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.


South Korea dismantles guard posts with dynamite, excavators

Updated 54 sec ago
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South Korea dismantles guard posts with dynamite, excavators

  • Last week the two Koreas finished withdrawing troops and firearms from some of the guard posts along their border before dismantling them
  • The Koreas each agreed to dismantle or disarm 11 of their guard posts by the end of this month

CHEORWON, South Korea: South Korea exploded a front-line guard post Thursday, sending plumes of thick, black smoke into the sky above the border with North Korea, in the most dramatic scene to date in the rivals’ efforts to reduce animosities that sparked last year’s fears of war.
Last week the two Koreas finished withdrawing troops and firearms from some of the guard posts along their border before dismantling them. The steps are part of agreements signed in September during a meeting between their leaders in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
On Thursday, South Korea’s military invited a group of journalists to watch the destruction of a guard post with dynamite in the central border area of Cheorwon. The journalists were asked to stay hundreds of meters (yards) away as black smoke enveloped the hilly border area. They later watched soldiers and other workers bulldoze another guard post.
While most of the South Korean guard posts are being destroyed with construction equipment for environmental and safety reasons, dynamite was used for the first structure because of its location on a high hill where it was difficult employ excavators, the Defense Ministry said.
North Korea is demolishing its guard posts with explosives, according to South Korean media.
The guard posts are inside the 248-kilometer (155-mile)-long, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile)-wide border called the Demilitarized Zone. Unlike its name, it’s the world’s most heavily fortified border with an estimated 2 million land mines planted in and near the zone. The area has been the site of violence and bloodshed since the 1945 division of the Korean Peninsula, and civilians need special government approval to enter the zone.
The Koreas each agreed to dismantle or disarm 11 of their guard posts by the end of this month before jointly verifying the destruction next month. South Korea had about 60 posts inside the DMZ guarded by layers of barbed wire and manned by troops with machine guns. North Korea was estimated to have 160 such front-line posts.
Under the September agreements, the Koreas are also disarming the shared border village of Panmunjom and clearing mines from another DMZ area where they plan their first-ever joint searches for Korean War dead. They’ve also halted live-fire exercises along the border.
The deals are among a set of steps they have taken since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reached out to Seoul and Washington early this year with a vague commitment to nuclear disarmament. The fast-improving inter-Korean ties have raised worries among many in South Korea and the United States as global diplomacy on the North’s nuclear weapons program has produced little recent progress.