Lost among the immense events that have this year upended much of the world order is the brutal and calculated operation mounted by Tajikistan’s Rahmon regime to crush the century-old autonomy of the Pamiris, an Eastern Iranian ethic group who live amid some of the world’s highest mountains on a plateau referred to as the Roof of the World.
In a moving article for openDemocracy headlined, “The assassination that shook the Pamir Mountains to the core”, academic Suzanne Levi-Sanchez has attempted to shed some light on how Tajikistan stepped up its offensive against the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region, using a sniper to kill the man long at the top of its hitlist, Mamadboqir Mamadboqirov—known locally as Colonel Boqir—in the process.
Levi-Sanchez, who spent almost seven years living on and off in the region and writing about it, says in reference to Colonel Boqir that “the offensive started with the murder of a man I knew well”, adding: “By the time they finished [the operation], the relationship between this rugged mountainous region on the border with Afghanistan and the Tajikistan government in the capital, Dushanbe, seemed to have fractured beyond repair.”
“Before the killing of Colonel Boqir and the mass arrests that followed,” reflects Levi-Sanchez—a recently retired associate professor of the national security affairs department at the US Naval War College—"Khorog, the capital of GBAO, had one of the most vibrant and independent civil societies in Central Asia. Now that is being systematically stripped away.”
Government troops on May 16 dispersed protests in Khorog by force (Credit: Bomdod TV).
Levi-Sanchez tells how she first met Boqir in 2010, earning his respect and, crucially, his protection (a “roof”, or “krisha” in Russian). The colonel, “the beloved leader of his mahalla (local neighbourhood), Bar Khorog”, was considered an influential voice inside Gorno-Badakhshan in the years since the country’s 1992 to 1997 civil war.
The postwar reconciliation agreement meant a continuation of the autonomous status of GBAO, largely home to Pamiris who are followers of the Ismaili branch of Shi’a Islam, as distinct from the rest of Tajikistan, mainly home to Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, who are all Hanafi Sunni Muslims. The status was in put in place even prior to the formation of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929.
According to Levi-Sanchez, the Rahmon regime has pursued a clear aim with military incursions into GBAO made in 2014, 2018, 2021 and, finally, 2022: gaining control of GBAO to obtain full sway over illicit trade along the Tajik section of the Pamir Highway, a 1,200-kilometre road that runs through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
“Today,” she observes, “the districts that border Afghanistan are home to a multimillion-dollar drug trade and trafficking route – and a linchpin for the local economy.” GBAO, moreover, offers a direct trade route to China and as well as a route to the “drug capital” of Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
In recent months, however, the government of Tajikistan appears to have made its most determined effort yet to establish that long-sought control. It has, says Levi-Sanchez “systematically killed, arrested or destroyed local leaders in GBAO, under the guise of ‘anti-terrorist’ operations.”
In mid-May, around 1,000 protesters took to the streets of Khorog owing to the absence of a proper government response to the military’s killing of a Pamiri youth leader, Gulbuddin Ziyobekov, the previous November. The security forces, with tear gas and live ammunition, dispersed protesters who gathered in the Bar Khorog mahalla. Snipers reportedly shot at protesters from the hills in several mahallas, including Bar Khorog, UPD and Gulaken.
“As tensions increased,” says Levi-Sanchez, “the Tajik government sent in reinforcements. On-site reports showed that protesters set up a roadblock in Vamar (around 60km north-west of Khorog) in the district of Rushan, to halt the progress of a military convoy.
“The Tajik government convoy began shooting at the protesters. According to the Tajik government, eight people were killed. Local sources reported that 40 Rushan locals were killed and around 120 were taken ‘hostage’ by the security forces. Several of those detained were allegedly tortured and killed on 18 and 19 May.”
At this point, relates Levi-Sanchez, the Tajik security services published an open letter to Colonel Boqir online, “saying that if he did not open the road through Bar Khorog (a road nicknamed the ‘Heroin Highway’), they would kill a hostage a day until he complied. As one source put it: hostages would be killed if Boqir ‘did not order his supporters to reopen the vital road that connects Dushanbe with China and via which trucks belonging to one of the president’s daughters transport goods’.
“According to local sources, the security forces killed two hostages and also sent gruesome evidence of what they’d done to Boqir. Several people close to the late colonel said he felt personally responsible for the killings, and was worried they would continue.”
A key presence in GBAO is that of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), named after the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims. Amid the violence, the Aga Khan wrote a letter encouraging Ismailis in the region “to live within the laws of the land”, avoid violence and “resolve differences with wisdom through peaceful dialogue in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding”.
“As one local source explained to me, Boqir ‘stopped resisting’ when AKDN officials handed him and his supporters the letter, even though the latter had been ‘ready to fight till the end’,” says Levi-Sanchez.
Taking up the story of Boqir’s final hours, she writes: “On 22 May, after receiving the letter and the gruesome message from [the security forces in] Rushan, it was reported that Boqir went for a walk. He must have known that it would end in catastrophe. There were surveillance drones in the area, troops stationed around Bar Khorog, and only a day earlier snipers had allegedly fired on Boqir’s home four times. There were also reports that surveillance drones and snipers had been in place around Bar Khorog since January, long before the May protests.
“Several local sources reported that Boqir left Bar Khorog on the afternoon of 22 May. He approached the bridge over the Ghund River to the neighbouring mahalla, Boine. The latter was controlled by Tajikistan’s elite Alpha security forces, who had deployed drones and snipers in the surrounding hills.
“According to a resident of Bar Khorog, Boqir was shot by security officers in a pick-up truck that approached the bridge after getting information about his movements. They shot him first in the arm and then in the head. One young man was killed and another injured when they ran in to try to protect him.
“Local sources described the security forces hooting and hollering in glee, celebrating and dancing in the streets after Boqir was killed.”
Boqir’s death was followed by a massive crackdown in Khorog. “Between the end of November 2021 to July, it has been reported as well as corroborated with local sources that arrest warrants for more than 700 Pamiris have been issued. Hundreds have been arrested and at least 40 civilians killed,” adds Levi-Sanchez, determining that GBAO’s “entire network of leaders and local organisations in Khorog is now being systematically destroyed”.
The Pamiris, living high up in the Pamir Mountains, have prized an autonomy that existed even before Soviet times (Credit: Nasa, public domain).
Many Pamiris, Levi-Sanchez says, “believe this marks the end of their autonomy and religious freedom, and fear that they will be living under a securitised surveillance state. Many are trying to leave, for fear of being arrested, tortured or killed”.
The situation, however, is perhaps not entirely without hope.
Events, says Levi-Sanchez, have served “to rally both Pamiris and non-Pamiri groups within the country and abroad. Many in the region who supported Boqir now view him as a Pamiri hero. Local sources told me that thousands of people showed up at his funeral even though roadblocks were in place. Hundreds of Pamiri youth, both male and female, now use Boqir’s photo as their Facebook avatar.
“The Pamiri diaspora is also key to the region’s future. Leaders within the diaspora are organised, educated and dedicated, and have been mobilised and politicised by the recent crackdown. Some members of the diaspora are very committed to stopping human rights abuses; others are increasingly questioning the way Tajikistan is governed. As one member of the Pamiri diaspora suggested, the crackdown has meant that ‘the focus of Pamiri civil society has switched to diaspora communities’.”