason that the GBAO has been severed from internet and mobile communications since November 2021.
Even given all the differences between this clash between the population and security units and the war in Ukraine, eyewitness reports that have managed to pierce through this iron curtain show that GBAO residents see direct analogies between the two conflicts. The journalist Anora Sarkorova, who was once essentially banned from working in the profession by the Tajik authorities and is now one of the very few leading voices in the area, conveyed the words of a local resident: “Vomar is like Bucha. Corpses everywhere. They’re looking for people. They take them to police departments and the State Committee for National Security and beat them to death.”
Vomar is the capital of Rushon District, where on May 16 protesters blocked the road to Khorugh, the capital of the GBAO, to hold back a military column (they felled trees and built barriers out of tire casings). They write that the security officers did not let them collect the bodies of the people who had been killed or even wounded protesters who were bleeding out and dying. They write that a wholesale “cleanup” is underway in Rushon District, that men are being taken from homes and hospitals to a border command post, that they are being tortured and then killed after interrogations. Anora Sarkorova gave the name of one person who died in this way – 44-year-old Shukhrat Rushtov. They wrote about many acts of looting by security officers. They report that seven people in a garden in Vomar were killed by shelling from a helicopter. They write that snipers shot demonstrators who attempted to hide in the mountainous terrain. They write that 17 people who left Dushanbe for Khorugh in cars have disappeared and that they are all relatives or acquaintances of people the authorities have named as the “organizers” of the unrest. They write that almost 40 people have died, but that permission has only been given to bury 21 (or 25, or 27) of the deceased (including 30-year-old Zamir Nazarshoyev, who was the first to die); the rest have not yet been found. There are rumors that the bodies of the deceased were thrown into the river, so it’s doubtful they will ever be found at all. They say that Tajikistan has requested the extradition of almost 350 Pamiris living in Russia, some of whom even have Russian citizenship (this is exactly how MMA fighter Chorshanbe Chorshanbiyev, who was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison, and Pamiri activist Amriddin Alovatshoyev, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison, were returned to Tajikistan). The phrase “it is impossible to verify” must be added to all this; after all, eyewitness reports on social media are our only alternative source. No one wants to believe any of this, but many have become convinced after Bucha that the most unlikely things can turn out to be the terrible truth….
The official media in Tajikistan are writing about something entirely different: “the special operation to neutralize armed fighters in Rushon District, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast has been completed”; no civilians suffered, only “terrorists” were killed or captured; weapons were previously brought in from abroad; “foreign mercenaries” were among the “fighters.”… The Russian Foreign Ministry is developing the term “criminal elements and extremists siding with them.” There are significant differences concerning information about the number killed and wounded and the use of weapons by protesters (the Internal Affairs Ministry counts the types of pistols and machine guns seized, while social media posts say that the protestors did not have firearms), but how can we verify this?
What is happening right now in the GBAO is yet another case of déjà vu, horrific because over many years the Tajik government has never found any other way to speak with the population than through military suppression. Of previous similar situations, the bloodiest was the mass unrest in 2012. At the time, troops were also brought into the GBAO, there were many victims, mobile communications were also severed, and all this was also called a “special operation.” Since then, the military has had a heightened presence in the region, and Pamiri people talk about today’s events as if they were routine: “It’s the usual scenario: Helicopters started flying around, shelling us, snipers took up positions in the mountainous terrain and started shooting to kill.”
But here’s what separates the current confrontation from the events of 10 years ago: At that time, civil society in Tajikistan was very active, and, following a major monitoring mission, a coalition of leading human rights organizations published a detailed report establishing evidence of human rights violations, eyewitness accounts, and even (!) the authorities’ reaction, which was to provide official responses to questions. This looks surprising in the current circumstances given the authorities’ flat refusal to conduct a dialogue and the tremendous pressure on the media and human rights defenders that we are currently observing.
This is exactly what the protestors were demanding on May 14 and 16 – access to the region for independent observers and local and international media so that it would finally be possible to verify information: “… we are requesting monitoring, advocacy and assistance from specialized UN bodies, the OSCE, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international and local human rights organizations during law enforcement’s investigation of acts that occurred on November 25-28, 2021, and ignited protests and then the arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of Pamiris. The investigation and court proceedings must be conducted in full compliance with the laws of Tajikistan, Tajikistan’s obligations under UN conventions, and OSCE human rights obligations. We call on the international community to take urgent actions to prevent violent clashes in the GBAO.” They also demanded the withdrawal of troops, with the exception of police officers and border guards, from this region run down by militarization; an immediate end to the practices of intimidation, arrests, forced confessions broadcast on television, and the presumption of guilt; and, most importantly, guarantees that the Tajik government will not use force to suppress peaceful protests.
