Afghanistan's ethnic Kyrgyz trapped on the 'roof of the world'
WAKHAN CORRIDOR, Afghanistan -- Trapped by the twists and turns of history, a small band of ethnic Kyrgyz are eking out an arduous existence in an inhospitable corner of northeastern Afghanistan.
For centuries, the nomadic Kyrgyz people travelled freely across Central and South Asia, fording rivers and cutting across snow-capped mountains with their herds of livestock. Today a handful of them are stuck on the "roof of the world" -- in Afghanistan's remote and mountainous Wakhan Corridor with little hope of a way out.
Political upheaval and violence in the region have slowly boxed them in. There are no roads, and one by one the nearest borders have closed, condemning the Kyrgyz to a treacherous life.
"We are accidental Afghans," said Jo Boi, the frail Kyrgyz chief with heavy-lidded eyes and a somnolent voice.
"We didn't choose this land, but we have no other place to go," he explained of his tribe, which numbers just 1,100 according to analysts.
In a frigid place where temperatures rarely rise above freezing and crops cannot grow, life expectancy is low.
One woman in three dies from complications in childbirth while 53% of children do not survive beyond age five, said Jeff Walkes, the Bishkek-based director of NGO Crosslink Development International.
"They live on a precipice between survival and succumbing to the realities of living in such a remote area," he told AFP.
"They continue to exist... as they have for hundreds of years," he added,
In the absence of doctors or clinics, even minor ailments can be deadly.
"Death is more frequent than birth," agreed local shepherd Tilo, his hands so chapped the skin is cracked and bloodied, a common feature among inhabitants of the corridor.
'Roof of the world'
The Wakhan Corridor consists mainly of arid valleys and craggy mountain passes. It was carved out as a result of the 19th century Great Game, when the British and Russian empires fought for influence in Central Asia -- the long, narrow strip of territory serving as a buffer zone between the expanding powers.
Its inhabitants, the Kyrgyz and the larger Wakhi tribe at the other end of the corridor, call their land Bam-e-Dunya, the "roof of the world", because of its location at the convergence of three of Asia's highest mountain ranges -- the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamir, together forming the famed Pamir Knot.
The nearest town of Ishkashim is a three-day journey by horse or yak on a trail that cuts through sharp mountain passes and narrow valleys, where one wrong step can be deadly.
Previously the Kyrgyz stopped in Wakhan only for the summer, said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), adding that those nomads travelled to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Xinjiang region of China to escape the harsh winters.
"After the 1917 Russian and 1949 communist revolutions, many fled to Wakhan, preferring the numbing cold to communist-enforced collectivisation," she told AFP.
The independence of British India and creation of Pakistan in 1947 hardened another boundary to the south, and by the mid-20th century the group was cut off in the northern portion of the corridor.
'We die young'
A communist coup in Kabul in 1978 spurred them to flee, led by their leader, Haji Rehman Qul, over the 16,300-foot Irshad pass into Pakistan.
But after several hundred died from water-borne diseases, most of the group returned to Wakhan.
A small group of Kyrgyz later obtained asylum in Turkey, but the rest still battle for survival in Wakhan.
"We are stuck," said Tilo.
Kabul considers the Kyrgyz to be Afghan citizens, but the group view Afghanistan as a foreign land and have been lobbying to be relocated to Kyrgyzstan since the USSR collapsed in 1991.
Their resettlement is not seen as a burning problem in Kyrgyzstan. Successive governments have announced initiatives over the years to assist repatriation and provide citizenship for some 22,000 ethnic Kyrgyz abroad, including the group in the Wakhan Corridor, but securing such a move remains rare.
"Finally the government of Kyrgyzstan has started repatriation and some families moved this year," said Jo Boi.
The Kyrgyz embassy in Kabul, however, denied any efforts to repatriate the community, insisting that the small number taken to Kyrgyzstan were sent for educational purposes only.
"The ethnic Kyrgyz are citizens of Afghanistan," Uchkun Eraliev, chargé d'affaires at the Kyrgyz embassy in Afghanistan, told AFP, adding that his government provides humanitarian assistance including food, warm clothes and medicine to them annually.
But for Tilo, securing a future in Kyrgyzstan is his people's best hope for survival.
"Who would like to live here, but there is no other way... We never become old because we die young," he said with a bitter smile.