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.
Not much has changed since then. In the 1980s, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, the Russians built a dirt road through part of the Wakhan. But it stops about a hundred miles from Little Pamir, the heart of the Kyrgyz community.
Generations of Kyrgyz have lobbied to extend the road, but with no political representation in Kabul — a product of the community’s small size and lack of influence — the proposal has gained little attention. It would be an enormously costly endeavor, crossing peaks that top 15,000 feet. After decades of waiting, many residents accept that the road will not be built, that clinics and schools will remain out of reach.
The irony, which many of the area’s ethnic Kyrgyz recognize, is that exorbitantly expensive roads have been built all over Afghanistan during the past decade. Many have been sponsored by Western governments with the stated goal of improving security. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, the United States spent millions of dollars building infrastructure that would ostensibly undercut the Taliban’s power by developing commerce and education.
But in the Wakhan, there’s never been an insurgency. The Soviets set up several bases, but there was no local opposition. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance never appeared.
There’s only a tiny population that has remained on the sidelines of Afghanistan’s 30 years of war. The U.S. military briefly considered cash handouts to the Kyrgyz in 2008, but the proposal dissipated. Most Kyrgyz can’t remember the last time an official, Western or Afghan, visited from Kabul.
A waiting game
Whether to give up on their homeland is a question that Ibrahim and two other young Kyrgyz men, Sulabilidad and Asadullah, discussed as they wrangled yaks and horses across the Wakhan Corridor this month. The men transport supplies for rare visitors, riding up and down the same mountain passes that Marco Polo climbed in 1271. None of them attended a day of school because there are no schools to attend.
Ibrahim said he’ll wait four years for the government to bring its resources to the Wakhan, to build a road connecting the valley’s constellation of settlements and yurts to the rest of the country. Sulabilidad, 20, said he’ll wait three years. Asadullah, 22, said he is ready to leave in two. None was hopeful that the government will deliver.
They’ll move to Kyrgyzstan, they said, the Central Asian nation where members of their tribe settled years ago and which has voiced support for their repatriation. Or they’ll find a village in Afghanistan that has electricity and schools and cellphone coverage. Or they’ll try to reunite with long-lost relatives in Turkey.
They’ve already decided: After attending school, Ibrahim will be a doctor. Sulabilidad and Asadullah will be teachers.
As they debated their futures, a group of older men rode by on horseback. They were Kyrgyz who had moved to Turkey 30 years ago, the last time that a generation decided that the Wakhan was too difficult and too isolated to sustain life.
The men and their families live in comfortable homes now and have profitable jobs. They had returned here to visit relatives and convince the remaining Kyrgyz residents of Afghanistan that it’s time to leave.
“They can do better. There is no reason for them to stay here,” said Mohammed Arif, 55, one of the returnees.
Arif’s father, Rahman Kul, a former leader of Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz minority, persuaded about a thousand people to follow him to Turkey in the 1980s. Those Kyrgyz eventually found their way to the middle-class city of Van, where they remain today.
Some of the remaining Kyrgyz in the Wakhan are resistant to moving. They’re accustomed to life here. They have yurts insulated with carpets, sticks and scraps of recycled trash to keep them warm. Yaks provide milk, and donkeys move their belongings across the tundra.
Plus, they live in what is probably the safest place in Afghanistan. One of the few rifles spotted in Little Pamir was being used as a pillar to prop up a windblown yurt. Wildlife rangers are more common than police officers.
“We hear about suicide attacks and people dying in Kabul,” said Er Ali Bai, 58, a community leader. “God has been kind to us.”
But long-standing opposition to a mass exodus is wearing down. It’s now possible to imagine an Afghanistan without a Kyrgyz community.
‘I just want to die’
As they contemplate whether to stay or leave, familiar tragedies continue to strike the Kyrgyz.
Ibrahim’s only daughter died last year after suffering flu-like symptoms. Asadullah has one living son, but two others died of minor illnesses.
Because no medicine is available, most families treat ailments — including children’s — with opium, which is delivered by traders who crisscross the Wakhan on horseback. Addiction has soared in recent years.
One night this month, Abdul Samad pulled out a sack of opium. He held it to a fire, stuck it in a small pipe and inhaled. A few grams had cost him one sheep.
“This addiction is making us all poor,” said Samad, 55, who insisted that he was smoking only to dull the pain of a foot injury.
In a nearby settlement, one of the oldest members of the community, Abdul Rasul, 70, leaned against the wall of his yurt.
“I just want to die,” he said.
It’s the young men, like Ibrahim, who will ultimately decide whether to uproot the Kyrgyz. Ibrahim also knows that as he gets older, the gap between his people and the rest of the country is unlikely to close.
A road through the Wakhan will probably never be built, he says. There will be nothing to keep him here, except the same dull tug that kept his parents and grandparents from fleeing.
“But we’re different from them,” Ibrahim said. “We’re tired of this place.”