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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Next Door Puts Tajikistan in Spotlight

APNabi Begmurodov, a 42-year-old former train driver, and his family have lived through a bloody civil war and a crippling drought.
CHIMBULOK, Tajikistan -- After a bloody civil war and a crippling drought, the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan is more bad news for Tajikistan, but also a source of hope for some.

Despite unease about the violence next door, international aid workers say the unprecedented attention the war has focused on this obscure and impoverished former Soviet republic could help set it on the road to recovery.

The U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has put Tajikistan, with its 1,200-kilometer border with Afghanistan, on the map. Some 1,800 journalists have passed through, mostly en route to Afghanistan, and foreign leaders have been flying in hoping to recruit Tajikistan for the war on terrorism.

Its currency, the somoni, has strengthened. Taxi drivers, restaurants and hotels are doing booming business in the capital, Dushanbe. And though it's too early to tell whether a long-term improvement is beginning, hopes have risen that the trickle of foreign aid to Tajikistan could become a more life-sustaining stream.

"If there is anything positive that can come out of Sept. 11, it is a potential reversal of the economic slide of Tajikistan," said Genevieve Abel, Tajikistan country director for CARE, a private international relief and development organization.

"We see it as a tremendous opportunity," she said.

Last year, the International Red Cross received less than half of the $8 million it aimed to raise for Tajikistan.

Now, the Red Cross is optimistic about change.

"We have received so much coverage so far," said Red Cross spokeswoman Margarita Plotnikova. "We can say that Tajikistan is getting dividends."

"All of a sudden, Tajikistan is on everyone's agenda," said Jan Harfst, who runs a United Nations program to help the country recover from the five-year civil war.

Certainly, the nation of 6.6 million -- 80 percent rural -- could use all the help it can get.

Tajikistan was the poorest republic in the Soviet Union, and its economic problems only worsened after independence when the cotton industry that once kept it afloat largely collapsed.

The village of Chimbulok, just 36 kilometers from the capital, is typical.

In this collection of mud-brick houses next to the remains of a once-bustling railroad, unemployment and two years of drought have left people on the brink of starvation.

Conditions in the village were always primitive, but Soviet authorities saw to it that Chimbulok had a decent school, clinic and water supply. Most of the village men worked on the railroad.

Then, torrential rains destroyed the railroad, and the war-weakened government could not rebuild it.

The villagers turned to farming, but what rain didn't wreck, drought did. Only in early November did two days of downpour bring a bit of green back to the parched yellow landscape. Even if the drought is over, the crisis is not because people have no reserves left to sow.

With no prospects in Chimbulok, Oisha Kindzhayeva's husband left for Russia to try to earn some money, but so far has sent none.

Standing in her doorway under a bright midday sun, Kindzhayeva said her family last had a meal a day ago -- thanks to a neighbor who lent her and her sisters-in-law some flour. The women baked traditional round bread. They ate a few bites but gave most of it to the three children.

Asked when she would eat again, Kindzhayeva began to weep softly. "I don't know," she said. "We have nothing."

Meanwhile, the satisfaction with being on the map is offset by unease about the war.

"When our neighbor has a problem, we have a problem," says Nabi Begmurodov, a 42-year-old Chimbulok man. "If he is OK, then we are OK. If he has a piece of bread, he'll share it."