“Don’t spit in the well you drink from!” This expression, which has equivalents in both Kyrgyz and Tajik, is often heard in the Isfara Valley to express the interdependence of life along the twisting, largely unmarked border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In this intensely farmed and densely populated valley, everyone depends on the Isfara River, and the canal system it sustains, for their livelihoods. At the upper end of the valley, as the river narrows to a steep gorge at the villages of Ak-Sai and Vorukh, residents also depend upon a single road to reach their respective administrative centers, as well as their mountain pastures. When roads and borders are closed, as they have been periodically over the last month following suspected arson and later an exchange of fire between border troops, prices for basic goods rapidly rise, and the delicate interdependence of borderland life is ruptured. In such moments, as one Vorukh elder put it to me, “we really become an enclave.”
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Madeleine Reeves is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Manchester and has carried out fieldwork in the Isfara Valley since 2004.