By Theodore Kaye
The hills of eastern Anatolia are better suited for sheep herding than for keeping yaks. Some 1,100 Kyrgyz found this out the hard way when they migrated to Turkey 30 years ago from Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor.
They had fled the turmoil of Afghanistan in the late 1970s in an effort to preserve their nomadic way of life. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Instead, they’ve traded in their customary felt yurts for apartments in two-story structures made out of concrete blocks.
Ulupamir (or “Great Pamir” in Kyrgyz), their resettlement village in Turkey’s Van Province, came complete with a government school and clinic, a mosque and some shops – amenities unimaginable back in the hardscrabble Wakhan Corridor. Having left behind extreme isolation and some of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, the Afghan Kyrgyz population in Turkey has risen to roughly 5,000. But in Ulupamir, they’re surrounded by Kurds, with whom they have had an often tense relationship. And without their customary livestock and open grazing grounds, they do not have a stable livelihood. Nearly 1,000 of the Kyrgyz, mostly men, have moved to larger cities like Ankara and Istanbul, or the nearby towns of Van and Ercis to take jobs in construction, leatherwork or trade.
A few hundred others find work within Ulupamir in the Turkish militia, mobilized since the early 1990s against the separatist Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK. Their cooperation with the authorities drew a PKK rocket attack on Ulupamir in 1993. Tensions have eased since, though, to the extent that Kyrgyz and PKK fighters sometimes meet for tea in the surrounding mountains, according to one villager who declined to be named.
Little did the Pamiri Kyrgyz dream, when they first left Afghanistan in 1978, a year before the Soviet occupation began, that they’d become embroiled in a far-off interethnic conflict. They merely thought they were going to be reunited with their distant ethno-linguistic cousins in Turkey, who were at the time experiencing a resurgence of pan-Turkic pride.
Their long journey to Turkey actually began in Pakistani refugee camps, where they spent four years, and where several hundred Kyrgyz out of the original 1,300-strong contingent that left Afghanistan died. Ankara’s resettlement offer was actually a backup plan: they applied to emigrate to more yak-friendly lands in Alaska, but, according to their accounts, Washington declined to give them green cards.
Their new home in Anatolia proved no land of milk and honey. It wasn’t only that yak rearing wasn’t tenable in the new environment. “When we first came here, the Kurds were very distrustful and not welcoming,” recalls Jumaboy Kutlu, a pensioner who was among the original refugees. “They saw us as Turks, as part of the government.”
The concrete blocks of the new settlement stood out, fortress-like, amid the mud-brick structures that defined neighboring Kurdish villages. Only later did the Kyrgyz learn that Ankara had settled them on one of the sites of the 1930 Zilan massacre of Kurds.
Such entanglements are all the more ironic for a tribe that had spent most of the 20th century on the run from the depredations of modern nationalism. The ancestors of the Ulupamiris first fled their homes in what is now Kyrgyzstan for China to escape Russia’s Bolsheviks in the 1920s. Later, they fled south from China’s Maoists. The Wakhan Corridor seemed like a safe haven, at least until the turmoil in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, culminating in the 1978 Communist coup. Anticipating the country’s plunge into civil war, a charismatic elder, Haji Rahman Kul, led the majority of the Pamiri Kyrgyz on yet another exodus.
Heaping irony upon paradox, the Wakhan Corridor is one of the few areas of Afghanistan that has been largely spared from the ravages of warfare over the past three decades. At the same time, it has been largely bypassed by most modern amenities, leaving its people desperately poor, as the Ulupamiris increasingly realize now that satellite phones and eased travel restrictions allow a little contact with the relatives they left behind.
After Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, Pamiri Kyrgyz, both in Turkey and in the Wakhan, showed great interest in repatriation. But it’s turned out to be harder than it would seem. Bishkek has not followed through on its intermittent offers of land and resettlement assistance. And for the Kyrgyz in Turkey, experience has helped wipe away illusions. Kurbanbek Kutlu, a grandson of Haji Rahman Kul, recounts how, “when I was at lyceum in Turkey, I would look out the window and see mountains and imagine Kyrgyzstan as a paradise – a land of yurts. When I finally went there for university, I realized it wasn’t so. I was surrounded by Russian language and culture.”
“I had never seen ‘other’ Kyrgyz, before, but the people in Bishkek were so very different from us,” Kutlu added.
Gradually, the Ulupamiris are becoming estranged from Kyrgyz culture. Youngsters are shaped by exposure to Turkish media: they dress like Turks (especially the men) and interact in Turkish on Facebook. Every Ulupamiri Kyrgyz has adopted a Turkish name for use in public, while maintaining their Kyrgyz names within the village itself. “The older generation is always asking visitors from the Wakhan or Kyrgyzstan, ‘Is it better over there?’” Kutlu says. “I see this as a case of the ‘bulbul [songbird] in the golden cage’ – people can always imagine a better place elsewhere. In Ercis, we’re seen as Afghans. In Bishkek, we’re seen as Turks. But to ourselves, we just are who we are.”
Theodore Kaye is a freelance photojournalist based in Dushanbe.