The 1,100 ethnic Kyrgyz living in this isolated sliver of Afghanistan wedged between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China have been spared the violence that has plagued the rest of their country. But they have also done without the burst of foreign aid that has helped reconstruct one of the world’s poorest nations.
Now, Afghanistan’s most impoverished minority has a big decision to make: Is it time to leave their home for the other Afghanistan — or elsewhere?
Despite multibillion-dollar international efforts to build an Afghan state that envelops dozens of disparate tribes and ethnic groups, the Wakhan is one of many places where loyalties remain local. Kabul, with its purse strings and political power, is considered a foreign country. The central government is mostly viewed as an abstraction, crafting inconsequential policy from beyond the towering peaks of the corridor.
The few technological advances that trickled in have offered a narrow peek at the relative growth in other parts of the country — and to the Kyrgyz, thrown their plight into stark relief.
“There’s nothing for us here,” said Ibrahim, 22, a Wakhan resident who goes by one name. “The world has left us behind.”
There are plenty of reasons to depart. One in two children here die before the age of 5, the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Most of the population lives more than 12 hours away by foot and donkey from a classroom.
Blizzards and chilling temperatures last through the summer, and the only source of heat is burning yak dung. Kabul is only 250 miles away, but it takes about 10 days to get there — by yak, by foot and, eventually, by car. During the last presidential election, ballots never made it here.
The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow stretch of sparse grassland sandwiched between some of the highest mountains in Asia. Kyrgyz call it Bam-e Dunya, or “the roof of the world.” Few birds or trees can survive the brutal climate.
On maps, it’s a slim outgrowth that juts into China, a geographical aberration. It belongs to Afghanistan only because the British and Russian empires created it as a buffer zone after fighting for influence in the mid-19th century.
Ibrahim and other Kyrgyz here are descendants of men and women who roamed Central Asia for centuries, crossing invisible borders with herds of sheep, goats and cows. But when nations in the region formally closed those borders in the early 20th century, about 1,000 Kyrgyz found themselves stuck in Afghanistan, suddenly accidental Afghan citizens.