Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

On the Roof of the World: The Last Kyrgyz in Afghanistan

S Reza Kazemi 10 min

At most 2,000 individuals, pastoralists living for centuries in the harsh environment of Afghanistan’s north-easternmost Pamir region, are the last remaining ethnic Kyrgyz in Afghanistan. As a part of its nationalist discourse, post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has been vocally politicking, but not doing much in practice, for the return of these Kyrgyz ‘brethren’ to their titular homeland, citing their miserable living circumstances in Afghanistan as an additional reason. Besides lacking funds for the project, Kyrgyzstan has been concerned about the integration of these Kyrgyz – some of whom are not interested in the idea – if repatriation ever takes place. On its part, Afghanistan may take a formal repatriation move as a blow to its ‘sovereignty’ at a time when a nationalist narrative appears to be rising in the country, concludes AAN’s S. Reza Kazemi as follow-up to an earlier article on Afghans in Kyrgyzstan.

The land where the Kyrgyz live in Afghanistan is the first prominent feature that distinguishes them from the rest of the population. As pastoralists, the Kyrgyz, who number 1,500 to 2,000 people and who are Sunni Muslims, live in their yurts (round felt tents) at an altitude as high as 4,000 metres in the Big and Little Pamir mountains. This is what is calledbam-e donya (Dari, meaning ‘the roof of the world’) in Afghanistan’s Wakhan district of Badakhshan province. The Kyrgyz inhabiting the Pamir region are known as ‘vertical nomads’ – they annually move from low-lying winter quarters (qeshlaq) to higher summer pastures (ailaq).
Wakhan is part of what is called the ‘Pamir Knot’ – a convergence of three of the highest mountain ranges in the world: the Hindu Kush (involving Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Karakorum (China, India and Pakistan) and the Pamir (Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan). Wakhan district includes the Wakhan Corridor, the Big Pamir and the Little Pamir.(1)

The Kyrgyz’s closest neighbours are communities of Ismaili Shia Muslim Wakhis, concentrated one level below them in the Wakhan Corridor, at 2,000–3,000 metres, who engage in agriculture. The Wakhis and the Kyrgyz have cordial ties based mainly on bartering (of livestock and agricultural products), according to Khair Mohammad Haidari, member of the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences, who works on Wakhi language development and talked to AAN from Faizabad, Badakhshan’s capital.

But it is not just the land they inhabit and their ethnic specificity that makes the Kyrgyz stand out in Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic society. Even more spectacular is the eventful history that brought them to the Pamir area, chased some of them out of it later on and kept some others there. After having frequented the Pamir region for at least two centuries during summers, they transformed this high-lying region into their permanent abode because of political developments. Their ancestors fled their winter quarters in Central Asia (particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and China (mainly Xinjiang) in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik and 1949 Chinese revolutions. They were subsequently ‘trapped’ in Wakhan after Afghanistan’s borders with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and then with the People’s Republic of China were militarily sealed in the 1920s and in the 1940s in what can be labelled a ‘transition’ from the colonial Great Game to the Cold War.(2) These Kyrgyz mostly escaped communist-enforced collectivisation to safeguard their nomadic and traditional way of life.(3)

The spectre of communism haunted the Kyrgyz once more with the 27 April 1978 communist coup, or Saur Revolution as the PDPA government that came to power termed it, in Kabul. According to anthropologist Nazif Shahrani, who started his PhD research on Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz community in 1972, the Kyrgyz were the first people to secretly flee Afghanistan after the April 1978 communist takeover for Gilgit, Pakistan in early August 1978 in ‘their desire to preserve the future continuity of their identity both as Muslims and Kirghiz [sic]’.(4) Afflicted by growing poverty and disease during four years of living in Gilgit and after a relocation request on their part was rejected by the US(5), Haji Rahman Qul, the Kyrgyz khan or leader, managed to get his community accommodated in Turkey’s eastern province of Van in 1982.(6)

About ten disgruntled Kyrgyz households refused to follow their khan to Gilgit and they were later joined by the Kyrgyz who did not join the khan on his journey to Turkey. Estimated between 1,500 and 2,000, they are the last remaining Kyrgyz in Afghanistan’s Pamir area (watch a trailer of a film about them here that is, according to director Louis Meunier’s reply to AAN, due to be released soon; for more general information here and here and for an award-winning 2012 National Geographic photo featuring them here).

