Afghanistan's Kirghiz in Turkey

The arrival in August 1982 of a group of 1,138 Afghan Kirghiz pastoral nomads in the village of Karagunduz, near the shores of Lake Van in Eastern Anatolia, seemed to mark the end of their sixty-five year search for a safe haven. The arrival of this small community of Turkic Central Asians in Anatolia may also mark the end of a significant historical process that began almost a thousand years ago - the westward migration of nomadic pastoral tribes from the Central Asian steppes to Anatolia. Yet while the experiences of the Kirghiz community during this century demonstrate the continuity of this westward migration, they also exemplify the rapidly changing conditions in which nomadic pastoral societies continue their ardent struggle for cultural survival.

At the turn of the century an estimated ten million pastoral nomadic people, the great majority of them Turkic speaking Muslims - Kirghiz, Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Karakalpak, Bashkir, Nogai, Karachai and others - inhabited large expanses of the arid and semi-arid steppes of Central Asia. It was from this region that the ancestors of modern-day Turks moved westward to Anatolia many centuries ago in response to local and regional demographic pressures, hopes for better opportunities or, more importantly, as instruments of new political and military developments. Mounted on horseback and accompanied by their family herds, the Central Asian nomads put their mobility to significant political use. For many centuries they played important roles as king-makers and empire builders, affecting the course of history in Asia and beyond.

The political power of nomads gradually weakened with the emergence of increasingly more powerful sedentary states. Their control of the steppes remained strong until the nineteenth century when the Tsarist colonial empire was able to appropriate substantial amounts of the nomads' most prized pasture grounds, which were put under the plow by land-hungry Russian settlers. Despite this political and economic setback. Central Asian nomads put up stiff resistance to the Russian colonialists and until the early part of this century were able to maintain a degree of autonomy.

The successful conclusion of the Bolshevik revolution (1917) resulted in the brutal implementation of a Soviet government policy "to eradicate for all time the political, economic and cultural backwardness of the nomad peoples and to help them reach the level of the more highly developed peoples of Russia". As part of the Russification and socialization programs between 1924-28 the Soviets forcibly settled millions of nomads on land and collective farms. The eradication of the pastoral nomadic way of life in Central Asia, characterized as "the grievous heritage of the past," and the problem of developing the economy and raising the cultural and living standards of the nomads in the USSR "was successfully solved within...the life span of one generation". The cost of this incredible experiment in terms of human lives and suffering is yet to be told.

The Kirghiz and Kazakh, considered by the Soviets to be the most backward of the Central Asian nomads, were undoubtedly the most resistant to Russian rule. Consequently, they were an early target of Russification efforts. It was in response to the threat of the destruction of their way of life by the Soviets that a small group of Kirghiz nomads sought refuge in the safety of the remote high altitude Pamir valleys in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan - a narrow stretch of land in the extreme northeast that extends to the borders of China and separates Soviet territory from Pakistan. Here on the "roof of the world," uncertain of the intentions of the Kabul government toward 'them and cut off from their social, economic and cultural ties in Soviet territory, the Afghan Kirghiz relied on the distance and formidable terrain between themselves and the centers of political power around them for safety. They were able to strike an uneasy balance with all external political forces until 1946, when Soviet military raids across the frontiers drove most of the Kirghiz into the Chinese Pamirs. Three years later, in the wake of the Chinese Communist revolution (1949), the Afghan Kirghiz hurriedly retreated again to the Pamirs of Muslim Afghanistan. The closure of the Chinese borders resulted in further isolation of the Kirghiz from Turkic Central Asian centers of economic and cultural activities, and they found themselves the only group of Kirghiz nomads left outside Soviet and Chinese control.

During the first three decades of their self-imposed but externally-induced confinement in the Afghan Pamirs, the fewer than 2,000 Kirghiz began to readjust their traditional, relatively long-distance vertical migration patterns to a more intensive and short-distance annual nomadic cycle appropriate to the efficient use of meager high altitude grazing resources. Increased competition over scarce pasture and camping grounds, together with the Kirghiz need for more effective leadership in dealing with outside forces under the new frontier conditions, led to the emergence of a strong, charismatic Khan (chief), Rahman Qul, who had taken the lead during the Kirghiz flight to the Chinese Pamirs and later back to Afghanistan. Upon their return to Afghan territory the Kabul government, for the first time, showed interest in the security of its territories in the Pamirs and dispatched emissaries from the capital to assure the Kirghiz that the Afghan government would protect them. The government's task was made much easier when it established a good working relationship with the Kirghiz Khan, who was willing to cooperate with the central authorities to help preserve the interests of his small community.

After 1950 the Kirghiz enjoyed an unprecedented period of security and relative economic prosperity due both to substantial increases in the size of their herds and an increasing demand and higher prices for their livestock and animal products in the distant Afghan urban markets. By 1972-74, they had achieved remarkable success in organizing innovative herd and pasture management techniques which enabled them to support more than 40,000 sheep, goats, yak and bactrian camels, and to engage in a complex network of trade and exchange that annually took some or them as far as Kabul.

