The Kirghiz of Afghanistan
Prepared by Iraj Bashiri
Copyright © Iraj Bashiri, 2002
The Kirghiz, a nomadic people of paleo-Siberian origin, were dislocated in medieval times from their original homeland west of Lake Baikal by the Uighurs and the Mongols. Traveling along the ancient Silk Road, they found permanent pastures in the Pamir lowlands. In AD 644, Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan Tsang described the region inhabited by the Kirghiz as follows: "The cold is glacial, the wind furious. Snow falls even in spring and summer; day and night the wind rages." This is not to take into consideration the hostilities brought about by modern-day realities: threat of ethnic cleansing, sealed borders, war, relocation, and dispersal.
Anthropologist Nazif Shahrani, accompanied by a British film crew, visited the Kirghiz of Little Pamir in 1975. His visit took place during a most crucial time in the life of the relatively small community. Little Pamir, also referred to as the Wakhan Corridor and The Roof of the World, was not a new place to these Kirghiz; although it turned out to become the last place in which they truly enjoyed a traditional Kirghiz life.
Before the 18th century Russian advances into Central Asia, and even for some time thereafter, the ancestors of the Kirghiz of Little Pamirs, had used these same highlands as their summer quarters. When the Soviets took over Central Asia, and especially when they decided to settle the nomadic tribes of the region by force, this body of Kirghiz, nearly 30,000 in number, decided to stay in their summer quarters permanently. Here, although in a limited form, they could practice their nomadic ways and enjoy the freedom that their ancestors had cherished. The decision, of course, permanently separated them from their kinfolk in the lowlands who had chosen, by force or otherwise, to settle, build villages and towns and lead a sedsentry existence.
The Wakhan Corridor, originally a neutral zone which separated the Russian Empire from the British Raj in India, became part of independent Afghanistan in the 1920's. Fortunately for the Kirghiz, the distance between their camping grounds and Kabul was considerable. Besides, Afghan rulers benefited from trade with the Kirghiz. This modus vivendi with the Afghan Amirs ushered in a period of tranquility into the lives of the Kirghiz of the Pamirs. They roamed freely in a region surrounded by high mountains and sealed borders, preventing them from moving into India, China, or Russia. On the bright side, they could practice their traditional nomadic ways without having to deal with governmental officials, tax collectors, and security agents. In a way, they traded the comfort of the lowlands for the harsh but unencumbered life in the highlands.
In this new environment, the survival of the nomadic community depended on the generosity of one man, Rahmanqul, their khan who had inherited both the wealth and the wisdom of the Kirghiz from his father. Fortunately for them, Rahmanqul was more than willing to share his knowledge and expertise with his tribe. Using a traditional economic system based on trust, Rahmanqul allowed his subjects the use of his animals to provide a living for their families. He also acted personally as their teacher, judge, religious leader, and arbiter in disputes. In short, within a few years, Rahmanqul created a relatively self-sufficient society for his people in which they could live and work in peace and harmony.
The economic system that Rahmanqul used is called Amanat. According to the Amanat system, any member of the tribe could "borrow" a number of Rahmanqul's sheep and use their milk and wool, and dung (for fuel). The sheep themselves, and their offspring, however, remained the property of Rahmanqul. At the end of each year, therefore, the person who had borrowed a small herd was required to contribute a certain number of lambs and sheep to Rahmanqul's flock, making his holdings even greater. Rahmanqul then would send the surplus--sometimes over 1,500 sheep--to Kabul for sale. The money gained from the sale of the sheep was used to buy rice, sugar, tea, and utensils.
The Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 disrupted the tranquility of Rahmanqul's tribe one more time. Because of the chaotic situation in Afghanistan's capital, the Kirghiz could no longer visit Kabul to sell their surplus sheep and, consequently, could not provide the necessary items that used to add zest to their monotonous lives. Furthermore, the Soviets increasingly identified Rahmanqul as a major enemy and a bloodthirsty supporter of the Afghans and their Western allies. The vulnerable tribe did not have the means to defend itself against these allegations. Neither could it ignore impending night attacks by the Soviets in which many of their people would lose their lives. Similar raids in the past, under much less tense circumstances, had divested them of their animals and visited tragic consequences on them. Left with no option but escape, one night in 1980, the tribe rolled up its yurts (round nomadic tents) and moved from the Pamirs to Gilgit in northern Pakistan. In fact, the Kirghiz were one of the first groups of Afghan refugees to seek a haven in that country.
Life in Gilgit was difficult, especially for women. They had to follow the rules of purdah, something that was absolutely alien to their freely roaming spirit. And they all were plagued by diseases which their immune system could not repel. The unbearable heat in Gilgit caused many to die.
While in Gilgit, Rahmanqul tried to acquire 1,000 United States visas to move his people to Alaska. But that did not happen. Eventually, in 1983, the Republic of Turkey accommodated the Kirghiz of the Pamir in eastern Turkey where the land closely resembles their original homeland in Central Asia. There, especially in the 1990's, they became innocent victims of the Kurdish insurgency againt the government of Turkey.
When Shahrani visited the Kirghiz for the first time, he did not have the slightest notion about the future implication or the impact and the importance of his study. He did not know that he and his film crew were visiting a disappearing people and that the document they produce about the social structure and the belief system of the Kirghiz of Little Pamir would become a unique source, shedding light on aspects of the life of a gradually vanishing tribe.
Neither was Shahrani the only one who documented the lives of the Kirghiz of Little Pamir. One of Rahmanqul's sons, Abdul Malik, painted. His drawings of ordinary daily life depicts the gradual transition that occurred in the life of the tribe, especially after the Soviet invasion. He shows how their idyllic home in the Pamirs, centered on the love of the horse and an admiration for the yak, changed into a hateful life, plagued by tank attacks, bombing raids, and land mines.