Afghanistan / Tajikistan
Pamirs are a mountain range in Central Asia at the junction of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges. But the word “Pamir” actually is translated from ancient Persian as “rolling pastureland” and refers to the valleys between those interconnected mountain ranges.
A “Pamir”, from a geological point of view, is a flat plateau surrounded by mountains that forms when a glacier or ice field melts leaving a rocky plain. A “Pamir” lasts until erosion forms soil and cuts down normal valleys. This type of terrain is principally found in the north east of Afghanistan, an area known as Wakhan Corridor and at the south west of Tajikistan known as Wakhan Valley.
The Whakan corridor in Afghanistan and the Whakan Valley in Tajikistan are deep valleys formed by the Panj River, which originates from the junction of Pamir River and Wakhan River that marks nowadays the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
This separation is the result of the geopolitical rivalry between Great Britain and the Tsarist Russia, known as "The Great Game", which led to the dissolution of the principality of Wakhan at the end of the 19th century and the formation of the new border. As a result, the Wakhan became a buffer zone separating the British and Russian empires.
All of the Wakhan is a semi-arid zone. Agriculture is only possible through irrigation, fed by meltwater in the streams descending from the mountains. Apart from occasional clusters of shrubs and other small trees, the landscape is largely barren of vegetation.
The Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan is the homeland of the Pamiris people also called the Pamirian or Mountain Tajiks. The Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan on the other hand is mostly inhabited by the Wakhi people and the last remaining Kyrgyz nomads who live at the eastern end where the Afghan Pamirs - the Big Pamir and the Little Pamir - are located, also known in Persian as the “Bam-e Dunya”, or the « roof of the world ».
The Tajiks Pamiri and the Afghan Wakhi people share common linguistic, cultural and religious ties. They are Nizari Isma’ili Muslims, a sect of Shia Islam that follows the Aga Khan as a spiritual leader. Isma’ili do not believe in the need for mosques or clergymen. There are, however, informal houses of prayer and wandering holy men.
They were all part of the ancient Badakhshan empire since the antique times. Badakhshan was an important trading center during antiquity and was an important trading region when the Silk Road passed through until the 8th century A.D.
In The 13th century, Marco Polo was the first European traveler in the area and the first one who mentioned the big-horned sheep that bear actually his name.
Nowadays, after the separation of the two countries, the differences between the two communities increased. The Tajik side had been influenced by the Soviet Union and the other side of the border had been took over by the Afghan culture.
In Tajikistan, the Pamiris are mainly farmers. Apart from the main city Khorog and few other towns, Pamiris mostly live in small villages inside deep valleys that are surrounded by the fields and the orchards. In a typical Pamiri household, several extended families live together and cooperate economically. Often all married sons and their families would live in their father's house.
In Khorog people live in relatively good conditions thanks to the international aid, in particular from the Aga Khan Foundation, with access to electricity, education, healthcare and other services. But in the other parts of the region, basic services are almost inexistent.
The Pamiris have for much of their history been isolated due to the extreme geographic remoteness of this mountainous region. But following the 1917 Soviet revolution, the Pamiri lands were brought under Soviet rule and in 1925 as part of the province of Tajikistan. During the late 1980s, a Pamiri separatist movement emerged and gained the control of the area in 1991. There, followed the declaration of independence of Tajikistan in 1992 that turns the country into a civil war during which Pamiris were massacred until the region became a de facto self-ruled breakaway area.
The Tajik civil war has destroyed thousands of Paimiri lives and ruined any chance for a national reconciliation. Nowadays, the human and civil rights situation of the Pamiris are still fragile and they are often suspected of being criminals. Social problems involving drugs and alcoholism have become prevalent and expatriation to Russia to hunt for a job is very common.
In the Afghan side, the atmosphere has a totally different smell. Although the Taliban are not present in the Wakhan corridor, still the area is controlled by the Afghan Military and the tense ambiance blows in the air. There are no government services, large parts of the region have no roads, and people are left to their own. The only international organization that gives a bit of relief to this area by building infrastructures, medical health centers, and schools is the Agha Khan Foundation.
