Tajikistan has been at peace for 10 years. After its seven-year civil war, however, bitter memories still linger in people's lives - writes Peter Kenny.
The country remains the poorest of the former Soviet republics, where many people still harp back nostalgically to times before the collapse of communism.
Yet many of Tajikistan's people, whose language and culture are linked with Iran, have stopped waiting in vain for the State to come to their rescue. They have discovered groups, made up of themselves, that can help them, as they continue to pick up the pieces after a war that killed as many as 100 000 people, from a relatively small population of 7 million people, and that "pitted brother against brother".
Flying into Dushanbe on the 10th anniversary of the ceasefire, television screens dotted around the main international airport carried coverage of a celebration event with images of men in round Tajik hats and women in colourful dresses. The men surrounded the women, whose dresses billowed as they danced in front of the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, who delivered a long but fiery speech.
On 27 June 1997, the Tajik National Peace Accord was signed in Moscow in the presence of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president at the time. President Rahmon and United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri were also present. A simplified explanation of the civil war is that it pitted Tajikistan's Moscow-backed government against the Islamist-inspired UTO, but there were also regional rivalries and other groups and personal battles involved.
"In our zone here we had some of the fiercest fighting in the war. The people here were on the losing side. There was a lot of devastation," says Bahodur Toshmatov, the director of Ghamkhori, a non-governmental organization. Toshmatov spoke to Ecumenical News International from his office in Qurghonteppa, Tajikistan's fourth-largest city and the administrative capital of the Khatlon region. "First we had to look to fixing the absolute basics, like getting water and roads to people."
"People are slowly building up their confidence," says Toshmatov, a Tajikistani who comes from the minority Uzbek ethnic group. It was on a day when temperatures broke the 40 degree Celsius mark. Qurghonteppa is 100 kilometres from the capital Dushanbe in the south of the country, not far from the Afghanistan border. "The self-help groups that started in 2006 are helping to build up those confidences, and as an NGO (non-governmental organization) we are encouraging people to use them."
Behind these groups is the Ecumenical Consortium for Central Asia (ECCA), made up of British-based Christian Aid, DanChurchAid from Denmark, the Dutch Interchurch Organisation for Development Co-operation (ICCO) and Norwegian Church Aid. This grouping has made the development of what is now called "civil society" a priority. So, these Christian organizations are pumping in resources, and working along with other NGOs and international organizations. High on the agencies' agenda, and in a milieu that is now predominantly Islamic, is the humbly named "self-help group".
Although Christians are a tiny minority in predominantly Muslim Tajikistan, and exist mainly among the small group of Russian speakers who remain in the country, Toshmatov, himself a Muslim, says people and officials have no problem working for and with NGOs backed by Christian organizations. Like many others, he notes that the local mosque and the leaders around it have an important bearing on civic affairs. He says most local Christians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, but it is not involved with local NGOs. And, while mosques and their leaders exert an influence on any civic affairs groups, the only Muslim organization supporting local NGOs materially in the area, as far as Toshmatov is aware, is the Aga Khan Foundation.
Much of Ghamkhori's work, in an agricultural area where cotton is an important crop, is building up the capacity of women in places where services stopped functioning after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and still have not come back on tap for many since the end of the war. "The self-help group is helping build up people's confidence in problem solving. Now they can write letters and learn how to make business plan presentations to get themselves small loans," says Toshmatov.
He adds, "Many of the women are on their own here. That's because their men folk have gone to work in Russia or elsewhere. Women's rights have been neglected, and it's difficult to mobilise women to take leadership because we are so attached to ancient religious practices. And men often don't want women there [in the self help groups]. So it's difficult to have a situation like that in northern Europe."
Often there are separate self-help groups for men and women. Men often do not want women to work with them, and women do not realise that working together can be an option.
"Men want to do all the things themselves," says Toshmatov. "Slowly, they have started working together. Men and women started to realise that they can solve problems together." He shakes his head ruefully. "We have a very conservative influence of religion here."
Friends of Gulsuubi, a woman who is now a leader in a women's self-help group near Kulob, 200 kilometres southeast of Dushanbe, say it was ancient attitudes that made life so difficult for their friend after what she experienced in the war.
Shoira Yusupova, a Tajik who works as an advocacy officer for ACT Central Asia, an ECCA partner, believes that 32-year-old Gulsuubi was made to suffer doubly: once as a female war victim, and once because of prejudice against women who are war victims.
"Look at her, she is beautiful, she has such lovely green eyes, but you can also see the pain in them too," Yusupova told ENI.
Gulsuubi lost her home during the war, and was raped by soldiers. After she became pregnant, she bore a child and was shunned as a non-married mother, whilst also having to support her family on her own.
Now, smiling with fierce pride, Gulsuubi made a speech, standing in front of her self-help group, NGO leaders and local community representatives gathered at her mountainous village 25 kilometres from Kulob, the third largest city in the country, and the area from where the president also comes.
"Before, I was shy and could never talk in a meeting like this," the woman told her audience in an eloquent speech, and using no notes. "When I joined a self-help group 18 months ago, something happened. It gave me self-belief. It built my self-confidence."
Because of the leadership qualities that Gulsuubi has shown, she was recently elected to represent her area self-help group at a regional meeting of similar associations. "Now I realise if we want to progress, it's in our own hands," Gulsuubi explains.
This is the fifth of a series looking at what some of the church-backed self-help groups in this region of central Asia are doing, and how they are affecting people's lives in an area that is both static and rapidly changing for the citizens who battle to cope there.
DanChurchAid paid for Peter Kenny's transport and living costs during this assignment for ENI.
Photos available at: http://www.eni.ch/galleries/centralasia/
With grateful acknowledgemnts to ENI: www.eni.ch