The Widows of Tajikistan
By Muborak Sharipova. A Tajik sociologist, co-founder of the NGO Open Asia. She led the project to support the psychological rehabilitation of women victims of violence. She interviewed the women.
By Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, a researcher who has lived in Tajikistan while writing a PhD on women in that country, translated the interviews and wrote the introduction.
The numbers of casualty of the Tajik civil war are still not fully known yet. International aid organizations claim that, in the short period of fighting between the summer of 1992 and the spring of 1993, up to 50,000 may have died and 500,000 become refugees to neighboring Afghanistan and internally displaced within the country. Analysts see a vacuum of power immediately following the break up of the Soviet Union, exasperated by conflicting regional loyalties of main political actors, as one of the main factors contributing to the outbreak of the war. Ideological differences were also grounded in regional and, to a lesser degree, ethnic loyalties. Government supporters were generally thought to represent Leninobodis (northerners) and Kulobis (Southerners), as well as non-Tajik nationalities such as the ethnic Uzbeks and Arabs. Opposition members, on the other hand, were said to be mainly representatives of mountainous central (Kofernihon, Gharm) and eastern regions of Tajikistan (Pamir).
Active fighting in the cities was replaced by on-going squirmishes on the Tajik-Afghan border, where Government forces, supported by the Russian Border Guards, fended off the forces of the now United Tajik Opposition (UTO) which were attacking from their bases in Afghanistan. After five years of war, a peace agreement, brokered by the Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, was finally signed by President Rahmonov and the Leader of the UTO, Abdullo Nuri in Moscow in the summer of 1997. The peace treaty calls for the return of Opposition fighters from Afghanistan, and the inclusion of Opposition representatives in 30% of Government posts. In the meantime, the majority of the refugees have been returned from Afghanistan, with the help of UNHCR and IOM.
One undisputed factor was the war's heavy toll on the lives of women. More than 20,000 households in one war torn region of the south is now headed by women. They lost their husbands to politics, but more often, to crime which has become a ruling element in a disrupted economy. The loss of their breadwinners means, by the standards of a patriarchal society, which highly respects the male caretaker, that women also lost their moral support and their respect within society. The high number of children that Tajik women have traditionally exasperates their hardship. The education of their children is one of their most important concerns. The loss of opportunities for a free and equal education, a given in Tajikistan, like all other former Soviet countries, is one of the victims of the transition period with the most long-term negative consequences.
With minimal government subsidies, many widows of Tajikistan have been forced to sit in the bazaars (markets), buying and selling petty items.
Tajik women marry into their husband's families, leaving behind their own to go live with the in-laws. After the death of the husbands, they also, in a sense, become Internally Displaced Persons.
1) Shodigul M.
Born in 1967 in Hissor, had been married to Mirzohamid since 1985, when, on the 28th of November 1992, he disappeared. Before his death he had been working at the Central Department Store. During the war, about 15 of his relatives had taken refuge from Nav and Hissor to his and his father's house nearby, and he had been put in charge of feeding all of them. He would go to work even during the war.
"And then one day, at 8:00 am, he got up and measured the feet of all the kids. He wanted to bring them shoes, and his sister's warm clothes and he went to work. According to witnesses, he had gone to work only for two hours and then had gone to the village of Choriakoron to collect the clothes. He went into the store, and as he came out, some gunmen from Hissor met him at the door and took him away. They confiscated his car, and they threw him into an underground chamber. He survived for three days, then sent a letter to his father to pay a ransom for his exchange.
The letter arrived too late, and the relatives didn't even have enough money. His neighbors found the underground passage, but did not find him.
At first, we hoped that his friends from Hissor would have saved him, but after a few days, rumors flew that he had been killed. I only found out two years later that he had been shot in the face and chest. His sisters found people who recognized him from his pictures and said they had dug his grave themselves."
At the time when they killed her husband, she had been pregnant with her fifth daughter.
" My other children were very small. I stayed home for three years after this incident. My neighbors and my three brothers helped, as did my relatives. This war left has left me in this state, with five kids, at the age of 25. The 2,000 Tajik Sums (about $4) pension that I get, after running around for it for so long, gets me nowhere. I received some humanitarian aid last year, which was much needed. Last year I went to the village and rented a few meters of land and worked on it for four months.
For this work, I got two bags of onions, one bag of potato and one of wheat. I don't know what will happen to me. I don't know how my children will study. You need money for books and pens, which I don't have. Once in a while my neighbors help me, and that is how I am surviving."
2) Hurronbibi I.
Born in 1958 in Dushanbe, has higher education.
Until the war, she had been working in a school, in a museum and at a nursery. She had been married in 1982 and had 5 children. Her husband, born in 1945 in Vanj in the Pamirs, has been missing since 1993. He was working at the construction site of the military station of Kech, next to the airport. On the 5th of March 1993, he went to work and never returned.
