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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tajiks Caught Between Drug Trade and Poverty

DASHTIDZHUM, Tajikistan — He was a threadbare child of 12 when he set out from his village for the city, a small, serious boy with a big mission: to sell 1 kilogram of Afghan opium in the Tajik capital to help his parents feed his 11 brothers and sisters.

But in the venal, cutthroat underworld of Dushanbe, it is easy to cheat a village boy. The dealer who promised to pay him the following week simply disappeared.

So Oiyatula Rakhimov returned home empty-handed.

One August night several months later, more than 10 gunmen from just across the border in Afghanistan swept silently down the verdant slope behind his house and seized the boy as a hostage for the family's drug debt to them.

Nearly two years later he remains a prisoner, and the price for his life — $1,000 — is so far beyond his father's reach that, at mention of the sum, the old man just bows his head and weeps.

The remote valley where the Panj River divides northern Afghanistan from southern Tajikistan seems a place of rugged, calm majesty. But the peace has been sold for drugs, revenge and human sorrow. The wild, red mountain tulips are watered by the tears of women and old men whose loved ones are stolen from border villages and spirited across the river, killed or working as drug couriers to pay off debts.

Afghanistan is a major opium producer: In 2000 it accounted for 72 percent of the world crop. Neighboring Central Asian nations have been sucked into its vortex. Tajikistan, the poorest of these former Soviet republics, in particular has become a pipeline for Afghan drugs on their way to Moscow and then to Western Europe.

While the UN Drug Control Program reports that Afghanistan's ruling Taliban wiped out the opium poppy crop this last year, Tajik authorities insist that increased quantities still are flowing across the border. Stockpiles may account for part of the increase, while in northern areas of Afghanistan not under Taliban control, drug production reportedly continues unabated.

Heroin, or gera in Tajik slang, is smuggled across the border in coarse, poorly sewn white cotton bags sometimes even bearing the names and even the addresses of manufacturers.

The border, heavily fortified in Soviet times, is sometimes just a maze of mountain passes.

For Tajik villagers, driven by poverty or opportunism, it is often tempting to put themselves in debt to the Afghan drug lords. With no cash to pay up front, the villagers take opium or heroin on credit. Some are robbed or tricked.

In recent years, the Afghans' patience has worn thin. Twenty-six hostages from Tajikistan are being held in Afghanistan. Last year, 23 hostages from the Kulyab region were released, and five have been freed this year, according to the Tajikistan Security Ministry.

The Afghan gunmen come on foot at night.

They came again and again to the home of Imam Rakhimov, who could not pay the ransom for his son Oiyatula.

"They took everything they could find. They took the horses, the sheep. They took all the rugs, my daughter's dowry. They left me with nothing," Rakhimov said.

His face is like gray stone, etched with grief.

Eyes downcast, the old man said the mistake that cost him his son was impelled by poverty. In mountain villages like this, there are no jobs. Pensions — $2 or $3 a month — are delayed for many months.

"It's getting worse now because now the Afghans are starting to kill people. Everyone's afraid. People try to stay indoors," Rakhimov said.

Zuratmo Ilyosova was one of the luckier ones. She was able to come home again, and described her ordeal as a hostage.

The rap on the window that changed her life came at about 1 a.m. on May 28 three years ago, rousing women from their sleep. There were no men that night to help defend the house in the village of Noachun, 10 kilometers from the Afghan border.

The women ran in panic from one hiding place to another. But for Ilyosova in particular, a chance overnight visit at her aunt's house turned into a nightmare. She had left her 3-year-old daughter, Zulfiya, 24 kilometers away with her parents.

Afghan gunmen marched into her aunt's house that night, seized her and took her across the river. The debtors, Ilyosova says, were her aunt's neighbors. Their house was empty, so the gunmen simply raided the place next door.

She was kept prisoner for nearly three years. At first she was kept mainly in a dark room and forced to wear a full-length shroud with a black net hiding her eyes. The area was controlled by anti-Taliban forces.

One of the local commanders, named Abdullah Masobir, decided to take her for his second wife and warned her to give up hope of escape.

"I grieved that my life turned out that way. But I never gave up hope. Three times I tried to run away at night when everyone was asleep. They would wake up next morning, see I was gone and come for me," she said.

In January, Ilyosova finally won her freedom after Masobir left both her and his other wife — and, ironically, moved to Tajikistan.

She returned home with a second child, Najibula, age 2, who is Masobir's son, and lives once more with her parents. Her first husband long ago disappeared in Chechnya. Her father does odd jobs, and the family subsists largely on flat, brown bread.

The drug pipeline often goes through Moscow on its way to Western Europe. So when a flight from Dushanbe lands in Moscow, the Russian customs officers have their dogs ready.

A long line of Dushanbe passengers snaked through the airport one recent day, while customs officers searched the luggage with bored hostility. Risko, a German shepherd trained to sniff drugs, hurled himself at the cheap bags and handmade wooden crates.

Customs officers were looking not only for drugs but also for antacids — a possible clue to drug couriers who swallowed heroin tied into the fingers of rubber gloves and wrapped in plastic.

Forty-nine drug smugglers were caught on the Dushanbe-Moscow flights last year, and 15 in the first five months of 2001.

Occasionally a courier with a burst packet flies in and has to be hospitalized.

Couriers receive between $300 and $700 for the journey — enough to live for a year in Tajikistan.

But the head of the customs shift, Lieutenant Colonel Viktor Bylinkin, has little sympathy. "They're forced by poverty to become drug couriers. But I wouldn't have any problem if all the drug packages in all their bodies leaked. I feel no pity. They poison the nation," he said.