Can you imagine having to leave your country because you don't have the right skin colour, religion or just because you don't belong to the right family? While the previous stories that I have published depict images of voluntary migration, the next few are heartbreaking stories of forced moves. I vividly remember the Berlin Wall coming down, and the slow crumble of the Soviet Union in the following years, cheering when states gained their independence one by one. But I never really delved much further into those countries that are often forgotten about on the eastern side, countries where civil wars and ethnic cleansing initiatives forced people to flee for their lives with their families. Please read on for a true story of heartbreak and strength, and remember that refugees are not refugees by choice, but because they want to live.
It was late at night when the call came, long after everyone in Rustam’s house had gone to bed. The words that came over the phone, though, jolted his mother awake. “Leave now – they are coming for you.”
It was 1992, and Tajikistan, newly independent from the Soviet Union, was swiftly sliding into what would turn into a brutal, grinding war. Simmering rivalries between different regions and ethnic groups bubbled over into horrific violence, stoked by regional powers and the steady flow of guns, gunmen, and heroin that flowed in from chronically unstable Afghanistan to the south. As prominent members of the Pamiri, or Mountain Tajik ethnic minority, Rustam’s family were on what would ultimately become the losing side of this conflict, which officially lasted for half a decade, though sporadic clashes continued for many months after peace was officially declared.
The Pamiri minority, made up of around a dozen different related Eastern Iranian tribes, each with their own unique and distinct language, historically had lived isolated in the high mountains of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in eastern Tajikistan, and spilled over the borders into neighboring China and Afghanistan. As Ismaili Muslims who also incorporated elements of Zoroastrianism and shamanism into their worship, they were religiously distinct from their countrymen, and were also often easily identified by the light hair and eyes and relatively fair complexions that made them physically distinct as well. During the Soviet era, many Pamiris had moved to the cities of western Tajikistan, where they earned a reputation for ambition, high education, and loyalty to the Soviet regime. For their part, the Soviets felt that the Pamiris were a more trustworthy group than their western countrymen, in part because (as Ismailis) they were considered impervious to the jihadist radicalism that the Soviets sought to keep out of their mostly Muslim southern republics. As a result, many in western Tajikistan resented what they saw as preferential treatment of Pamiris by the Soviet authorities.
An alliance of Pamiris, Tajiks from Gharm in the southern part of the country, and others, fought with Tajiks and ethnic Uzbek militias from the western Khujand and Külob regions. As 1992 ground on, the tide of the war was clearly turning against the Pamiris and their allies, and an exodus began towards their ancestral villages in the mountain fortress of Gorno-Badakhshan. Pamiris who were unfortunate enough to be caught as they fled eastward were typically killed outright, either by soldiers, militiamen, lynch mobs, or some combination of the three. So Rustam and his family hastily gathered a few possessions, left others with trusted non-Pamiri neighbors who vowed to safeguard them, and drove as fast as possible east to Gorno-Badakhshan. When they arrived, they found the provincial capital, Khorog, crowded with thousands of other Pamiri refugees from the west, with more refugees dispersing into their ancestral villages, tucked away in the lofty Pamir Mountains.
With the cleansing of Pamiris from the western part of the country practically complete, the victors then blockaded Gorno-Badakhshan and destroyed fields, orchards, and flocks, with the aim of starving out as many Pamiris as possible. It wasn’t long before famine set in, and it became clear that staying in Gorno-Badakhshan would mean dying a slow, painful death. Rustam’s family made the difficult decision to flee the country, at least until it was safe to return. Like many other Pamiris who were unable to get air transport out (usually to Russia), Rustam’s family was forced to take the only possible land route, which lay south, through war-torn Afghanistan. Months went by in tent camps where cholera and starvation were rife, and international aid was virtually non-existent. Overwhelmed with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, many international agencies and governments were unwilling or unable to assist the refugees from Tajikistan. Ultimately, the Iranian Red Cross and the local Ismaili community in Afghanistan provided the bulk of the meager assistance that was received.
Once the weather conditions were right, Rustam’s family knew that they had to leave Afghanistan. While Pamiris in particular were not being sought out for death there, the situation was still extremely dangerous, in addition to the lack of adequate food rations, medicine, and housing for refugees. The next step was to cross into Pakistan, to the east, which was far less chaotic than Afghanistan, and where they would be able to begin the process of emigration to the West. Many Pamiris ended up emigrating to Russia, but Rustam’s family dreamed of the United States. His mother told him why: “In Russia, we can live there, work there, serve the country our whole lives, and we will still be foreigners. Europe is the same. But in America, we can become Americans, and we can be truly accepted.”
Rustam was frightened of the United States, which seemed worlds away from everything he knew. At the same time, the situation in Pakistan, while moderately better than Afghanistan, was still untenable. The Pamiris, coming from the cold, high mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan, found the tropical heat of the Pakistani plains unbearable. Untold thousands succumbed to heat exhaustion, starvation, malaria, cholera, and other afflictions. Rustam had lost count of the number of bodies of relatives and friends that he had helped wash and bury since the war and the subsequent flight began. He was starting to forget what normal life was like; what it felt like to be able to sleep without nightmares; what it felt like not to be hungry and weak; what it felt like to have a home; what it felt like to belong somewhere; what it felt like to be wanted. He often wondered why his people had even been created, if they were only suitable for slaughter.
Months in Pakistan dragged on into a year, and one year dragged on into two, as the long process of vetting Rustam’s family’s application for asylum slowly progressed forward. Conditions improved somewhat, as the Pakistani Ismaili community – many of them wealthy merchants in the country’s commercial center, Karachi – pulled together to assist their coreligionists from Tajikistan. Rustam’s family moved into a small apartment, and then a larger one. As Rustam’s English and Urdu improved, he felt a little less helpless and was even able to help support his family by doing odd jobs now and then.
In early 1997, Rustam’s family’s application finally was approved, and they made their way to the United States, where several other relatives had already recently arrived and settled down. After more than two days of travel, Rustam’s family marveled at the vast skyline of New York City as they circled over the airport. Rustam’s heart was torn – he hoped very much that he would find the safety and sense of belonging that he craved, and felt profoundly grateful to the United States for permitting his family to come. Still, he knew deep in his heart that he would likely never again see his beloved homeland, half a world away. It was time to start over and build a new life in a new country.