I Took a Trip Down Tajikistan's 'Heroin Highway'

And learned how it was helping to keep the country together.

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Jun 18 2014, 5:00am

The town of Murgab in the eastern Pamir Mountains

Beginning in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, the Pamir Highway runs the length of Tajikistan, stretches through Uzbekistan and terminates in Afghanistan. Ninety tons of heroin are trafficked through Tajikistan every year, much of it along this desolate route – the second highest international road in the world and one known to many as the “heroin highway”.

Said by locals to be older than Rome, Osh is a dusty spread of Soviet buildings coated in pylons and satellite dishes. A mural on one housing block features MIG fighter jets; the building next to it, in a slightly confusing contrast, is decorated with enormous Care Bears. Thanks to a group of travellers being robbed and beaten just before we arrived, the owners of our guesthouse had underlined their “Observe Curfew” sign three times.

Recently dubbed the drug capital of Central Asia, parts of Osh barely smile in the daytime, let alone at night.

Leaving the relative sanctuary of the guesthouse to start our journey along the Pamir, we climbed to the mud-brick settlement of Sary Tash. A windswept hamlet where the main roads into Osh, Tajikistan and China’s Kashgar city converge, it’s become a major stopover on the heroin highway. Beyond the village, high in the Trans-Alai Mountains, soldiers in fatigues and flip-flops sat smoking at the Kyrgyz Bor Döbö border post. Pulling me to one side, the lead official shook his head. Because the Tajik embassy in Bishkek had placed my visa on top of my Kyrgyz entry stamp, it took three hours and a bribe to negotiate our passage.

“Shh,” the guard hissed, a finger to his lips as he folded the banknotes into his pocket.

Leaving his office, I noticed a poster fastened to his door: “Corruption” in capital letters, with a large red X drawn through the word.

An ibex skull near Murgab

The red soil highway climbed through 20 kilometres of no-man’s land before crossing a peak and descending through the border of Tajikistan. 

Angliya?” asked soldiers in puffy jackets and saucepan caps as they approached. 

Da,” I replied. “Tajik?”

Niet,” a bearded conscript answered, “Pamiri. Welcome to Gorno-Badakhshan.”

Despite covering 45 percent of the landmass, the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan province – home to the Pamiri people – contains just three percent of Tajikistan’s population. The only Central Asian country to have descended into civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pamiris had chosen the losing side. Razing villages and filling mass graves, Tajik President Rahmon undertook an ethnic cleansing that left up to 100,000 dead and over a million displaced. The Pamiris have faced poverty and persecution ever since, only surviving mass starvation during the 1990s because of humanitarian aid.

Around 47 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP is posted home by the 800,000 Tajiks working abroad (mostly in Russia), making it one of the world’s most remittance-reliant economies. “The fact that these people tend to settle [abroad] leads to wider issues,” said Dr Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow. “Now Russia has become more aggressive and started to change their understanding of citizenship, they could become an even more permanent part of the Russian state. This is something that could be detrimental in the longer term – a brain drain, if you will, or a loss of manpower.”

While many of these ex-pats live in dormitory blocks overseen by gang masters, others – as I was told by Dr Alexander Kupatadze, an expert in organised crime and corruption issues in post-Soviet Eurasia – are “heavily involved” in smuggling.

The border with China

Skirting the border along China’s troubled Xinjiang province, the Pamir Highway follows a barbed wire fence for hundreds of kilometres. Parts of the fence were sagging where wooden struts had been stolen, and tyre tracks hinted at illegal entries and exits.

The road snaked onto Murgab, which is the largest town in the eastern region of the Pamir Mountains, despite having a population of less than 4,000. Cut adrift by snow for up to nine months a year, winter temperatures here fall to - 45°C. Beyond Murgab, we passed through places – touted as villages by road signs – that consisted of nothing more than a few crumbling buildings, the ground smattered with the skulls of sheep and ibex.

