Magazine article New Internationalist

Side by Side in Destitution

Magazine article New Internationalist

Side by Side in Destitution

Article excerpt

Side by side in destitution

In the seething Green Market of Tajikistan's dusty capital, Dushanbe, two wretched men sit a couple of metres away from each other, trying to glean a bit of shade from the overhanging trees.

Ahmed, an Afghani refugee, is missing a hand: chopped off by the ultra-religious Taliban as punishment for some imagined immorality, before he fled the country two years ago.

Timur, once a Tajik farmer, sits on the pavement, the creases of his ravaged face deepened by the still-powerful autumn sun. He lost a leg to gangrene after being hit by shell fragments during Tajikistan's brutal civil war.

Both men keep their eyes downcast, hoping for handouts from passers by, most of whom are only an economic step above them.

Their plight is symbolic of a region where the bitterly opposed factions are as unforgiving as the land, where even the weather appears to set its face against humankind, and where life is an all-too-brief struggle before the dust settles over exhausted flesh and bones.

Since the US-led bombardment of Afghanistan began, the world's attention has focused on one story of human misery, that of the Afghan people and especially refugees.

At the border, a four-hour drive south, there are many like Ahmed - old, vulnerable and handicapped people stuck in a refugee enclave above a dry river bed, unable to cross into the relative safety of Tajikistan.

But Tajikistan itself is a human catastrophe zone.

Always one of the poorest of the Soviet Union's republics, it slid into destitution after the empire's breakup in 1991, propelled by an explosion of civil war among ethnic, tribal and religious groups vying for power.

Now the war is over. But Tajikistan's 5.7 million people are in a pitched battle for survival. The Government, headed by a Soviet-style leader, Imamali Rakhmonov, has never tackled the republic's endemic corruption, and wealth is concentrated in a few not-so-clean hands.

Most industry has collapsed, and farming has been given over to increasingly unprofitable cotton growing. For the last three years drought has prevented many from feeding themselves from their small plots of land.

The average person earns less than $300 a year, and unemployment is impossible to quantify. Among those who work, salaried jobs are almost non-existent.

`Anyone who has anything to sell tries to sell it,' says Fatloh, a determinedly cheerful woman standing patiently next to an assortment of bright-colored scarves. `If you don't sell anything you try to barter. If that doesn't work your kids don't eat. …

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