Friday, May 29, 2009

Of rivers and drugs - Tajikistan/Afghanistan border

So I have been here in Khorog, capital of the Tajik Pamir, since about 10 days. I am looking around for images. It's always tough to try to do a story on a place that most people know nothing or so little about. You can do the "general" piece (and your head spins) or you can try to find something in particular that will allow the viewer to understand a lot about all the other issues that the country faces. That can be stronger. I am slowly narrowing it down.

Now, a small brief on some lovable subject: Geography. Khorog is RIGHT on the border with Afghanistan. If you have a good throw, you can land a small rock in Afghanistan, right over the Panj river, as it is known here. Up stream, it is the Ishkashim river, higher up again it splits into the Pamir and Wakhan River. Lower, past Khorog, you might have heard of its name: the Amu Daria, or the Oxus as the Greek called it - the greatest river of Central Asia. Oxus probably comes from the Turkish name Ak Su, the "White river".
In 2004, during my first sniff around in Tajikistan, I went with my writer friend John Bonaccolta up the Panj, to its source: the lake Zorkul.
At this stage, it's important to mention that most of the opium and heroin you find in the West comes from Afghanistan. And to make its way to Europe, a great portion of this drug passes over the Panj river into Tajikistan, making its way to Dushanbe (where the war lords drive their expensive BMW down the Rudaki avenue), hops on the train: direction Moscow.

Well, driving and then trekking beside the Panj to the Zorkul lake, it was always a bit disconcerting to look on the other side of the river and realize it was another country. Towards the end, near the outflow of the Zorkul lake, I couldn't help but hop on some gravel in the middle of the Panj (which, at this stage, was only approx. 4m wide). I was in no mans land, waving at some Afghani yak herder, looking at my friend John still in Tajikistan, few meters away from me. Although the last watch tower was maybe 20/30km behind us, I didn't linger. I had heard many scary stories about the trigger happy Tajik guards.

It looked like this: on the right is Afghanistan, on the left is Tajikistan.

In 2008, I was again briefly in Tajikistan, en route to the Wakhan corridor in winter to shoot my story "Forgotten". I already noticed that the KGB guys were a bit more laid back. And the russian members of the Tajik army were gone back in 2005 (these were the not so funny ones). The policemen even laughed at my intentions "We know you can't be a photographer, you are a dealer, like they all are! We shall defrost you in spring". That was Daulat, the nice KGB guy in Ishkashim, on the Tajik-Afghan border bridge.

Now: 2009: I feel more comfortable around these poor fellows. I say poor because they make peanuts. They are paid about 20$ a month. And they are here to try and avoid all the heroin and opium to cross into Tajikistan and makes its way to Europe. Fact is, from having driven and walked along the Panj for 800Km, it would just be too easy to sneak anything across. And with border guards making peanuts, it would again be probably too easy to hand them over a fat check and drive my lorry loaded with any goodies across the border.

Here in Khorog, some of them look like this, and their means of communication.

Ben voila... I will stop that babble. With so little money on both side of the border and extraordinary geographical challenges, I am yet not sure what the solution is to this illegal trade that destroys so many lives (I can witness it daily in Khorog). Grow apricots instead of poppy fields in Afghanistan? I don't think so... Commercialize opium via agreements with the pharmaceutical world, under strict supervision? mmm, maybe?

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