Cover picture Archives AFP / Gohar Abbas
The fall of Wakhan: part one
The Editor’s note: This article is the first part of a series based on conversations with the people in Wakhan Corridor over a period of two months. The conversations were in Wakhi and have been edited for clarity. Names of the people have been changed to protect their identities.
“Hungry bastards !”
Holding his binocular, Boi, an ethnic Kyrgyz was checking on his yaks when something else caught his attention. Three men on horses were heading his way from the south. He put down the binoculars, looked at the direction from his naked eye and checked his binoculars again to confirm their identities.
“Hungry bastards!” he cursed in Kyrgyz and rushed inside his house ordering his wife to make tea for the uninvited guests heading his way.
“They are coming here again, I don’t know when their stomachs will fill,” he murmured to himself and cursed the land, the men and his luck.
His wife ignoring his cursing started stacking dried yak dunks in the mud oven, the only source of fuel in this inhospitable terrain that connects Afghanistan to China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Boi thinks he is in his early 50s because in this remote land time does not exists. But the wrinkles on his face and deep lines around his eyes make him look like in his 70s thanks to the excessive use of opium which he consumes to cope with sadness, happiness, boredom and at times ‘just to kill the time’.
It’s not that Boi was not considered important enough to keep a track of his date of birth or his wedding. It’s just a tradition in this part of Afghanistan. The concept of records does not exist. Not only for Boi but for all the inhabitants of this inhospitable land.
The dwellers of the Wakhan Corridor have no paper proof of their identities other than their own physical existence. So there are no birthdays or anniversaries. The only reference to an event is another event like someone was born when someone else lost his father or mother or son or daughter. And if those references are not available than they have to turn to the livestock for reference like someone’s birthday may coincide with the birth or death of a cherished yak. Or it can be the harsh weather that caused some sort of damage.
Ethnic Kyrgyz girls and boys of Little Pamir – Archives Dinara Kanybek Kyzy, Oct 2016
Also known as little Pamir, the Wakhan Corridor was created in the 19th century as a Great Game buffer zone between tsarist Russia and British India. The corridor has since remained untouched by any kind of government.
Boi had enough time to warm up his guest room, locally known as mehmon khona, when the men arrived. The men were soldiers of the Afghan army responsible for the security of this land that shares borders with China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Their commander known to the locals as Qumondon has not a very good reputation and the locals are not a very big fan of him because every time he visits the region, he would demand free yak or dairy products from the locals.
Despite the fact that locals don’t like them, they consider it an honor when the men visit their homes because it gives them the privilege to be close to power.
And, with Boi, they have a special connection as he is “their” man in the region which gives him the liberty to hunt the protected wildlife habitat, including the endangered Marco Polo sheep, which he shares with the army men.
But Boi already “served” them yesterday and he was not expecting them at least for another two weeks. And he was worried because frequent visits meant frequent “gifts” of yaks and he would end up loosing his livestock before arrival of the brutal winters.
But Boi had no idea that he was just about to encounter the biggest surprise of his life.
“Are you kidding ?”
After he had taken care of the horses of his guests, Boi went inside his guest room where the soldiers had already seated around the fire.
“Would you like yak or lamb,” Boi asked the soldiers hiding his hatred and irritation. But to his surprise, the commander said there was no need for it and told him to sit down as he was there to discuss something important.
The commander looked worried and Boi did not have the courage to ask, so he sat there in silence, when his wife called him informing about the tea.
The soldiers were having tea without saying anything, and it was not until they had finished when the commander cleared his throat to say something.
He gave a long monologue about the Afghan army and cursed them for not living up to the expectations of the Afghan people. He talked at length about how corrupt and incompetent the Afghan army was, and Boi felt like saying he agrees with him but decided otherwise. He sat their in silence listening to the commander’s monologue but, deep down, he was happy and felt like a king listening to a criminal admitting to his crimes.
It was at the end of the commander’s ‘rambling’ that he informed Boi about the fall of Kabul. But Boi did not even notice it because he was too happy witnessing the commander confess to his corruption and incompetence. Boi felt as if the commander was confessing his own crimes.
“So, what did I tell you?” the commander asked in a commanding tune bringing Boi back to reality. He was just enjoying the commander’s confessions but then he realized that he was not a master but just an obedient follower.
Boi did not say anything until the commander asked for a second time. This time in a much louder and harsher tune.
“You said the Afghan army is corrupt and incompetent,” Boi replied to the commander.
