The people who know no war: Afghanistan’s most isolated corner

File photo shows an Afghan Wakhi nomad family in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. The region is so remote that its residents, known as the Wakhi — a tribe of roughly 12,000 nomadic people who populate the area — are untouched by decades of conflict devastating their country. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2018
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The people who know no war: Afghanistan’s most isolated corner

WAKHAN CORRIDOR: “Taliban — what’s that?” asks Sultan Begium shyly from her freezing home in Afghanistan’s mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a region so remote that its residents are untouched by the decades of conflict that have devastated their country.
The frail-looking grandmother whose harsh life has etched deep lines in her face, is a woman of the Wakhi, a tribe of roughly 12,000 nomadic people who populate the area.
Known to those who live there by its Persian name Bam-e-Dunya, or “roof of the world,” it is a narrow strip of inhospitable and barely accessible land in Afghanistan bordered by the mountains of what is now Tajikistan and Pakistan, and extending all the way to China.
Few venture out, even fewer venture in — but this isolation has kept the Wakhi sheltered from almost 40 years of the near constant fighting that has ravaged their fellow Afghans.
“War, what war? There has never been a war,” Begium says, poking at a dying fire of yak dung, though she remembers people speaking of Russian soldiers dispensing cigarettes on the border at the other end of the corridor.
Such decades-old anecdotes are all the tribe really know of the Soviet invasion and US-funded mujahideen fightback, a brutal nine-year conflict that may have left as many as one million civilians dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced.
The subsequent civil war, in which tens of thousands more people were killed and uprooted, and the rise of the extremist Taliban regime seem to them like folklore.
“Taliban are very bad people from some other country who rape sheep and slaughter humans,” says Askar Shah, Begium’s eldest son, who has heard stories about them from Pakistani traders.
There is little knowledge of the US invasion or the bloody resurgence of the Taliban, and more recently the emergence of the Daesh group, that have killed or injured hundreds of thousands across the nation.
“Foreigners invaded our country?” Askar Shah asks incredulously after being told how America and its allies went to war with the Taliban regime in 2001.
“No, they can’t do that. They are good people,” he says.
Created in the 19th century as a Great Game buffer zone between Tsarist Russia and British India, the corridor has since remained untouched by any kind of government.
It can be reached from surrounding countries, but only via treacherous journeys by horse, yak or on foot through the “Pamir Knot,” where three of the highest mountain ranges in the world converge.
Known in Afghanistan itself as Pamiris, the Wakhi form the bulk of the corridor’s population — the nomadic Kyrgyz tribe, which numbers just 1,100 people, live separately at its northern end.
The Wakhi are moderate Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan. The burka — which is ubiquitous elsewhere in Afghanistan and is regarded by critics as a symbol of women’s oppression — is unknown.
Their life, largely free from crime and violence, revolves around yaks and cattle, which they barter for food and clothes from the few traders who visit the remote region.
Without electricity they have no Internet or mobile phone service, often communicating with one another across the vast terrain by walkie-talkie.
Occasionally they have access to radios, listening to Russian broadcasts or Afghan news — Iranian music is also popular — however such opportunities are rare, and once the batteries run down they fall silent until the traders arrive again.
But with temperatures below freezing for more than 300 days a year, this is no rural idyll.
Even minor flu can kill, and childbirth means death nearly as often as it means life. The endless grief helps fuel use of the only drug freely available in Wakhan: opium.
Opium is “the only Afghan identity we have,” says Nazar, a Wakhi who goes by one name, adding: “The whole population is addicted to it.”
But change may be coming: The Afghan government says it’s conducting aerial surveys to assess potential routes to connect Wakhan to the rest of Badakhshan province by road. The Chinese are also in talks with Kabul to help build a military base at the northern end of the corridor, according to Afghan officials.
If it all comes to fruition, it could bring more trade, tourism, and much-needed medical facilities.
It could also spell the end of the Wakhi’s protection from the brutality of war.


Nigeria’s candidates blame each other in surprise vote delay

Nigeria's main opposition party presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar speaks to reporters, after the postponement of the presidential election in Yola, in Adamawa State, Nigeria February 16, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 22 min 30 sec ago
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Nigeria’s candidates blame each other in surprise vote delay

  • The party backing top opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar accused President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration of “instigating this postponement” with the aim of ensuring a low turnout

KANO, Nigeria: Nigeria’s top candidates on Saturday condemned the surprise last-minute decision to delay the presidential election for a week until Feb. 23, blaming each other but appealing to Africa’s largest democracy for calm.
The decision, announced five hours before polls were to open, is a costly one, with analysts at SBM Intelligence estimating an economic hit of $2 billion, plus a blow to the country’s reputation. Authorities now must decide what to do with already delivered voting materials in a tense atmosphere where some electoral facilities in recent days have been torched.
Electoral commission chairman Mahmood Yakubu told observers, diplomats and others that the delay had nothing to do with insecurity or political influence. He blamed “very trying circumstances” including bad weather affecting flights and the fires at three commission offices in an apparent “attempt to sabotage our preparations.”
If the vote had continued as planned, polling units could not have opened at the same time nationwide. “This is very important to public perceptions of elections as free, fair and credible,” Yakubu said, adding that as late as 2 a.m. they were still confident the election could go ahead.
The new Feb. 23 election date is “without equivocation” final, he said.
Bitter voters in the capital, Abuja, and elsewhere who traveled home to cast their ballots, including from Nigeria’s vast diaspora, said they could not afford to wait another seven days, and warned that election apathy could follow. Some anguished over rescheduling weddings, exams and other milestones.
If the electoral commission knew about complications, why wait until the final moment to announce a delay, asked Godspower Egbenekama, spokesman for the Gbaramatu kingdom in Delta state in the restive south. “This shows that someone is pulling the strings from somewhere.”
The party backing top opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar accused President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration of “instigating this postponement” with the aim of ensuring a low turnout. It urged Nigerians to turn out in greater numbers a week from now.
“You can postpone an election, but you cannot postpone destiny,” Abubakar tweeted.
Buhari said he was “deeply disappointed” after the electoral commission had “given assurances, day after day and almost hour after hour that they are in complete readiness for the elections.” His statement appealed for calm and asserted that his administration does not interfere in the commission’s work.
A spokesman for the president’s campaign committee, Festus Keyamo, accused Abubakar’s party of causing the delay to try to slow Buhari’s momentum.
But a ruling party campaign director in Delta state, Goodnews Agbi, said it was better to give the commission time to conduct a credible vote instead of rushing into a sham one “that the whole world will criticize later.”
A civic group monitoring the election, the Situation Room, blasted the “needless tension and confusion” and called on political parties to avoid incitement and misinformation.
Nigeria’s more than 190 million people anticipate a close race between Buhari and Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president. Both have pledged to work for a peaceful election even as supporters, including high-level officials, have caused alarm with warnings against foreign interference and allegations of rigging.
When Buhari came to power in 2015 — after a six-week election delay blamed on extremist insecurity — he made Nigerian history with the first defeat of an incumbent president. The vote was hailed as one of the most transparent and untroubled ever in Africa’s most populous country, which has seen deadly post-election violence in the past.
Now Buhari could become the second incumbent to be unseated. This election is a referendum on his record on insecurity, the economy and corruption, all of which he has been criticized by some Nigerians for doing too little too slowly.