22 May 2024, 10:19

Afghans and Tajiks mix in rare but vital border bazaar

KALAI-KHUMB, Tajikistan, May 22, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - For Afghans living under Taliban rule, a Saturday market is a rare chance to cross the border into neighbouring Tajikistan and pick up food and household goods.

The popular bazaar in the small town of Kalai-Khumb -- about six hours' drive east from the Tajik capital Dushanbe -- has reopened after being shut down after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in 2021.

Tajikistan, which shares a winding 1,350-kilometre (840 mile) border with Afghanistan, designates the Taliban a terrorist organisation.

But that didn't stop white-bearded Afghan Subhanuddin Haji Qashem crossing to stock up on essentials last month.

"Here we can buy clothes, sweets and tea -- even construction materials," said Haji Qashem, who is in his 60s.

"We're really happy the market has reopened."

From wool rugs and saffron to washing powder and chickens, the market in a deep mountain gorge along the Pyandzh River sells almost everything.

The river's turbulent brown waters mark the border between the two countries.

In Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region, Kalai-Khumb is surrounded by the peaks of the Pamir mountain range, soaring to over 4,000 metres (13,000 feet).

The Tajik flag -- a red, white and green tricolour decorated with a crown and stars -- was flying on the river's northern bank.

Across a rusty bridge on the southern side fluttered a white Taliban flag with the Islamic profession of faith written in black.

Such points of cross-border trade are rare. There are fewer than 10 along the border selling vital goods and supporting the local economy in these isolated and impoverished areas.

- Surveillance -

"The market had been open since 2004 but it had to close due to Covid and the political instability in Afghanistan," Dilovar Kosimi, a Tajik local official, told AFP, referring to the Taliban's return to power in summer 2021.

The closure "was a really harsh blow", said Bahram Rahimi, an Afghan stall holder selling dried fruit.

"We couldn't buy essential goods nor sell our products," he said.

The market briefly reopened in September 2023 but closed again when Tajik authorities announced they had killed "three terrorists from Jamaat Ansarullah", a jihadist group active in this border zone, in a nearby area.

Now reopened, the bazaar was being watched closely by a host of Tajik law enforcement officials: plainclothes secret service agents, uniformed police and armed border guards.

Border guards controlled entry to the market and systematically confiscated Afghans' cell phones, AFP journalists, who were given rare access to film the market, saw.

Despite the surveillance, inhabitants from the opposite banks of the Pyandzh were readily communicating and trading.

Dari, the form of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, is almost identical to Tajik and more than a quarter of Afghanistan's 40 million people are estimated to be ethnic Tajiks.

With their rolled-up woollen Pakol hats, baggy trousers and full beards, the Afghans at the market stood out from the Tajiks.

"We order from each other what we need," said Muhammad Chafak Azizi, a 28-year-old Afghan rice seller.

"There is a market on the Afghan side but in Tajikistan we can buy food that can't be found in our country," such as fresh fruit and vegetables, said Azizi.

He said that he can "earn up to 25 euros" ($27) working at the market.
The United Nations says 85 percent of Afghans live on less than $1 per day.

- 'Lifesaver' -

The return of the Taliban and the proclamation of an Islamic Emirate have halted international aid to Afghanistan amid a humanitarian crisis.
Dushanbe puts last year's trade turnover with Afghanistan at $97 million, mostly from sales of electricity to Kabul.

But political dialogue between the neighbours is also minimal.

Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon is described as "the leader of Tajiks in the entire world" on a huge sign on the mountainside overlooking the Pyandzh.

He has regularly criticised Afghanistan's treatment of Tajiks.
The Saturday bazaar is open for just a few precious hours.
A little before 1 pm whistles sounded as Tajik law enforcement officials ordered buyers and sellers to disperse -- all the Afghans had to cross the bridge before the call to prayer.

The buzz of trading died down and stalls closed up, waiting for next Saturday.

For Tajik furniture seller Firuz Abdulloyev, the narrow trading window is enough.

The reopening of the market has been "a real lifesaver", he said.

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