The repatriation of ethnic Kyrgyz living outside their titular homeland has been largely a nationalist project that post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan developed after the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991. Successive Kyrgyzstani governments have issued presidential decrees and announced state programmes in 2001, 2006 and 2008 to assist repatriation and to provide citizenship for some 22,000 kairylman, or ethnic Kyrgyz abroad, including those from Afghanistan (as well as from China and Tajikistan).(7) In the most important act so far, Kyrgyzstan’s then labour minister Aigul Ryskulova visited the Kyrgyz in Afghanistan’s Pamir region in 2008. Emil Dzhuraev, a lecturer and researcher in Bishkek, wrote to AAN that Kyrgyzstan’s action ‘has so far remained at the level of “political” decisions and policy intentions’.

Kyrgyzstan has, however, so far failed to repatriate the Kyrgyz community from Afghanistan. The country does not seem to have the political will to allocate the necessary financial resources for this purpose. As the second poorest of the five Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan has considerably lagged behind in socio-economic development and about a third of its workforce has left the country seeking employment abroad, particularly in Russia. It is also unclear whether relevant international organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration can be persuaded to help Kyrgyzstan repatriate its Kyrgyz co-ethnics from Afghanistan.

But the real challenges are more than just the money and the related practical issues (travel documents, transportation, security, etc). There is a general climate of ignorance about the Kyrgyz in Afghanistan in both countries. Several AAN interlocutors in the Afghan Ministry of Border, Ethnic and Tribal Affairs conceded that they knew or have heard very little about the Kyrgyz community in the Pamir. The six periodicals published by the ministry contain no news or information on the Kyrgyz in Afghanistan.(8) Moreover, there have been no public textbooks in Kyrgyz language in Afghanistan, even for Pamir’s only school Bozoi Gumbad built in 2009, according to Mir Ali Wakhani, Wakhani language writer in the Department of Pamiri Languages, Curriculum Development Directorate, Afghan Ministry of Education, who talked to AAN, and Central Asia Institute.

Khialuddin Seddiqi, head of research at the Ministry of Border, Ethnic and Tribal Affairs, told AAN:

The Kyrgyz [of Afghanistan] have not been studied. The Ministry does not have the resources and capacities. Our researchers have also not been interested in the idea… Historically the Ministry’s attention has been focussed on ethnic groups along the Durand Line [historically contested but de facto Afghanistan-Pakistan border].

Although the issue of the ‘fellow-Kyrgyz abroad’ is reportedly emotionally charged in Kyrgyzstan, people in that country know very little about the ethnic Kyrgyz in Afghanistan. (They generally know much more about the Kyrgyz in China as they are more often shown on TV, particularly as Manaschis or those who recite by heart the epic Manas – the masterpiece of Kyrgyz literature.) Aiperi Otunchieva and Kubanychbek Ormushev – university graduates from Kyrgyzstan – wrote to AAN that the people of Kyrgyzstan generally know ‘very little’ about the Kyrgyz in Afghanistan. Otunchieva only remembered cultural events organised by the Kyrgyzstani government ‘several years ago’ in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek and northern Issyk-Kul province for the Kyrgyz living abroad.

There are other problems as well. Some of the Kyrgyz in Wakhan are not interested in the idea of repatriation to their titular homeland and the Kyrgyzstani government itself is concerned about the social integration of its co-ethnics from Afghanistan if repatriation ever takes place (see also here). Adam Baker, a linguist with the International Assistance Mission who works on the development of the alphabet of the Wakhi language in Wakhan and has lived in Kipkut village near the Pamir, wrote to AAN, ‘The Kyrgyz now living in Afghanistan are not interested in this [repatriation]… If the nomadic Kyrgyz of Afghanistan were to move to Kyrgyzstan, they would either need to give up their nomadic lifestyle or deal with the sedentary people in Kyrgyzstan’.