“Yes but I also said something else,” the commander said, and before he could say anything, one of the soldiers interrupted. He said Kabul had fallen to the Taliban.
“Yes, thats what I just said,” the commander looked at Boi with frustration visible on his face.
“Why should we care,” Boi finally replied.
“What do you mean, why should we care, we should care because we have new government now,” the commander confronted.
But Boi was instigated by the commander. Deep down he was ‘happy’ because he won’t have to give free yaks to the soldiers anymore so he burst out.
“Why should I bother about the government or the Taliban? They mean nothing to us, and we do not exist for them,” he said.
My whole life I have never seen the government, so why should I worry about the Taliban.
“Why should I worry about the Taliban or Kabul? If my yaks survive the winter, if I survive the winter, if my kids and wife survive the winter and if I have enough food to stay alive that’s means a world to me.”
Boi was feeling relieved because the soldiers had made him slaughter some of his most beloved yaks for them and fall of Kabul meant getting rid of the soldiers.
“Why should I care about who rules Afghanistan,” he had just finished his sentence when one of the soldiers interrupted and told him that he should care because Afghanistan was in ‘good hands’ now.
Boi said he chose not to respond to the soldier and while the soldier was trying to say something the commander waived to him with his hands barring him from saying anything and a silence followed.
A silence that Boi describes as a ‘long uncomfortable silence’.
Boi had started getting worried when the commander lit a cigarette and Boi felt asking him for one but he was afraid not to upset him.
“From today onwards, the Taliban will control the area, and the people will follow their orders,” the commander told Boi exhaling a thick cloud of smoke.
Boi got tense and asked the commander if the Taliban will come to the area. ‘Thousands’ of scary thoughts were crossing his mind. He was thinking about his life, his family and his cherished yaks. He had heard so many bad things about the Taliban, and he was worried about the safety of his family and his yaks.
He was lost in his thoughts when he heard the commander saying if he was listening to him.
He looked at the commander and before he could ask anything the commander asked if he would like to meet the Taliban.
But before Boi could say anything, one of the soldiers pointed towards the commander and said “meet the new Taliban commander for the area”.
He looked at the commander in disbelief who was shaking his head and smiling.
“Are you kidding, you are a soldier, a commander of the Afghan army,” Boi finally opened his mouth. He thought the soldiers were just making fun of him and scaring him while enjoying his astuteness.
“What soldier, who is a soldier and what army are you talking about,” the commander said.
Boi begged them to stop messing with him and the soldiers were laughing but the commander got a serious look on his face and told Boi that he should learn to live with the new reality.
The commander, then, told him that all the laws that existed till yesterday were no more valid.
In this part of the world, the people don’t need to rely on the law. The only laws are informing the soldiers about arrival of Pakistani merchants or any western tourist.
The soldiers ordered Boi to call other people from the nearest home and inform them.
Boi talked to three other men on the walkie-talkie, informing them about the Taliban take over and inviting them to his place to meet the new Taliban rulers.
Yoqub, who was crushing panadol tablet for his morning dose of opium, left it halfway when his son informed him about the situation. He was so excited that he left his opium preparations unfinished and rushed to Boi’s place. He was ‘happy’ to finally see an ‘actual Taliban’.
“Where are the Taliban,” he asked Boi’s son who was feeding the horses. Before the boy could even respond, Boi stepped out and cursed him as usual.
“So how do they look”, he asked Boi in excitement but Boi, being the grumpy old man, said ‘like your father’ and ordered him to keep his mouth shut.
But to his dismay, he found the Afghan soldiers instead of the Taliban. He thought Boi might have trapped him to give yaks to the soldiers.
He stood there ‘confused’ until one of the soldiers scolded him for standing like an ‘idol’ and ordered him to kiss the hands of the new Taliban commander.
Yoqub was informed about the ‘new reality’ and told that he can hunt now and should not be scared of the cameras.
Yoqub says the commander had told him to destroy the cameras if he spots them. “I will hunt the first Marco Polo sheep for the commander,” Yoqub said.He is happy that he can finally go hunting, but he is still haunted by one question, I.e
To be continued…
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About the author and the photographs
The archive pictures of this article come from an assignement performed by Gohar Abbas for Agence France Press (AFP) to the Wakhan corridor and to the Litte Pamir. His report “Heaven and hell” got the FPA Award for Travel & Tourism Story of the Year in London. The other pictures are a kind courtesy of Dinara Kanybek Kyzy from Bichkek (Kyrgyzstan), a young lady who attended a national humanitarian misson to Little Pamir. Many thanks to her.