The Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir Ride On

By Callahan, Ted | Nomadic Peoples, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir Ride On

Callahan, Ted, Nomadic Peoples


The Kyrgyz pastoralists of Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor have weathered thirty years of endemic warfare and warlordism, large population out-migrations, and social and health problems ranging from widespread opium addiction to having possibly the world's highest maternal mortality rate. Yet, despite the odds and the predictions of specialists that the Wakhan Kyrgyz would soon follow their kinsmen into neighbouring countries as refugees, this 1,500 person community continues to follow the innovative pastoral production strategies developed over the past 100 years as a result of having to cope with the demands of year-round residence in such harsh conditions and with little overall land available. However, today, the persistence of the Wakhan Kyrgyz may be reaching its limits and the community has considered 'repatriation' to Kyrgyzstan as an alternative to the remoteness of the Afghan Pamirs.

Keywords: Afghanistan, Kyrgyz, pastoralists, Pamirs

And when you leave this little country, and ride three days north-east, always among mountains, you get to such a height that 'tis said to be the highest place in the world! And when you have got to this height you find a fine fiver running through a plain clothed with the finest pasture in the world; insomuch that a lean beast there will fatten to your heart's content in ten days ... The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travelers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you do not even see any birds flying. And I must notice that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so brightly, nor give out so much heat as usual, nor does it cook food so effectually. (Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo)


In this famous description, Marco Polo captures the barren and forbidding nature of the Bam-e-Dunya, the 'Roof of the World', Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. Yet, for the very reason that Polo notes in this passage--its lush pasturage--the Wakhan has been the seasonal home of nomads for thousands of years. More recent travellers than Polo were still told legends concerning the fabled Pamir pasture lands: 'A single blade of Pamir grass is as good as a haystack' (Michaud 1972: 458). The most recent group of people to dwell in this remote corner of Central Asia are the Kyrgyz, who had traditionally roamed the vast grasslands and river valleys of what was, until fairly recent geopolitical events divided it into nations, simply known as Turkestan. First Russian colonial expansion, then the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and finally the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 forced the various Central Asian pastoral nomadic groups either to settle or move into increasingly marginal, isolated areas, delimited in a way that made no sense from a pastoralist's perspective. As the international borders of the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan became more clearly defined--and politically sensitive--during the twentieth century, one small population of Kyrgyz nomadic pastoralists found themselves confined to living on the Roof of the World.

Even this remote mountain refuge proved insufficient to insulate the Kyrgyz from the effects of greater geopolitical forces, as external 'socio-political interference led to the creation of an arena of confrontation in the Pamirs, Hindukush and Himalaya during the Cold War which was one of the least permeable frontier regions in the world' (Kreutzmann 2005: 23). In April 1978, a Marxist coup in Kabul toppled the republican government of Mohammed Daoud. The Saur Revolution sent tremors up into the faraway Pamirs, as the Kyrgyz, who had in the past sporadically fought with Soviet forces just across the border in the Yajik Soviet Socialist Republic, heard that this coup was backed by the Soviets. Additionally, soon after the Saur Revolution, the Kyrgyz claim to have seen increased Soviet military activity near the border. …

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