Isolated from the rest of Tajikistan, with their own dialect and religious traditions, the people of Badakhshan have long complained of being ignored by the central government in far-away Dushanbe.
But the Pamiris, as they are called, are not sitting by idly and bemoaning their considerable economic difficulties. The region is the home to a vibrant network of village organizations in which democratic principles govern the use of community-raised funds and public spending.
The 1990s civil war hit this isolated area particularly hard. Pamiris were targeted in security sweeps, and the region found itself economically isolated. State support vanished. Many locals -- of all ethnic groups -- say they managed to endure due to the charity of the Aga Khan, the religious leader of the region's predominant Ismaili population. His network of development organizations started with handouts but soon began supporting locally-led village organizations (VOs), initially set up under the Mountain Societies Development Support Program (MSDSP).
The village organizations are bringing about stark changes in the way local communities function, said Aziz Gayosov of the local Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Committee (ITREC), an international body that helps supervise Ismaili education and religious instruction. "We lived in the society where all things were provided by the government; we didn't need anything; everything came from the state. But now, this transformation period from the socialistic system to this capitalistic one marks a new way of life. You are in charge of your life. The state is there to make the laws, but people themselves must think about how to change their lives for the better," he said. "The government isn't able to do very much for us, so we have to take care of ourselves."
"Now, communities understand what is a civil society, that you have to be involved in the betterment of your life," Gayosov added, describing how his own small organization of 23 families in his urban apartment block helps neighbors purchase plane tickets to go work in Moscow and carries out repairs of the building's leaky roof.
Today, Badakhshan's provincial capital Khorog - a town where strangers greet each other warmly with a soft "asalaam aleikum" ("peace be upon you"), a smile, and a hand over the heart - is enveloped in calm, a far cry from the palpable social tension in other Tajik cities.
"The village organizations bring people together. People know they belong to a community and that there is someone on whom they can rely," said Misrinamo Odinaeva, a volunteer accountant for the village organization in the Pastchid District of Khorog. In her neighborhood, 40 families contribute two somoni each per month - less than 50 cents - into the fund for various local development and charity projects.
"One of our neighbors had a spinal problem and became paralyzed. We gave him 400 somoni [$91] to send him to Dushanbe for an operation. We gave this money as charity. If he can, he should give it back, but it is not required because he is from a poor family," she noted.
This is not an exception. Many of the village organizations provide aid for their neighbors, says Mirzo Mirzoev of MSDSP.
MSDSP helped VOs establish budgets with seed funds. It also has provided advice on how villagers can pool their resources and lend at low interest rates, according to Mirzoev. "In order to increase the funds, VOs give credits at 2 or 3 percent, which goes back into the fund," he added.
Small-scale loans have helped many Pamiris open up economic possibilities, or to get through hard times. For example, Saodat Shasovbekova, a schoolteacher in the village of Tavdem, recounted how her husband became ill and was unable to work. She said she could not support her family on her meager teacher's salary of 260 somoni ($60) per month. "I was unable to buy anything for my children, so I got a credit and bought books, stationary, clothes." When her husband regained his health, they paid the money back.
"When we started [a VO fund], many young people got money as a credit and used it to go to Moscow [to work]. After one or two months, they sent the money back with 3 percent interest. People are usually borrowing for six months or one year," added Shasovbekova. The VO she belongs to comprises 103 families that each contributes 2 somoni per month to the general fund.
Another vital role played by VOs is in helping to maintain and develop local infrastructure. For example, the regulation of limited water supplies is essential to livelihoods of many rural communities in Badakhshan. There, water is often channeled many miles along hillsides, cascading into alluvial terraces tended for generations by the same dedicated families. The scarcity of arable land in the mountainous region leaves villagers at the mercy of frequent avalanches. Tending to the ancient canals - or sometimes pipes - presents constant challenges.
"We bring our water from another village with a pipe. During the springtime, an avalanche broke it and so from this [VO-fund] money we bought new pipes," Shasovbekova explained.
In Islamic societies, usury is often seen as taboo. But the Ismailis have responded to changing circumstances by being doctrinally flexible, according to a local Islamic scholar who asked not to be identified. Islamic banking principles "are not as rigid as people in the West imagine," the scholar explained. "According to Shar'ia law, interest can be allowed if it is used for good things. It goes to the poor. Such interest does not go against the faith. For example, it doesn't go to building a lavish life, it goes to the benefit of very needy people."
David Trilling is EurasiaNets Central Asia news editor.