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Under the banner of Islam.

The attempt to form a Muslim-inspired government in the Central Asian republic of Tajikstan has failed for the time being. Islamist guerrillas have retreated to the mountains in the east. Ian MacWilliam reports from Tajikstan on the bitter regional and ideological struggle which has overtaken the country.

LIKE THEIR PREDECESSORS, the anti-Bolshevik Basmachi guerrillas of the 1920s, Tajikstan's Islamists have retreated into the remote Pamir mountains for what may well prove to be their final stand. When ex-Communist forces marched into the capital Dushanbe last December and drove out the remnants of Tajikstan's short-lived Islamist coalition government, they seem to have put an end - at least for now - to the experiment of an Islamist government in former Soviet Central Asia.

The mountain valleys of eastern Tajikstan are now deep under snow. The Karategin valley, along the northern edge of the Pamir massif, is an ancient trade route through these wild mountains. The fighting which left hundreds dead last year in southern Tajikstan has now come to Karategin, one of the regions caught up in Tajikstan's bitter regional and ideological power struggle.

Karategin, also known as Garm after its largest town, is the original home of many of the Islamists and democrats who were pushed out of Dushanbe in December. Supporters of the Islamist-democrat coalition were driven back first to their earlier stronghold in the town of Kafirnihan (formerly Ordzhonikidzeabad), and finally to the Garm region itself. This remains the only significant part of Tajikstan which has not accepted the new government of ex-Communists led by Imamali Rakhmanov. Government forces launched an offensive into Karategin in January, advancing as far as Obigarm, a town about 80km northeast of Dushanbe. Opposition fighters and refugees who fled the town said it was surrounded by tanks which first shelled the town and then entered it.

One woman, Zohoro Jabavolov, 31, left her house in the middle of the night with her two young children. "We all ran into the mountains when we saw tanks in the town and the mujahedin fighting them," she said the next morning in a village up the valley. "Soldiers were burning down houses and I saw dead bodies. We've been walking all night through the snow to get here."

Behind her, a dozen opposition guerrillas dressed in homemade white camouflage suits were trekking up the road from Obigarm. Some of these fighters call themselves mujahedin, while others simply say they are fighting in self-defence. The opposition is a coalition of Islamists and others who call themselves democrats opposed to the authoritarian ex-communists now installed in the capital.

Tajikstan's civil conflict is fundamentally more regional than ideological. Under the Communists, the republic was dominated by the more developed northern region of Leninabad and the southern region of Kulyab. Once the controlling hand of Moscow was removed, opposition to this dominance grew among people from the poorer, eastern regions of Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan (the Pamir). These being relatively conservative Muslim areas, the opposition developed an Islamic focus.

Some of the opposition members say they want an Islamic state, while others support a pluralist democracy which will allow both religious and secular parties. Haji Akbar Turajanzada, the Qazi Kalan, or official Tajikstan's Muslim under the former Communist system, has emerged as leader of one section of the Islamist opposition. His stated view is that Tajikstan is not yet ready for a fully Islamic government though he hopes it might come about in a few decades.

In Karategin, the leader of the opposition guerrillas, Rizvan Sadirov, 29, is clear about his aims: "I want an Islamic country like Afghanistan or Iran. The government in Dushanbe wants a Communist state." He says it will be up to Islamist political leaders like Turajanzada and Mohammed Sharif Himmatzeda, head of the Islamic Renaissance party, to work out the details for an Islamic republic. The current whereabouts of these opposition leaders is unclear, but frequent reports say they have gone abroad.

Sadirov's fighters are mostly Garm men, from Karategin or elsewhere. Garm has been flooded by refugees from last year's fighting, particularly by refugees from Dushanbe and Kurgan-Tyube region. Kurgan-Tyube in southern Tajikstan has a mixed population which included many Garm people. The Communist government settled it with people brought from elsewhere to fill up land left vacant in the 1920s when some 200,000 anti-Communist Tajiks, supporters of the Basmachi guerrillas, fled to Afghanistan after the Bolshevik conquest of Central Asia.

In a strange echo of these events, tens of thousands of so-called Islamist Garm people fled their houses in Kurgan-Tyube in December and were forced by local ex-Communist forces to cross the Oxus River into Afghanistan. The United Nations, which has set up three camps for them, knows of about 60,000 refugees in northern Afghanistan but there are many more, some reportedly being looked after by Afghan mujahedin groups.

Some refugees are making the arduous journey back to Tajikstan, to friends or relatives in Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan. One young man who fled Kurgan-Tyube with his parents, Archibek Karimov, spent 18 days travelling across northern Afghanistan, through the Pamirs, and finally to the snowbound Garm valley. His parents are still in Afghanistan and his wife is in Dushanbe where he sent her to escape the fighting in Kurgan-Tyube.

Karimov's story is a familiar one in Garm. In addition to Tajik refugees in Afghanistan, there are as many as 80,000 displaced people in the Garm region, and thousands more in Gorno-Badakhshan. These refugees, living with relatives or in schools and hotels, have great difficulty finding food. Even for local people shortages of food and fuel are severe in all of eastern Tajikstan, since the Garm road, the normal supply route, has been closed by fighting.

International aid agencies have been looking into sending aid along the other access road from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. The International Islamic Relief Committee, based in Saudi Arabia, is currently sending more than 2,000 tonnes of food into eastern Tajikstan by this route.

The Tajik refugees in Afghanistan are causing concern in Dushanbe. Afghan mujahedin groups, particularly the Hezb e Islami led by the radical Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have been assisting Islamist groups in Tajikstan. Although the Islamists have obtained many of their guns from former Soviet troops in the region, there is a lively trade in weapons across the border, Afghanistan being awash with weaponry. Some of Rizvan Sadirov's men say they have been in Afghanistan to get help.

Tajik opposition fighters have received training in mujahedin camps and there have been persistent reports of Afghan mujahedin fighting alongside the Tajik guerrillas. Dushanbe now fears that Islamist Tajik refugees in Afghanistan will receive military training and return to make use of their new skills. Already there is speculation in government circles that the opposition, strengthened by the Afghan connection, will regroup for a spring offensive.

The Tajik Islamists are unlikely to advance beyond their mountain strongholds. So far they are armed only with guns and rocket propelled grenades against the tanks, heavy artillery and air power which Dushanbe has at its disposal. Russian peacekeeping troops based in Dushanbe have also been assisting the government, despite their supposed neutrality. In Garm most people are political moderates. They fear reprisals from the government, but would prefer to see an end to the fighting.

After the Bolshevik takeover in Central Asia it was six years before the Basmachi resistance was finally crushed in 1926, though isolated incursions from Afghanistan took place after this. The next few months should reveal whether today's Tajik Islamists will survive to challenge their forerunners' record.
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Title Annotation:Tajik Islamist opposition
Author:MacWilliam, Ian
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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