The Kirghiz Khan, Rahman Qul, had gained much power and prestige by establishing closer ties with some of the highest government officials in the capital. As the Kirghiz community leader he used his influence with the government not only to protect the Kirghiz from the abuses of local officials, but also to solicit considerable amounts of economic aid (cash, food and clothing) for the Kirghiz in times of need. Thus it seemed at the time that this small group of Central Asian nomads had not only managed to escape the fate of millions of their former compatriots in the steppes, but had also been able to maintain the integrity of their community and way of life.

After the Soviet-inspired military coup of April 1978 in Afghanistan, the Kirghiz found themselves again on the run from yet another Communist revolution. In July of that year, Haji Rahman Qul led more than 1,300 Kirghiz from the Little Pamir valley across the border to the safety of Pakistan. Some 500 Kirghiz living in the Great Pamir valley, separated from the Little Pamir by at least two days' travel over extremely difficult terrain, were not able to join the exodus. The Kirghiz who came to Pakistan as refugees brought their herds and most of their household belongings. Within a few months their animals were either sold or slaughtered and the herds totally depleted because of inadequate pasture and fodder in the area. The Kirghiz were then relocated in a number of major towns in the northern areas of Pakistan, including Gilgit, where they lived for the next four years.

The heat and exposure to new diseases during their first summer in Pakistan took their toll on the Kirghiz, causing the death of more than one hundred people. To add to their problems, they were initially treated with suspicion by Pakistani officials who curtailed their movements and subjected them to police surveillance. This treatment was the result of Pakistani uncertainty as to the political leanings of the Kirghiz, about whom they knew absolutely nothing. The experiences of their first year in Pakistan led to the disillusionment of some 200 Kirghiz who decided to go back to the Pamirs in October 1979.

Although some United Nations refugee assistance began to reach the Kirghiz through the government of Pakistan, the Kirghiz sense of frustration and disappointment grew because of their total dependence on charity. During a visit to Gilgit in the summer of 1980 I found many Kirghiz who talked wistfully of the good life in the Pamirs, which was in the best of times not an easy one. They told me that the Pamirs was a "God given na'mat (blessing)" which they had not appreciated so it was taken from them; adding that no doubt because of their "thanklessness and countless misdeeds" they were now paying by suffering as refugees in the heat of Pakistan.

An elder put the nature of their losses and the sudden end of their pastoralist way of life in the Pamirs in more concrete terms when he told me that

We Kirghiz did not really know how lucky we were in the Pamirs until we came to Pakistan. There we spent very little time tending our animals. Our herds naturally increased and gave us all the things we needed - milk, wool, meat, money and grains when sold or traded, fuel to cook our food, and a variety of other products. Here we find that money does not reproduce money unless you are a shopkeeper or something and know what you are doing.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 convinced the Kirghiz that return to the Afghan Pamirs and resumption of their former lifestyle was an impossible dream, so the Kirghiz khan, who was still able to provide a strong sense of community for the widely scattered Kirghiz refugees in the northern areas of Pakistan, began to search for a new haven outside Pakistan where they could rebuild a close proximate of their pastoral way of life.

In the summer of 1980 Haji Rahman Qul's hope was to be able to take his people to Alaska and he applied to the United States immigration authorities in Pakistan for visas. Despite much publicity in the US media about the plight of the Kirghiz, and even some genuine public support, especially in Alaska, no meaningful action was taken by the US authorities. Discouraged by the lack of action on the part of the United States officials, Haji Rahman Qul approached the Turkish Embassy in Pakistan with a similar request in April 1981.

Turkey, because of her historic, ethnolinguistic and cultural ties to the peoples of Central Asia, has traditionally offered refuge to the Turkic peoples displaced by the Russian and Chinese Communist revolutions. The Kirghiz request for immigration to Turkey, however, received a specially favorable review when their plight was brought to the attention of General Kenan Evren, the president of Turkey, during his 1981 official visit to Pakistan. The Kirghiz community, along with nearly 3,000 other Afghan refugees of Turkic origin, was accepted for resettlement in Turkey. The arrangements for their transfer were made remarkably quickly and the Kirghiz were airlifted on August 3, 1982 to Adana, Turkey and then taken by bus to temporary camps in Eastern Turkey. Thus ended four difficult years as refugees in Pakistan.

For lack of adequate residential facilities in a single location, the Kirghiz were temporarily settled in two separate areas. Some 197 families (776 individuals) were placed in the village of Karagunduz in Van, and 96 families (354 persons) in Malatya. The two groups will be reunited within the next two to three years when the construction of their permanent village in Altin Dara (Golden Valley), about twenty kilometers west of the town of Ercis in Van province, is completed. At that time, in addition to a home equipped with modern conveniences such as electric power, indoor plumbing and hot water for each nuclear family, each household will be allotted fifty sheep and goats and three cattle to begin a new herding economy using the, plentiful pastures of the surrounding hills. Like their temporary settlement, the new village will have such public facilities as a school, health clinic, telephone and postal service, a government-run store, police station and a mosque.

