In this country’s most remote corner — far from the central government, the Taliban, running water, roads, paper currency, foreign troops and medical care — word of the other Afghanistan has arrived.
In the past few years, satellites have brought television broadcasts of parliamentary sessions and insurgent attacks and the first images of the nation’s president. A Western aid group has built a rugged airstrip and transported its employees in the first airplanes that residents have ever seen. Visitors from Kabul have arrived with descriptions of modern schoolrooms and functional clinics. Traders have brought cellphones, even though there’s no coverage for hundreds of miles.
The 1,100 ethnic Kyrgyz living in this isolated sliver of Afghanistan wedged between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China have been spared the violence that has plagued the rest of their country. But they have also done without the burst of foreign aid that has helped reconstruct one of the world’s poorest nations.
Now, Afghanistan’s most impoverished minority has a big decision to make: Is it time to leave their home for the other Afghanistan — or elsewhere?
Despite multibillion-dollar international efforts to build an Afghan state that envelops dozens of disparate tribes and ethnic groups, the Wakhan is one of many places where loyalties remain local. Kabul, with its purse strings and political power, is considered a foreign country. The central government is mostly viewed as an abstraction, crafting inconsequential policy from beyond the towering peaks of the corridor.
The few technological advances that trickled in have offered a narrow peek at the relative growth in other parts of the country — and to the Kyrgyz, thrown their plight into stark relief.
“There’s nothing for us here,” said Ibrahim, 22, a Wakhan resident who goes by one name. “The world has left us behind.”
There are plenty of reasons to depart. One in two children here die before the age of 5, the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Most of the population lives more than 12 hours away by foot and donkey from a classroom.
Blizzards and chilling temperatures last through the summer, and the only source of heat is burning yak dung. Kabul is only 250 miles away, but it takes about 10 days to get there — by yak, by foot and, eventually, by car. During the last presidential election, ballots never made it here.
The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow stretch of sparse grassland sandwiched between some of the highest mountains in Asia. Kyrgyz call it Bam-e Dunya, or “the roof of the world.” Few birds or trees can survive the brutal climate.
On maps, it’s a slim outgrowth that juts into China, a geographical aberration. It belongs to Afghanistan only because the British and Russian empires created it as a buffer zone after fighting for influence in the mid-19th century.
Ibrahim and other Kyrgyz here are descendants of men and women who roamed Central Asia for centuries, crossing invisible borders with herds of sheep, goats and cows. But when nations in the region formally closed those borders in the early 20th century, about 1,000 Kyrgyz found themselves stuck in Afghanistan, suddenly accidental Afghan citizens.
Not much has changed since then. In the 1980s, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, the Russians built a dirt road through part of the Wakhan. But it stops about a hundred miles from Little Pamir, the heart of the Kyrgyz community.
Generations of Kyrgyz have lobbied to extend the road, but with no political representation in Kabul — a product of the community’s small size and lack of influence — the proposal has gained little attention. It would be an enormously costly endeavor, crossing peaks that top 15,000 feet. After decades of waiting, many residents accept that the road will not be built, that clinics and schools will remain out of reach.
The irony, which many of the area’s ethnic Kyrgyz recognize, is that exorbitantly expensive roads have been built all over Afghanistan during the past decade. Many have been sponsored by Western governments with the stated goal of improving security. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, the United States spent millions of dollars building infrastructure that would ostensibly undercut the Taliban’s power by developing commerce and education.
But in the Wakhan, there’s never been an insurgency. The Soviets set up several bases, but there was no local opposition. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance never appeared.
There’s only a tiny population that has remained on the sidelines of Afghanistan’s 30 years of war. The U.S. military briefly considered cash handouts to the Kyrgyz in 2008, but the proposal dissipated. Most Kyrgyz can’t remember the last time an official, Western or Afghan, visited from Kabul.
A waiting game