After passing the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in Eshkashim that is the gateway to the Wakhan Corridor and after drive up an old rocky road built over half a century ago, the first Wakhi village appear. Here, the Wakhi live in the year-round villages extending from Qazideh at the western part of Wakhan Corridor to Sarhad-e Broghil at the eastern end. They are agropastoralists cultivating wheat, barley, peas and potatoes but the production is rarely sufficient because of the climate. Wakhis depend on their livestock to supplement agriculture. Wealthier families can have many sheeps, goats and yaks along with donkeys and horses.
Every year Wakhi people migrate to highland pasturage with their livestock in the Big and Little Pamir looking for meadows. The annual seasonal migration is very important and marks the rhythm of the Wakhi live. The spring migration usually starts at the beginning of June to the first settlements and during the summer move progressively up valley to higher grazing areas. Once arrived, Wakhis start organizing their daily life. Women take care of the household preparing fire and food, mainly yoghourt, bread and milk tea. They also take care of the milking of the yaks that is their first food resources and dry the animals’ poop for making fire as there is no wood around. Men take the cattle during the day for grazing in the meadow and build new shelters or fixe the old one. During the seasonal migration, Wakhis live in the small rocky houses or inside the yurts depending of the financial resources. In October, when the snow starts to cover the mountains, most of the Wakhi retrace their routes down valley where the climate is more gentle.
Wakhan corridor is also the home to some 1400 Kyrgyz nomads, who contrary to Wakhi people, settled permanently in the Big Pamir and Little Pamir. The Kyrgyz are a proud pastoral nomadic group of Turkic language that lives in extremely difficult conditions. For thousands of years, they have led a nomadic life, wandering from Altaï mountains into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and eventually coming to the Afghan Pamirs about 150 years ago. The Kyrgyz would spend their summers fattening up their animals and during the harsh winters would move into the lower valleys, which were then in Russia or China. But the 1917 Russian Revolution cut off part of that route and when the Chinese closed their border after the 1949 revolution some Kyrgyz were trapped in Afghanistan. Cut off from their brethren on the other side of the borders, they had to adjust to the harsh winters of the Afghan Pamirs.
In 1978 most of the Afghan Kyrgyz nomads fled to Pakistan. They requested the United States’ visas to resettle in Alaska, a place they thought might have a similar climate as the Wakhan Corridor. Their request was denied and the heat together with the unsanitary conditions of the refugees’ camp killed a big amount of Kyrgyz. in 1982, Turkey stepped in and resettled the entire group of Kyrgyz refugees in the Turkish Lake Van region where more than 4000 of them still reside.
Nowadays, the Kyrgyz who still reside in the Afghan Pamirs, mainly in the Little Pamir, live in yurts which they move seasonally according to available pasture and weather conditions. Their settlements are permanently between elevations of 4000m and 5000m and in winter the temperature often goes down as low as 40 degrees below zero. This intense isolation contributes to the Kyrgyz catastrophic death rate. There are no doctors, health clinics or medicines available. In this harsh environment, even a minor headache can turn fatal. The death rate among Afghan Kyrgyz’s children is one of the highest in the world and it is common for women to die during childbirth.
But in reality, Kyrgyz are not poor. They have huge herds of sheep, goats, yaks, horses and Bactrian camels. Occasionally Kyrgyz’s caravans dip into the lower Wakhan to trade with their Wakhi neighbors or traveling merchants in order to acquire what is not provided by their livestock. With their valuable animals, they can buy almost anything they want or need. But what they mostly buy is opium that has become widely used by the Kyrgyz on a daily basis as an escape from pain.
Kyrgyz, Wakhis or Pamiris have been forgotten for years by their central governments. Years of conflicts, unstable political situation and remote land with few resources they inhabit contributed to this isolation. But now, with the stability increment of the region, they all wish for growth and prosperity on the “roof of the world”.