When the Soviet Union collapsed, Tajikistan literally had the carpet pulled from beneath its feet. Abandoned overnight, the subsequent civil war left this fledgling country desperate, scarred and decaying. On this trip, everywhere we turn, we see the scars and decay across the landscape: sprawling Soviet factories - abandoned and rotting; crumbling glassless houses; dilapidated apartment blocks; old skeletal offices; rusting schools and clinics; broken pipes; decomposing wiring; disintegrating roads; broken down vehicles... its intensity seems endless.
However, harder to take in than all of this are the shattered spirits which can find no escape from the winter’s cold even in their own homes. In these people’s eyes, the same question is always begging: how on earth has life, which had once been so safe and good, reached such terrible depths?
I find it so difficult to adequately describe what this country and its people have experienced, but when we visited a women’s discussion group in Ghamkhori’s Women’s Centre in Kurgan Teppe, I met a woman who I immediately felt personified the loss, humiliation and grief that this country and its people continue to experience 15 years on from forced independence. Through Savri’s story, I am hoping that those who read this will be able to understand the abandonment that the people of Tajikistan feel.
Savri is 46. She is married with six children: 5 daughters and a son, the youngest 10, the oldest 25 who is heavily pregnant. When Tajikistan became a country in its own right, Savri was able to buy her state apartment from the new government. Unused to the legal intricacies of private ownership, Savri had not secured the appropriate ownership documents from the city government for her flat. Then came the civil war, followed by a new government.
She had long since lost her job in the old state factory, but at least her family still had a roof over their heads. Then one night, out of the blue, the police arrived at her apartment to evict them. The reason they gave was that Savri did not have legal entitlement to the flat as the documents did not have her name on them and the flat was needed for a teacher. The police dealt with their protests violently and threw her family and a few of their possessions out into the cold night air. There was little they could do faced with such brutal intimidations.
“The eviction was so sudden,” she wept, as she recounted that night. “We had no time to even pack our clothes. They burned our passports and took my children’s things. So many things got lost. It was snowing at the time and my children weren’t even allowed to get their clothes.”
As the tears streamed across Savri’s cheeks, other women in the room clamoured to shout about the injustice of her situation. But Savri wanted to speak for herself.
“I worked for 13 years in a state factory and then the government came and took my house… after 13 years…”
She told us that, homeless, they had moved from room to room until finally they found a more permanent ‘temporary’ refuge in the waiting room of a dental clinic where they have been for the last three years. Did we want to come and see it, she invited? Definitely.
In the twilight, we drove through Kurgan Teppe’s streets, past blue, green and grey ex-Soviet apartment blocks, all in a progressive state of disrepair. Turning down a muddy track (which was probably once a tarmac road), we entered a courtyard between two or three of these blocks. Stepping between mud and puddles, Savri led us through a cold unwelcoming door at the side of one of the blocks. The hollow glass bricks above the door were all broken, letting the seering cold into the building. Here was where the dental clinic was situated - on the ground floor of a damp grimy and decaying building. Savri opened the first door, a big metal thing on creaking hinges. Inside was a single, high-ceilinged room with bright patterned seating mats stacked up in one corner. It was the only colour in the unheated room.
“Six of us live here at night,” she said poignantly. “During the day we have to wander the streets while the clinic is open.”
The walls were stained with rising damp and we could see that the back wall, which separated them from the cold evening air, was made of thin plywood. In temperatures that frequently plummet below zero in the winter, this was a terrible place to have to call home.
A deep and troubled sigh fell from Savri’s lips. “Thanks to God, my youngest daughter is ten years old, otherwise she would have died in this cold.”
Savri has no idea what the future holds. Her children aren’t at school because ever since the night of the eviction they have become so afraid of any form of authority. Her oldest daughter is also about to give birth.
Her only hope and respite is the Ghamkhori Women’s Centre where she has been coming for three years.
“I was going to commit suicide, but then I came to the Centre and after talking to them, they helped me change my mind.”
The Centre’s lawyer is also providing his services for free to help her write letters to the city government to try to get her flat back. If she was to go privately, she says, it would cost her more than she can afford. As it is, she earns next to nothing selling pies on the street during the day which she makes in the small dental clinic’s stove.
Unfortunately, getting her flat back will be complicated. The teacher, she has discovered, already owns another house and is subletting Savri’s apartment out.
“The Centre has helped me so much. If I don’t come to the Centre I have nowhere to go. It’s a place where we can get help, where we can talk freely. The Centre is like a proof that there is hope. When we come here and talk about our problems, it helps us sleep better at night.”
Like Savri’s family, Tajikistan has had everything ripped from beneath it… jobs, security, housing, heating, schools, water…
Sadly, given the degree of deteriorating poverty that we are witnessing on a daily basis here, I can’t help but feel that support for the plight of these people and this country is far from enough, although the grassroots work that local NGOs undertake is quite phenomenal. Is this because the amount of support a struggling country receives depends on its geo-political importance or natural resource wealth? Is it because support for poverty-stricken communities depends upon the amount of media exposure a region or country receives in developed countries? Or is it because we are failing to challenge our own perceptions and images of poverty in the 21st century?