Nurlan Choibekov, a Kyrgyz with special interest in the sociology of post-Soviet Central Asian societies, said:

There is no point to return of… Afghan Kyrgyz to Kyrgyzstan. They will not integrate into the Kyrgyz society. People will perceive them as the ‘other’. Local people will say that even if they are Kyrgyz, they are different, because they did not experience what we did in Kyrgyzstan… They lived in a different environment.

Despite these impediments, more recent efforts have been made to for the return of the Kyrgyz, particularly after last year’s harshest winter in decades during which the Kyrgyz suffered significant human and livestock losses in the Pamir. After his father, Abdul Rashid Khan who had replaced Haji Rahman Qul as the Kyrgyz khan after the latter’s relocation to Turkey, died in 2009, Abdul Wali Khan took over as the khan and travelled to Bishkek in May 2012 in a new repatriation effort. ‘The main problem is death. Our children are dying and we are running out of women,’ emphasised Abdul Wali Khan during his one-man advocacy mission, but few people seem to have heard him and cared.

Badakhshan – the province where the Kyrgyz live in Afghanistan – has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund (see here and here). The situation is arguably worse in the Pamir where the Kyrgyz live. Another serious threat is widespread abuse of opium among the Kyrgyz men and women. Ernist, a Kyrgyz citizen from Osh who previously worked in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, told AAN that the Kyrgyz abused opium that is brought by what he called the ‘Afghan drug-lords’ in exchange for livestock (read AAN’s blogs on recent violence in Tajikistani Badakhshan here and on Afghan politicking mainly over the control of the drug trade in the incident here). All AAN interlocutors confirmed the dangerously growing abuse of narcotics in the Kyrgyz community.

The Aga Khan FoundationWildlife Conservation Society and Central Asia Institute are apparently the only three active and concerned organisations in Wakhan, but what they do is certainly not sufficient to tackle the enormous social, economic and environmental challenges in the area.

There are also larger institutional obstacles that may ultimately defeat the entire repatriation project. Although Afghanistan’s ambassador Nur Mohammad Qarqin admitted (in a meeting attended by the author in the Afghan Embassy in Bishkek early this year) that the miserable situation of the ethnic Kyrgyz in Afghanistan has become a ‘thorny issue’ in Kabul-Bishkek ties, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan have never prioritised the issue in their mutual relations and are not interested in expanding their ties. Medet Tiulegenov, a lecturer and researcher at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, told AAN that Kyrgyzstan is so uninterested in Afghanistan that it ‘maintains an embassy in Malaysia but does not see the incentive to open an embassy in Afghanistan’.

Kyrgyzstan-Afghanistan relations have largely been confined to meetings and diplomatic niceties, although recently Afghanistan is increasingly being referred to (including by Kyrgyzstani officials) as the main outside threat to Kyrgyzstan in the form of terrorism and drug trafficking (BBC Monitoring Afghanistan on 10 September 2012, see also herehere and here). An Afghan diplomat in Bishkek, who talked to AAN but requested not to be named, however, rejected these statements as ‘projecting their domestic troubles on Afghanistan and shirking their responsibilities particularly in the area of border management’.

Both governments are heavily focussed on their more significant priorities in the foreseeable future. Kyrgyzstan is yet to address its debilitating political instability and socio-economic underdevelopment (read our previous blog here) and Afghanistan is bracing itself for the military and political transition in 2014, the success or failure of which may possibly have huge repercussions not only in Afghanistan but also the wider region and world. Afghanistan may even take a formal repatriation move by the Kyrgyzstani government as an affront on its ‘sovereignty’ at a time when it is increasingly assuming responsibility for protecting its territory and people.

It seems that repatriation ‘politicking’ is disappearing among larger problems and more important priorities. Will the Kyrgyz continue to live in Afghanistan and adapt to the new challenges to their long-term survival? Will they opt to leave for Kyrgyzstan, despite their partial reluctance, to avoid risks to their well-being? Will they become an issue to upgrade, or strain, bilateral Afghanistan-Kyrgyzstan relationships? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, judging by their resiliency in resisting political and environmental hardships, ‘the Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir’, in the words of contemporary scholar on the Kyrgyz in Afghanistan Ted Callahan, will ‘ride on’.