Taking a detour around a landslide, we eventually arrived in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan. In July of 2012, fighting broke out in the area after the Regional Security Chief was dragged from his limousine and stabbed to death. Helicopter gunships flying overhead, the authorities severed phone and road links, and locals responded by building barricades and calling the government’s actions an invasion. Tit-for-tat battles followed, and – according to a local hospital official – over 200 were killed.

Journalist and Central Asia specialist Joshua Kucera told me that many Tajiks believe “the government's interest in regaining control in Gorno-Badakhshan has to do with gaining control of smuggling routes – though not for drugs as much as cigarettes and other legal goods. From the Pamiris' perspective, though, they see the central government as trying to eliminate their cultural and religious identity.”

Approaching Khorog

Hiking up a steep alpine track, the buildings I passed had been plastered over, all the signs of conflict hidden – except for where the bullet holes were too high to reach. Approaching the outskirts of town, I spotted a cluster of newly built mansions, all of them complete with their own fleet of ostentatious vehicles, belonging to “new Tajiks”. The proliferation of flash cars in one of the poorest countries in the world has led to a new local saying: “It is no longer ‘How much did it cost?’, but ‘How many kilos did it cost?’

I asked Dr Kupatadze about government collusion in trafficking. “All large-scale smuggling features some involvement of officials,” he observed, “either in the form of protection, involving large bribes, or direct participation.”

Already decimated by the dissolution of the USSR, the Tajik economy has never recovered from the civil war. Since the mid-90s the country has become a key transit point for Afghan opiates, as well as seeing a huge rise in domestic heroin use, leading some to label it as a “narco-state”. By 1997, Tajik researchers estimated that half of 18 to 24 year olds were employed in the drug trade.

As to how high up the criminality goes, in 2000, 86 kilos of heroin were found in a car belonging to the Tajik Ambassador to Kazakhstan. In 2001, the Deputy Minister of the Interior was murdered, the prosecution in the case arguing he’d been assassinated for refusing to pay for a shipment of 50 kilos. A study released in 2007 estimated that drug money added up to 30 percent to the recorded Tajik GDP. 

Afghan mountains

In 2005, the year that Tajikistan took over the policing of its border with Afghanistan from the Russians, seizures of heroin halved. Irritated by the international response – that Tajikistan were failing to properly control their borders – President Rahmon levelled counter-allegations of Russian complicity in the heroin trade. “Why do you think generals lined up in Moscow all the way across Red Square and paid enormous bribes to be assigned here?” he complained to US officials. “Just so they could do their patriotic duty?”

However, in the absence of a legitimate economy, the flow of narcotics seems to keep the country from falling apart. “The state is really at the intersection of the benefits and detriment that come from corruption,” said Dr Anceschi. “On the one hand, having the local administration connected with corruption has its benefits, because it’s added a new layer of patronage.”

Of course, this situation has also served the international community, who needed a stable Tajikistan to ensure flight paths in the War on Terror were not disrupted. In any case, efforts to restrict smuggling have often backfired – an increase in checkpoints only causing a disadvantage to small-time operators, enabling cartels to take control instead.

Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon

Aside from rumbling Chinese juggernauts, the traffic was barely existent as we left Khorog. Overturned tanks and buses lay in the Pyanj River, the muddy shores of Afghanistan only 20 metres away. Given the ethnic ties and kinship between the two countries, the 1,300 kilometre border with Afghanistan would be impossible to police, even if the will was there.

Some 19 hours later, a bunch of mansions welcomed us to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. Said to cost more than the country’s annual health budget, the president’s new Palace of Nations had swallowed up a fair chunk of public parkland. Beyond it, I could see the city’s poorly-assembled new high rises, their inflated prices a haven for money laundering.

Billboards hiding these building sites from public view featured images from around Tajikistan. On one, President Rahmon stood in a poppy field, grinning.

Parts of this article are excerpted from Stephen M Bland’s forthcoming book Does It Yurt?

@StephenMBland

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