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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tajik Warlords Play Politics With Refugees

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan -- Stranded one hour's drive across the border into Afghanistan, more than 30, 000 Tajik refugees are due to meet their nemesis this week.

The warlord Sangak Safarov used his ragtag army unscrupulously to force them out of Tajikistan just two months ago.

Now, under pressure from the government that his troops installed in December, Safarov will go to Afghanistan in person in an effort to persuade them to come back.

"Safarov's presence will be a guarantee of the refugees safety", Tajikistan's new head of state, Emomali Rakhmonov, said in an interview in the capital Dushanbe. He said Safarov would go to the camp at Mazar-e Sharif this week to convince them that if they return home now, nobody will kill them.

Getting the refugees back has become a top priority for Rakhmonov, because they threaten not only to become pawns in Afghanistan's complex war but also to form an unwelcome bridge from Afghanistan into the territory of the former Soviet republic.

The bottom line for the government of Tajikistan is that it is better to have their enemies at home, where they can be controlled, than in Afghanistan where they could be armed and trained by the mujahedin and perhaps return to fight again another day.

"Some of the refugee leaders fought here in Tajikistan and they are ready to come back and attack again", said Rakhmonov, acknowledging numerous reports that the mujahedin have begun training some refugees.

Of greater concern, many fear that the already porous border with Afghanistan -- that has a Tajik minority of more than 3 million -- could break down altogether, spreading the Afghan mix of clan and religious war to Tajik territory.

Approximately 60, 000 Tajik refugees are still camped across the border, half of them under the protection of the United Nations in Mazar-e Sharif and the other half in the less impartial hands of the mujahedin commander Abdullatif of the Hezb-i-Islami, Islamic Party of Afghanistan.

The U. N. head of mission in Mazar-e Sharif, Philippe Lebreveux, sounded alarm bells last week, warning that the 30, 000 refugees in Kunduz were being held hostage against their will for some future military or political use.

From the Tajik border post at Pyandzh, close to Kunduz, you can hear the crash of mortar shells being exchanged between warring Afghan factions in the area. But Safarov will have his work cut out if he is going to convince the refugees to come back soon, even from such a dangerous area.

Nobody knows whether the death toll in Tajikistan's civil war runs into the hundreds or thousands. But many who have died were civilians who happened to hail from the wrong region.

The worst of the revenge killings have died down since Safarov's forces, who come mainly from regions in the north and south, pushed the coalition government of Democrats and Islamicists from Dushanbe last December.

In the process they scattered at least 270, 000 refugees around the country and into Afghanistan, according to Red Cross figures.

The fighting is not over yet, flaring again last weekend only 60 kilometers from Dushanbe, as government forces backed by Russian army tanks drove eastward up the Garm valley. Few believe the war will be over soon. Though small, the opposition forces will fall back to perfect terrain for guerrilla warfare as they retreat into the mountainous Garm and Pamir regions, where peaks rise above 7, 000 meters.

Dushanbe is relatively calm now during the day, but youths dressed in fatigues carry automatic weapons openly in the street. At night bursts of automatic fire disrupt the curfew, betraying the witch hunt that goes on after dark.

Rakhmonov acknowledged that armed gangs, some of them using the name of Safarov's Popular Front, scour apartment blocks for suspected opposition members, robbing and killing as they go.

The opposition are accused of being Islamic fundamentalists, but what they mostly have in common is that they are from the mountainous Garm and Pamir regions where Sovietization came slower and religious beliefs remained stronger.

"The government and the popular front don't trust Garmis and Pamiris", said one of 4, 500 refugees who did not wish to be named. The men do not go out, for fear of being abducted on the street. Nearly all of them were from Garm or the Pamirs.

Their case is typical, because their families moved from the mountains to work the cotton fields of the south 45 years ago. When the fighting began they were fingered as opposition supporters and forced to leave in a form of spontaneous ethnic cleansing.

"We want to go back to our homes, but the government wants to resettle us elsewhere", said another of the refugees. "Some people have come from the village to tell us that if we do return, we will be killed".

-- With Petya Yudin