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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tajik Refugees Suffer, Russians Doing Little

AIVADZH, Tajikistan -- From the Russian-manned watchtowers facing the mountains of Afghanistan, the Tajik refugees, standing and sitting on their rafts and clutching the few possessions they could carry, are a pitiful sight.

In the last 10 days, about 35, 000 Tajik refugees accompanied by defeated fighters, driven from their homes by vicious clan bloodshed, have forged a desperate exodus across the River Oxus border with Afghanistan under the watchful eyes of Russian conscript troops.

The refugees, supporters of the Islamic government overthrown last week, have ferried themselves from island to island on the river in makeshift rafts of wood planks and empty oil barrels to reach a safe haven in Afghanistan under cover of night.

Harried by ill-disciplined fighters of the newly reinstalled pro-Communist government, the Tajik refugees are victims, not so much of post-Soviet instability as the creeping influence of Afghan-style clan warfare.

Their landlocked republic, perched high on the edge of the Pamir Mountains between China, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, has become the scene of Central Asia's own ethnic cleansing.

Tajikistan is effectively lawless, run by disorganized gangs of supporters of the country's former Communist rulers, who returned to power last week after being ousted in September by alleged Islamic fundamentalists. It is hardly a level battleground, with the latest winners having tanks and armored personnel carriers against the small arms of their opponents.

A century ago the land sweeping in a crescent from the Caucasus, via the Caspian Sea to the Chinese border, was a testing ground between Britain and Russia for control of Asia. Today, hampered by political chaos, clan feuding and post-Soviet poverty, it has been transformed into an arc of instability threatening to engulf much of the region.

Although the refugees and their armed menfolk are accused of being Islamic fundamentalists by their fellow countrymen, their real crime is to hail from a specific region, Garm, in the north of the republic. It has historically been at odds with the ruling Tajik group, the Kulyabi, who comprise the bulk of the new government's supporters.

Russian officers manning the flimsy border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan say up to 1, 000 women and children have already died of cold or malnourishment during their flight from their homes.

Russia's troops have played an ambiguous role, on the one hand supplying information and sometimes arms to the pro-Communist faction while on the other hand officially remaining neutral and showing what goodwill they can to the hungry refugees.

One of those refugees, Maksuda Rakhmanov, peered through the barbed wire of a grubby frontier post, ringed by a cluster of scavenging dogs, tents and holes in the ground that serve as homes. A mother of six, she pleaded for help.

"People are being transferred to Afghanistan, but we have nothing to eat", she said. "A normal Tajik family has more than 12 people. We have sent people to try to get to our village for food but they have not returned".

Villages inhabited by the Garm Tajiks have been torched by mobs of Kulyabi. Homes of concrete and mudblock houses have been reduced to rubble.

Akhmazhan Alimov, a wily former KGB colonel who now leads the region's unkempt Kulyabi fighters, said that forcing fellow Tajiks to leave the country was the only solution.

"Their condition is their own problem. When they moved here to live in our region they had nothing. That's how they should leave us, that's how it will be done", said the colonel. He promised that should any want to return north to Garm, he would offer them safe passage. Few have accepted his offer.

In an area of bewildering antagonisms that often cross religious or ideological lines, ironies abound.

Perhaps the most bizarre outcome of the conflict is that refugees are fleeing to rather than from Afghanistan. In the last decade, the mountainous nation became the world's largest producer of refugees as about 5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran to escape the war backed by the Soviet Union.