A slight, kalpak-wearing man from Afghanistan with weathered cheeks, Abduvali Abdulrashid looks out of place at a posh sushi joint in downtown Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. He’s a one-man advocacy delegation, seeking Bishkek’s help so that roughly 1,500 ethnic Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan can migrate to their titular homeland.
Members of Afghanistan’s tiny Kyrgyz community live primarily in two settlements, known as Little Pamir and Big Pamir (separated by a three-day trek on horseback), in northern Badakhshan Province. Conditions there are bleak, featuring high rates of infant mortality, maternity deaths and opium addiction.
Although foreign visitors to the area offer conflicting reports over whether the combined populations of the two settlements are actually falling, there is consensus that females now comprise only a third of the overall population. That demographic imbalance is jeopardizing the communities’ long-term survival and fuelling a desire for relocation. In the absence of any medical or sanitary infrastructure, even easily treatable maladies, such as conjunctivitis, run rampant, Abdulrashid says.
“The main problem is death,” Abdulrashid said of the challenges of living in Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor—the slender, mountainous panhandle separating Tajikistan and Pakistan, which is over 500 kilometers from Kyrgyzstan proper. “Our children are dying and we are running out of women.”
Despite a formal request for repatriation in 1999 made by Abdulrashid’s late father, Abdyrashid Khan, who was leader of the Little Pamir Kyrgyz, doubts remain about the feasibility of any relocation initiative. Perhaps the biggest unknown factor is whether the Kyrgyz government has the political will to allocate resources to make it possible for the Afghan Kyrgyz to move.
Since 1991, when Kyrgyzstan gained independence, successive Kyrgyz governments have expressed interest in easing the plight of Afghan Kyrgyz, but have done little to actually change the situation. The country’s first president, Askar Akayev, was big on promises to the diaspora, but his administration never developed concrete programs. In 1999, officials mentioned the Chon-Alai region in southern Kyrgyzstan as a possible site for relocation, a suggestion that is now being repeated by parliamentary deputies. But no Afghan Kyrgyz has made the move. Most of the nomads lack any sort of travel document and Bishkek has not prioritized the relocation issue in its bilateral relationship with Kabul. The most significant gesture to date was a 2008 visit to the two Afghan settlements by former Labor Minister Aigul Ryskulova.
“Their situation is getting worse year on year,” said Mirlan Bakirov, an MP from the Respublika faction and a member of a parliamentary committee mulling relocation possibilities. Bakirov first raised the issue in parliament after reading in a local newspaper that over half of Kyrgyz children born in Afghanistan died before their fifth birthday. According to Kyrgyz Butagy, a Bishkek-based non-governmental organization that is campaigning for relocation, 450 children have died in the Little Pamir settlement in the last 10 years (the NGO did not disclose its research methodology).
“In a country like Kyrgyzstan, to find space for around 1,500 people – it is possible,” Bakirov said.
The stakes of any relocation are high and must be carefully thought through, says Jeff Waalkes, Kyrgyzstan country director at Crosslink Development International, an international non-profit focusing on relief and development in the region. Having visited Little Pamir twice, Waalkes has gauged both the needs of the Kyrgyz settlement there and the potential challenges of integrating the nomads into Kyrgyz society.
According to Waalkes, most Kyrgyz in Afghanistan are illiterate, while “up to 60 or 70 percent of the adults” are addicted to “black medicine,” or opium, a factor that may make some reticent to move.
“I still think if Kyrgyzstan said ‘here is a house, here are some animals, here is a passport, here is some land,’ many would say they want to come,” Waalkes explained. “The question is not whether they want to come, but how to integrate a small number into society first, and then gradually bring more.”
But in a country where ethnic identity, linguistic nationalism and patriotic fervor have grown stronger since ethnic violence in 2010, the question of relocation is easily politicized, and Kyrgyz-language media coverage of the diaspora in Afghanistan is emotionally charged.
Kyrgyz Butagy’s own promotional video appeals to such heightened sentiments, bringing attention to the poor command of the Kyrgyz language among some children in Little Pamir, where a single school teaches students in Dari. “If a people lose their language, they will lose their nation,” the video cautions.
While life for the Afghan Kyrgyz remains harsh, arguments for relocating the two groups – with or without a plan for their integration – will continue to be compelling. The authors of Kyrgyz Butagy’s promotional brochure quote a tearful plea to the Kyrgyz people from Urkiya, a Little Pamir Kyrgyz woman: “We are dying out here, swallowing dust and seeing nothing but our yaks. Please take us from here,” she said.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.