During the summer or 1983, a year after their arrival in Turkey, the Kirghiz spoke longingly of their good life in the Pamirs while carefully tending their small family gardens, but most of them, young and old, look to their future in Turkey with feelings of certainty and expectancy. Since their arrival they have received monthly cash allowances of 4,000 Turkish Lira (about $18) per adult, and half that for each child under eight years of age. They have also received food, clothing, medicine, household utensils, fuel, and other forms of help from a number of Turkish public and private organizations. Their children, some of whom had attended schools in Pakistan, are now all going to an elementary school in the village, while seven of them have passed the necessary exams and been admitted to a middle school with boarding facilities in the city of Van, some 40 kilometers from their village. About 80 adults, male and female, have completed the first phase of an adult literacy program. A number of women have also completed courses in carpet weaving and embroidery sponsored by a private charitable organization, the Van and Environs Development Foundation. The same foundation has set up a kilim weaving workshop with eight vertical looms where some Kirghiz women are now putting their traditional skills to use. Twenty young males have been trained to operate tractors and other farm equipment and a number of them were hired for temporary work on state farms during the 1983 harvest.

Idleness, however, remains the principal source of frustration for many young Kirghiz, since they live some 40 kilometers from the nearest town and work opportunities in the neighboring villages are almost nonexistent. A few have hired themselves out as shepherds to the Turkish villagers, and the Kirghiz themselves have been building herds of their own. During this past summer the community in Karagunduz village fielded a herd of about 400 sheep and goats (1% of their 1972-74 total). As a result, the traditional Kirghiz practice of slaughtering animals for honored guests and communal feasts (at an average cost of $30 to $35) has become common again.

The five years of refugee experience have also produced some subtle but significant structural changes in the traditional forms and ideals of family organization, resulting in new sources of anxiety and tension. Specifically, the nuclear family and individual-centered allocation of refugee assistance, whether cash, food, clothing, tents or houses, has effectively eroded the importance of the traditional ideals of patrilineal extended family households. In the Pamirs, where it was considered the most desirable form, such cooperative family households accounted for about 20% of the domestic units. At present, not a single extended family exists. Thus, the proliferation of economically independent families of young married couples as a result of the egalitarian nature of the distribution of refugee assistance, generates rising tension, particularly among the members of previously wealthy extended households. The elders are particularly disturbed by this and bitterly complain about the unreliability of their young sons as a means of support in their old age.

Another major source of community tension seems to be directly related to the size and form of their present village. The Kirghiz customarily were obliged to invite their close kinsmen and people from neighboring camps within a particular radius to attend weddings, funerals and other public rituals. The number of people attending such events in the Pamirs varied from 20 people to a couple of hundred on rare occasions. Applying the same principle under the current situation would mean entertaining the entire Kirghiz population, a virtually impossible task for a single family. Thus, commissions and omissions of individuals on such occasions have become a point of concern. They have, however, found an innovative partial solution to this dilemma by coordinating several wedding celebrations simultaneously so that resources can be pooled to involve the entire community in such festivities, and thereby avoid any bad feelings.

Considering the long and agonizing experiences of this small community over the past several decades, particularly the last five years, the Kirghiz are in remarkably good shape and spirits. With the availability of better health care, decreased morbidity and the continuation of strong pronatalistic values, the Kirghiz have experienced a remarkable 4.2% annual demographic growth during the past three years. That is, their actual number has grown from 1,040 in 1980 in Pakistan to 1,172 in 1983 in Turkey. Their common Islamic, cultural, and linguistic heritage with that of their host community in Turkey has already proven an important asset which will undoubtedly enhance their chances of future success immeasurably. The critical role of the Kirghiz khan, Haji Rahman Qul, now referred to in the modern Turkish vernacular as Agha (chief), cannot be overestimated in the continual struggle of his community for survival. Through the strong will of this remarkable traditional tribal leader, the Kirghiz have been able to preserve the integrity of their community, although in the process a way of life has vanished forever. With the completion of their permanent village at Altin Dara, in Eastern Turkey, the Kirghiz of Afghanistan will face yet another challenge to rebuild new lives for themselves.

For this small group of Kirghiz nomads, the political and economic uncertainties may appear to be over, at least for the moment. The same cannot be said of the estimated 2-3 million nomadic pastoralists and the millions of others who are suffering from the tragic war in Afghanistan. The Kirghiz odyssey is indeed a sad commentary on the plight of millions of nomadic pastoralists who, for the sake of their cultural integrity, managed to adapt for centuries to extremely unfriendly natural environments, only to be destroyed by the revolutions of this century which, ironically, promised or promise to liberate humanity.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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