Guest Column

The Road to Tajikistan

- Illustration by Miles Hyman

It's really difficult to get to Tajikistan. First try finding it on a map, then try getting a visa. Even U.S. State Department personnel have to get special clearance before they can come here. The State Department prefers to hire non-government organizations to go into the field and deliver humanitarian aid. I work for one such aid organization, hired to deliver donated medical products. That's why I got the Tajik visa.

My assignment started last December, when I boarded a plane for Moscow. I spent three days in the Russian capital, tracking down a representative of the Tajik Embassy so I could make arrangements to fly to Tajikistan. (Since no trains were allowed to cross the border, plane tickets were in great demand.) Eventually, the embassy gave me a seat normally reserved for government officials.

It's a four-hour flight from Moscow to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and I arrived there late in the evening. The border guards immediately confiscated my passport and told me that my Tajik visa was not valid. I had to pay another $60 to get a valid visa. Then I was summarily dismissed, without having an opportunity to go through customs. I had to file the customs declaration forms later.

The uncertainties of travel in this part of the world came as no surprise to me. I first came to Tajikistan in 1992. I was 23 years old and just a year out of college, where I had majored in Russian studies. My job then was to organize logistical support for the delivery of donated medical supplies. I accompanied a convoy of trucks through the tumultuous demonstrations that were the harbinger of five years of savage civil war between the Islamic opposition and the vestigial Soviet government.

In 1993 I returned to Tajikistan in the heat of the civil war to deliver medicine to both sides. One night I was returning late to Dushanbe after making a delivery to the opposition stronghold of Garm. It was after curfew, when everyone but armed bandits tried to stay off the roads, and at each military checkpoint I had to leave the vehicle with my hands up to assuage the nervous, armed 18-year-old Russian conscripts, but I got back safely.

In 1998 Tajik authorities, suspicious of any outsider, tried to arrest me. Fortunately, I was working on a humanitarian-aid project that had been sponsored by a wealthy member of parliament. He appealed directly to the prime minister, and I was exonerated of any wrongdoing. In 1999 I was held at gunpoint by drunken Russian mercenaries who wanted my hotel room.

I understand why the State Department makes it difficult to get here. Sometimes I wonder why I came back. The decision to return was not an easy one. I had completed work on my M.B.A. at UNH in May 2001, and I was looking for a job that would let me stay in Portsmouth. But then the war on terrorism suddenly focused world attention on this region, and with the Tajiks helping U.S. forces to fight al-Qaeda, the amount of aid coming to Tajikistan increased. My fluency in Russian and my previous experience became valuable commodities overnight.

Fortunately, Tajikistan is a country on the road to stability now. The civil war is over, and relations with neighboring Uzbekistan seem to be on the mend. There are no more curfews in Dushanbe. I was surprised to see women walking around town after 5 p.m., restaurants open and crowded. I was also surprised that I did not see a lot of guns. When I was here in 1999, everyone seemed to have an AK-47.

I recently visited a hospital in Pyanj, which is so close to the Afghan border that it was bombed by both sides during the Soviet-Afghan war. During the Tajik civil war, many windows were shattered, and whatever wasn't nailed down was stolen. But now, with aid from the U.S., the Tajik doctors there are trying to resume the fight against malaria, typhus and a score of other diseases. I can help them and people like them to continue their valuable work. This is too important an opportunity to pass up.

Tajikistan is on what was once known as the Silk Road, an important trading route for thousands of years. Now that the world is noticing this area again, perhaps that road will be reopened. Maybe one day there will even be a direct flight from Boston to Dushanbe, with no visa required. ~

Colin Credle '01G is leading the humanitarian relief effort for an international aid organization. His views are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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