Memories of the Tajik Civil War

by Christian Bleuer

Three years ago in the southern Tajik city of Qurghonteppa I was talking to a group of local high school students about the history of Tajikistan. They seemed fascinated that I knew the names of several First Secretaries of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, as well as the names of several famous Tajik cultural figures. However, when I mentioned the names of prominent figures from the civil war era (1992-1997), the students had no idea who I was talking about. I was very surprised that none of them had heard of Sangak Safarov, a man who became the most powerful commander of the Popular Front [Narodniy Front] and who had captured the city that they themselves lived in. An older aged university student in the room berated them for knowing nothing about the war and insisted that all older people in the area had of course heard of Sangak Safarov.

Several days later I visited a section of the local bazaar where schoolbooks were sold. I looked through a history textbook that is mandatory reading for school students and found only the briefest outline of the civil war. Since then I have looked through other local textbooks and history books and found the same lack of information on the war that has come to define post-Soviet Tajikistan. In general, this phenomenon is seen in all parts of Tajikistan throughout many forms of media. Tajikistan’s population is in the process of forgetting its civil war. There may be small portion of the younger population that does have a good level of knowledge on the events of the civil war, but these people – generally highly educated young urban intellectuals – are self-taught in the issue of the civil war and are not representative of the broader population. There are discussions on the civil war on certain websites and in the occasional newspaper article, but these are accessed by very few people in Tajikistan. An additional factor is that the civil war is not something people in Tajikistan discuss with their children. More likely it is an unpleasant subject to be avoided.

If the younger generation is uninformed about civil war era history, Tajikistan will eventually have a population that is almost entirely ignorant of the civil war. The city of Qurghonteppa and the surrounding districts of Bokhtar and Vakhsh suffered heavy casualties and high rates of displaced refugees at the beginning of the civil war. And even in this area, as the above anecdote illustrates, the younger population has a low level of awareness of what happened during the war. The result here can be considered as having both negative and positive effects. The main negative effect is that the younger generation does not have an idea of how quickly reckless tactics and strategies used by ambitious social and political leaders can escalate to violent conflict on a large scale. However, one positive effect of forgetting the civil war is the younger generation is not angry in the same way that many people are in post-conflict societies in other countries. Communal anger here in Tajikistan can in no way be compared to other countries where grievances and enmities are almost core components of people’s identities.

Any citizen of Tajikistan who wants to educate him/herself on the events of the civil war will have to look beyond the country’s schools and universities. There are very few books in Tajik that analyze the civil war, and these are of poor quality. It is in Russian and English language publications that one will find the bulk of the analysis on the civil war. Other sources are even harder to access. These include dissertations, NGO documents, reports by international organizations, etc. However, the number and quality of online articles in Tajik and Russian that deal with the civil war are increasing, so there is now the possibility to more easily access information. Nevertheless, very few of the younger generation in Tajikistan read books outside of school, and rates of access to the internet are still very low, even in comparison to other Central Asian countries.

I doubt that the lack of awareness of the events of the civil war and the processes that led up to the outbreak of conflict will ever be remedied. The war will likely eventually – given enough time – be assigned to an obscure corner of history in Tajikistan on par with what was truly modern Tajikistan’s first war – the Basmachi conflict of the 1920s and early 1930s. The government’s priorities at the moment in terms of historical education are glorifying the Samanid era (which ended just before the year 1000) and promoting select historical figures who are identified as being key contributors to Tajik identity. Whether or not the government’s neglect of civil war history is a deliberate strategy or not, the result of the neglect is clear. Tajikistan’s civil war is being forgotten.

Previous versions of this article have been published on BBC Kyrgyz and BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Christian Bleuer is a recent PhD graduate of the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia). He is currently based in Dushanbe. His research focuses on the modern history of Tajikistan and Central Asia since independence.