(1) For more information, see pp 16-22 of the United Nations Environment Programme’sWakhan report.

(2) Afghanistan’s borders in Wakhan were demarcated in 1895.

(3) Many of Afghanistan’s Turkmens and Uzbeks share a similar history.

(4) M. Nazif Shahrani, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War, Seattle, University of Washington Press 2002, 230–67.

(5) Kyrgyz khan or leader Haji Rahman Qul intended to get his community settled in Alaska, the US, mostly for climatic reasons. He came to know about the US from an Alaskan zoologist who had worked for the Afghanistan government to establish a Marco Polo sheep reserve in the Pamir region in the early 1970s (named after Italian explorer Marco Polo who crossed Wakhan on his journey to China in 1273 and whose description of the area still holds truth for scholars interested in this part of the world). (For more on wildlife particularly the snow leopard in Badakhshan, see here.) The US, however, rejected his request, probably because the Kyrgyz of Afghanistan were too ‘alien’ to the US society.

(6) The request was accepted by Kenan Evren, then president of Turkey who came to power through the 1980 military coup, following his 1981 visit to Pakistan. Turkic historic, ethnic and linguistic commonalities were probably the main justification for why Turkey accepted to settle the Kyrgyz in its Van province. Turkey even built them a new permanent settlement named Ulupamir Koyu (Big Pamir Village). Once in Turkey, the Kyrgyz gradually changed and grew demographically and socio-economically. Haji Rahman Qul passed away in August 1990 and was officially replaced by Juma Taj, member of a traditionally poor Kyrgyz family, who won the ‘election’ against Mohammad Aref, Haji Rahman Qul’s fifth-eldest son in 1998 (see footnote 3). They now are the settled inhabitants of Van. The Kyrgyz, some of whom have joined Turkey’s armed forces, have reportedly been harassed by the Kurds in Van who view them as sympathisers and supporters of the government of Turkey in clamping down on and crushing Kurdish separatism.

According to a presentation by Erhard Franz at an academic conference in Germany in 1987, Turkey accepted altogether 3,811 Afghan refugees of Turkic descent; apart from the Kyrgyz there were Turkmens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and ‘Dari-speaking Bukharali’ from Northern Afghanistan. They were airlifted from Karachi (Pakistan) to Adana and ‘distributed over different provinces’ of Turkey. In fall of 1987, Franz added, there were 4,500 Afghans of Turkic descent in Turkey, some 1,100 families. Apart from the Kyrgyz in Van province (700 persons), there were 1,300 Kyrgyz in Malatya, 172 Uzbek families in Hatay province, 180 in Urfa province and 5 in Gaziantep, 60 Kazakh families in Kayseri, 195 Turkmen families in the Tokat area and 55 Bukharali families in Gaziantep. 140 Turkmen, Kasakh and Uzbek families came to Turkey on their own expenses after 1983 and went to Istanbul (Zeytinburnu) and Konya (source: Erhard Franz, ‘Turkstämmige Afghanistanflüchtlinge in der Türkei’, Kurzreferat, 7. Arbeitstagung der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Afghanistan in Eichstätt, 13./14. November 1987, in: Erwin Götzbach (ed.), Neue Beiträge zur Afghanistanforschung, Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica, Band 6.

(7) Marlène Laruelle, ‘The Paradigm of Nationalism in Kyrgyzstan: Evolving Narrative, the Sovereignty Issue and Political Agenda’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 45 (2012): 39-49.

(8) There are four magazines: Hamwatan (Compatriot), Gharjestan(historically the area between Herat and Kabul), Jash (Nuristani, meaning ‘flame’) and Jirga (Gathering). And two newspapers: Tara (Pashai, meaning ‘star’) and Watan (Homeland). These periodicals are published in eight languages including Pashtu, Dari, Uzbeki, Turkmeni, Balochi, Pashai, Nuristani and Pamiri (most probably Shughni, the most widely used language in the Pamiri family of languages).



Kyrgyz Kyrgyzstan Pamir Soviet