Since violence erupted in the central Asian Republic of Tajikistan Tuesday, an entire city of 20,000 people, Khorog, has been under siege. It is completely cut off from the outside world, including via cellphone and Internet, with reports of heavy fighting and civilian casualties. Relatives of people in Khorog and other concerned expatriates began protesting outside Tajik embassies in different parts of the world last week.
In London, Modavlat Gulomkodirova and Rahila Muhibi were protesting Friday outside the Tajik Embassy, demanding an end to the information blockade.
“I haven’t been able to talk to my family in three days, and I don’t know what’s happening, I only heard my neighbors got killed. They were innocent people, not involved in any opposition against the government,” said Gulomkodirova, who was born and raised in Khorog and whose parents, siblings, and other relatives still live there.
“We don’t seek any political change, we only want to talk to our relatives,” she said.
Located in the remote region of Gorno-Badakshan, in the Pamir Mountains on the Afghan border, Khorog is home to the Pamiri ethnic minority, which has had a troubled relationship with the central government in the capital of Dushanbe ever since the bloody post-Soviet civil war in the 1990s.
Last weekend tensions escalated when Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security, the successor to the Soviet KGB, was stabbed to death by unknown assailants. Tolib Ayombekov, a local warlord based in Khorog, is suspected of being behind the killing, and according to the Tajik government, he refused to surrender and attacked government forces when sought.
The Tajik government’s response was severe on the small city of 20,000. From what Gulomkodirova could gather from sources, the government came in the early morning hours with troops and helicopters and soldiers.
“We saw a few videos, and they were horrible,” Gulomkodirova said. “There was nonstop 24 hour gunfire. The government is not telling us what is really happening, and this is a violation of human rights.”
According to available information, the government sent in several thousand troops.
“Many were killed. I have also heard reports of snipers. Houses have been destroyed, and even small schoolchildren have been killed,” Gulomkodirova said.
Rahila Muhibi said that she did not think the government was killing civilians on purpose, but by going in as they did, without warning, closing off the city and firing at it from the mountain, the situation has become extremely serious. “The stores are closed, so people can’t get food or drink. It’s a humanitarian crisis,” she said.
Since the city remains isolated, the casualty rate is impossible to know. The Tajik government claimed on Saturday that 17 members of the security forces, 30 militants, and 1 civilian had been killed, but this figure seems unlikely, considering the intense fighting, and the various accounts and videos that have managed to come out.
The protesters outside the Tajik Embassy in London requested that the Tajik government open up communications and withdraw the army, and called upon the rest of the world to turn their attention to Khorog.
“I’m requesting both the government of Tajikistan and whoever is able ask them: We want to know if our families are safe and OK, if they are even alive,” Gulomkodirova said.
According to a Radio Free Europe report Sunday, citing official Tajik media, the opposition fighters have begun to lay down their arms, and the situation in Khorog was now quiet.
With reporting by John Smithies in London.
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