By Gulnor Saratbekova
Special to Simerg
I can still remember how our usual summer vacation in 1990 became a complete nightmare in the blink of an eye. My oldest brother and I were sent to Khorog on vacations each summer. We were thrilled to spend our vacations there, in our beautiful Khorog, with our cousins and friends. It was something we were always looking forward to each summer, without even imagining that anything would change; but everything changed this particular summer.
The situation in the capital, Dushanbe, and its surroundings started to show evidence of tension. Political issues were the crux of this angst. Watching hundreds of discontented people on the news, protesting in the main squares of Dushanbe and other places was something unusual for us all to see. Within the context of a Communist background where protests, demonstrations and freedom of speech were sure paths to one’s death, to see such events was rare.
Such protests always lead to confrontations which ended up in Civil War. There is nothing more devastating than a Civil War and it was indeed a path to devastation in my country. Neighbors were killing neighbors, people who were once friends, bore arms against each other. Too many innocent lives were taken and too much blood was shed. Children were left orphans and parents had to bear the loss of their children and grandchildren. The whole country turned completely black. Things we never imagined could happen in our land, happened, and unimaginable pain and grief filled most each and every home.
A War never comes alone, it’s ALWAYS followed by poverty, hunger, disease, despair, moral and physical damage, blockage… you name it. That’s exactly what happened in our country. It became something so normal to hear cries; and when you did, you knew that someone had been killed somewhere. The whole country came to mourn, and it continued to mourn. Thousands of people became refugees; my family and I were among them. We had to leave everything behind; our home, our clothes, our toys, our friends and our childhood. We only had with us, the summer clothes we had brought for that summer vacation
My siblings and I were living with different relatives. My dad was the last one to make it to Khorog after the war had already started. We heard nothing about him for months. I remember clearly when one day I went to get some water not far from my uncle’s house where I was staying. I saw a strange, exhausted man with dirty clothes, long hair and beard come close to me and call my name. Only when he dropped on his knees and started talking to me and crying, that I realized it was my dad. I remember I could hardly breathe; the shock and joy that my daddy was alive was overwhelming. He had been trying to get to Khorog for weeks. He’d crossed mountains on foot together with several other people. The roads to Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomus Oblast (GBAO) were blocked and there were hundreds of checkpoints on the road that basically hunted men. Only women and children were allowed to leave Dushanbe and its surroundings. The only way for men to get to GBAO was by walking through the mountains or to hide inside trucks. I remember my aunt had to bring my 15 year old cousin under the bus seats covered with luggage. He looked older for his age and if he were unlucky to have been found, he would doubtlessly, have been killed just because he was Pamiri.
In short time, we were running out of clothes, food, medicine due to the blockade. People started to die because of starvation and illness. There was shortage of everything and I mean EVERYTHING. We hardly had food, especially during winter and spring. Those were the worst times, and there was hardly any electricity. I remember we had 1 pancake each (made of water, flour and salt) with tea in the morning and didn’t know if we’d have anything to eat for the night or the next day. Without power, people began to cut trees for wood to heat their houses. Since GBAO is mostly a mountainous region, after a while, there were hardly any trees left. Well-known politicians, professors, doctors, and scholars had to sell anything they could in order to survive. I remember I was very creative, so handy, that I made shoes for my sister and I with a piece of cloth and cut-off tires.
More than 2 years after the beginning of this chaos and nightmare, it seemed this was the end for us. We had lost all hope; life stopped making sense any more. Most people were convinced that if no help arrived soon enough, that this winter would be the last for many.
Then a miracle. I was approaching the age of 12 and it was just before people lost complete hope. I remember clearly when I saw our Mawla on TV for the very first time (it was when we had electricity for some hours). I was at my uncle’s and there were about 15 of us living at his house. I didn’t understand why suddenly all the grownups started to cry and say SHUKR MAWLO, SHUKR MAWLO. Then the news said that humanitarian aides would be sent as soon as possible. I remember the day people ran to the main road to welcome all the trucks with AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) and WFP (World Food Programme) written on them. I remember seeing women cry, including my mother, because they finally had hope that they wouldn’t witness their children starving to death. We could finally eat as much bread as we wanted, without thinking ‘we won’t have any left for the next day’.
For us, the kids, the best part was clothes and shoes, even though they didn’t fit. We couldn’t believe how beautiful all those clothes were and that they were actually used! We couldn’t believe people would just give away these clothes and shoes. I remember an instance when we were all sitting, very anxiously, in our cold classroom and our teacher came in with a box. She opened it and without looking inside started putting one item on each table. It was like Christmas for us. I remember the item placed on my desk was a pair of red overalls, about 5 size bigger, but oh boy, was I happy! I finally had “new” clothes!
Time went and we reached the most momentous day in our life: May 25, 1995, a historical date that no Badakhshani will ever forget. We were blessed with Mawla’s didar for the very first time. That is when we really knew that we would never be alone, ever again. This was the day for which all our elderly and ancestors were longing, for centuries. This is the date that changed our history forever. This is the day after which we knew that we would survive, no matter what, no matter how, no matter where. It’s amazing how lucky we are despite everything: because we are Mawla’s mureeds. We still have a long way to go even so many years after the war but I have hope for my country and people. I hope we will rise as high as the Pamiri mountains
Love and only love can overcome any obstacle and endure anything. Give as much love as possible to as many people as possible. Remember, each one of us is very special and being a mureed makes us that extra special.
I end with a sincere prayer for all Ismailis around the world: May Mawla bless each one of us on the joyous occasion of his seventy-sixth Salgirah.
Date posted: December 10, 2012.
Copyright: Gulnor Saratbekova/Simerg.
About the author: Gulnor Saratbekova was born in Yavan, near the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. She fled to the predominant Ismaili town of Khorog due to the civil war in the early 1990’s. She has 3 siblings, 5 cousin-siblings whom she grew up with, a father and 2 mothers – her own bilogical mother, who passed away, and her aunt who then adopted and raised her.
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