In 2017, ADC Memorial submitted an alternative report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on the situation of several ethnic minorities in Tajikistan. We wrote that the authorities denied having a biased attitude toward the Pamiris, but that one did exist all the same: Pamiri people can be identified visually, by their characteristic accent in the Tajik language, and by the place of birth listed in their passports; they are not counted separately in the census (they are recorded as Tajiks), but we can get an approximate idea of their numbers by subtracting “legalized” nationalities from the total population of the GBAO; the Pamiris; who are mostly Muslim, are often viewed as “the wrong kind” of Muslims, even though Central Asian Tajiks have only a very vague understanding of Isma’ilism; the Pamiris are not appointed to leadership positions because they are considered disloyal, and the region in general is suspected of having separatist leanings; and their languages are scorned at the state level, even though there is a fairly complete list of them and instructional materials have been developed for them – I remember how one of our informants said: “Our languages are only needed up to the airport in Khorugh. After that, they’re not needed.” Speaking of the airport, flight connections with the GBAO were severed long ago. The only way to get there from Dushanbe is by off-road vehicle, a trip that takes 12 hours and poses a risk to life in the winter (disconnection of the internet in November 2021 made it impossible for students to attend school remotely, and seniors were unable to take university entrance exams or submit applications for stipends on time – few families were able to find the money to pay for their children’s trip to Dushanbe, so the life plans of dozens of students were spoiled).
The sub-headline of our report was “From Non-Recognition to Discrimination,” and some of our colleagues thought that we expressed ourselves too sharply (not to mention the Tajik authorities, who had a hostile reaction). However, our assessments at the time have unfortunately been borne out: Disdain for the language and culture; disregard for the self-identification of Pamiris; insufficient attention to economic development of the GBAO (which has the highest level of unemployment in Tajikistan, forcing people who are able to work into labor migration) and infrastructure (no flight connections, poor roads); and, most importantly, insufficient representation in the government and management and the militarization of the region all sparked protests in November 2021 and their suppression, new protests, and the current “anti-terrorist operation,” which has caused many casualties.
The authorities have accused several people of organizing the illegal meeting on May 16, 2022 and the subsequent unrest. The first is the opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov, a social democrat who is currently abroad. The second is Kholbash Kholbashov, a general in the border troops. The Pamiris believe he has been kidnapped by security forces. The third – the “unofficial leader” Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov – was killed on May 22 “as the result of a showdown between criminal groups,” according to the press service of the Internal Affairs Ministry. Local sources on social media say that Mamadbokirov was shot by a sniper from one of the country’s security agencies. Anora Sarkorova shared a different version, citing eyewitnesses: An unarmed Mamadbokirov, who had survived several assassination attempts and never left the house, went outside, insisting that no one accompany him; four security officers leapt out of a car that suddenly pulled up, surrounded him, and shot him point-blank. There are reports that an eyewitness who tried to save Mamadbokirov was killed and that a person who was escorting Mamadbokirov from a distance behind him was seriously wounded. This last version could form the basis of a folk song or legend, which will perhaps be composed. The Pamiris romanticize Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov and believe that his death was heroic. Will we ever find out what really happened?
The fourth person accused is the journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoyeva. She is being charged with “public calls for violent change to the constitutional order,” but no one knows who she “called on” to do this or where. The press has already written about how Ulfatkhonim is respected in the Pamir Region and in Tajikistan in general for peacebuilding. I know Ulfat personally. For me it is agonizing to even think about her within the torture chambers of the State Committee for National Security and to imagine the kind of pressure she is being subjected to. Before she was taken to the pretrial detention center, she posted the following to Facebook: “My name is Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoyeva. I am a human rights defender and an independent journalist. And I have nothing to say about the charges the Internal Affairs Ministry has filed against me…except to say that my conscious is clean and that I have compassion for my small people, the Pamiris.”
Ambassadors from the EU and a number of Western countries have called for a de-escalation in the Pamir Region, and the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues also addressed this. Aga Khan IV, the religious leader of the Ismailis who is deeply revered by the Pamiris, also called for peace. The themes of his messages were to avoid violence, unrest, and any illegal activities, comply with the law, and create for the good of the country. Peace, openness, justice, and an end to political repressions are what should be possible in Pamir. This naturally requires an independent investigation into the tragic events with the participation of human rights defenders and international observers. Ideally, it would be good to appoint a UN Special Rapporteur on the situation in the GBAO within the framework of special procedures, considering the extended “undeclared period of martial law.” Unfortunately, it is impossible to enter the GBAO right now, so civil activists must try to record witness testimony as precisely as possible and reconstruct the course of the tragic events. Bucha will get its tribunal. Sooner or later, Khorugh will, too.
Olga Abramenko – expert, Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial
First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda