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.


China summons US ambassador over Huawei arrest

Updated 33 sec ago
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China summons US ambassador over Huawei arrest

BEIJING: China summoned the US ambassador on Sunday to protest the arrest of a top executive from telecom giant Huawei in Canada, as Washington’s top trade negotiator rejected suggestions that the case could affect talks aimed at settling a trade war.
The arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou has infuriated Beijing, which demanded Washington drop its extradition request, and stoked tensions during the trade war truce between China and the United States.
Meng faces US fraud charges related to alleged sanctions-breaking dealings with Iran.
But with negotiations underway against a “hard deadline” of March 1 to settle the tariff dispute between the world’s two biggest economies, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he did not expect the arrest to disrupt the talks.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is in custody awaiting a Canadian court’s decision on bail on Monday.
Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned US ambassador Terry Branstad one day after he called in Canadian envoy John McCallum to voice China’s displeasure.
“Le Yucheng pointed out that the US side has seriously violated the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens, and the nature of the violation is extremely bad,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The Chinese side firmly opposes this and strongly urges the United States to attach great importance to China’s solemn and just position,” it said.
China also urged the United States to “take immediate measures to correct wrong practices, and revoke the arrest warrant against the Chinese citizen.”
The statement warned that Beijing would make an unspecified “further response” in light of the US actions.
In a case which shook investors and rattled the markets, Meng was arrested in Vancouver while changing planes on December 1, the same day that US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to a truce in their trade battle and gave negotiators three months to find a compromise.
Although Trump last week tweeted that the talks would end after 90 days “unless extended,” Lighthizer said on Sunday that March 1 is a firm deadline.
“When I talked to the president of the United States he’s not talking about going beyond March,” Lighthizer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“If there is a deal to be gotten, we want to get it in the next 90 days.”
He also said that Meng’s arrest “shouldn’t really have much of an impact” on the talks, although he conceded that the Chinese might see it that way.
“For us, it’s unrelated” to trade policy matters. “It’s criminal justice.”
Separately, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow denied reports that Trump was “livid” that the arrest of Meng occurred while Trump dined with Xi.
“He didn’t know,” Kudlow told “Fox News Sunday.” “He learned way later.”
The world’s top two economies have exchanged steep tariffs on more than $300 billion in total two-way trade, locking them in a conflict that has begun to eat into profits.
Since taking office, Trump has waged an often-fierce offensive against Chinese trade practices, which he regularly brands as “unfair.”
He sees the US trade deficit with China as a particular sore point, and the imbalance ballooned to a record $35.6 billion in November, official data showed on Saturday.
Analysts say Meng could become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
In a bail hearing that was adjourned on Friday, Canadian Crown prosecutor John Gibb-Carsley asked for bail to be denied, saying Meng has been accused of “conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions.”
He said if convicted, she faces more than 30 years in prison.
The extradition process could take months, even years, if appeals are made in the case.
Canada has a long-standing extradition treaty with the United States, requiring it to cooperate with US Department of Justice requests to hand over suspects.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said politics played no part in the decision to arrest Meng.
Huawei said Friday that it would “continue to follow the bail hearing,” expressing “every confidence that the Canadian and US legal systems will reach the right conclusion.”
Huawei has denied any ties to the Chinese government, but many in Washington and other Western capitals are skeptical and have raised security concerns.
US federal law already bans military and government use of devices made by Huawei and fellow Chinese firm ZTE.
Influential Republican Senator Marco Rubio told “Face the Nation” that he plans to reintroduce legislation that would ban companies like Huawei from doing business in the US because they “pose a threat to our national interests.”