There is still no news from him. His wife thinks they have taken him for a Pamiri and killed him somewhere. All her search has led to no clues.
" Ever since, I have been living alone with three of my children. My eldest one, who is 19, is living on his own in Russia. Sometimes I have news from him. Life is becoming harder and harder every day. The kids are growing up, you have to spend more money on them. They want to dress like the other kids, but I can't afford it. Since 1994, I have been working at a nursery. Because I didn't have any money since the war, I haven't been able to go to Pamir to see my relatives. I don't expect any help from anyone. I have even been forced to work in the bazaar. These past few months I have become quite sick, I am so tired. Thank god that I still have this house which me and my husband got before the war. I only wish that my children turn out to be good people, that they also get a chance to have higher education."
3) Rajabgul S.
She was married at the age of 18. From 1971 to 1980 she led a good life with her first husband Junaidullo, but she hadn't become pregnant from him. After two years she got married for a second time. Since 1982 she had worked as a cleaning woman at a factory in the capital. Since the disappearance of her husband, she has been sweeping the floors at the Zarafshon Bazaar. Her husband, Ashur, whose birth-date she doesn't know, has been missing since 1992. He had a medical background and had worked since 1979 in Afghanistan as a military nurse. There he had married a Russian woman and had a child from her. After his return to Tajikistan, he had married Rajabgul and had worked in the police department for a while, then in the hospital for skin diseases. Because of very low pay at the hospital, he had joined the National Guards in November 1992 at the onset of the war, and later the Presidential Guard.
He had 5 children, the smallest one 2 months old. On the 23rd of November he had left his house and never returned.
"We had been all crying, begging him not to go anywhere. The National Font of Kenjaev (Government forces which staged a coup d'etat in the summer of 1992 when the Opposition coalition took power for a short while) was camped out next to our house. But he didn't listen to us. He said: "I have to go serve my duties". He left and never returned. Since there was fighting in our neighborhood, I couldn't go out anywhere. I hid with my small kids in cold basements, half starving. After the fighting stopped I went to my husband's work place to seek him out. I went to the newspapers, to the radio, to the television, to the prosecutor's office looking for him. There was no news of him at all. I still haven't heard anything. The poor man was a good father, a good husband. He used to take the kids to the cinema and to the theater. Now I don't have the energy to take the kids anywhere. Two months ago, I wrote a letter to Abdullo Nuri (Head of the United Opposition of Tajikistan, Chairman of the recently formed National Reconciliation Commission) asking him if he knew anything about my husband. But I got no news from him as well. The government declared him a Missing Person and calculated 1200 Tajik Sums (about $2.50) pension for me. Now, in addition to sweeping the Bazaar, where I get 5,000 Tajik Sums (about $10) a month, I bring cooking oil from Hissor and Tursunzade and sell it in the Bazaar. What I make is only enough for food. My relatives help with clothing. I have four kids in school, and one at home.
I do the housework at night, during the day I work. I don't have a single day to rest. I want my kids to be educated, I don't want them to become thieves. But these kids in the streets, they are bad influence. My eldest son, who is 15, doesn't help me at all, he doesn't study, he doesn't look after his brothers and sisters. I don't know what tomorrow will bring for me."
4) Zulfia N.
Born in 1966 in Shaartuz, has 4 kids, three sons and one daughter. During the war she had become a refugee in Afghanistan.
Her husband, born in 1963, was killed on the 13th of November 1992. "We were living in Shaartuz, where the Uzbeks used to live. My mother in law was an Arab (refers to a minority ethnic group knows as Arabs but who are Tajik speakers and have lived in the area for centuries) and his father was a Tajik from Gharm (The opposition stronghold). When the war broke out I took the kids and fled to my mother's house in Kumsangir. My husband and our male relatives all stayed behind to look over our house and our stuff. They said they were innocent, they didn't need to become refugees. Then we heard that they had put him, two of his brothers and two of his nephews, one 15 and the other one 18, into an ambulance and killed them. I know that our own neighbors did it. We found the bodies and buried them later. My mother in law, who had raised 5 sons without a husband, became ill from grief and died six months later. His eldest son became a refugee in Afghanistan, and hasn't returned yet. I came back from Afghanistan with another one of her sons. Our house was completely destroyed, our stuff stolen. I have been slowly putting my life together again, rebuilding the house. My brother in law is helping me. We are selling the few stuff that was left, that is how we are living.
5) Saodat N.
Born in 1965, was married to Nurmahmad, born in 1963, a construction engineer. They had moved to Dushanbe from Hissor in 1988.
At first, we were living in a dormitory. "Our house was very small, and we had two children. In 1981 we received a one-room apartment from my husband's place of work. They used to respect him a lot at work, they'd even given him a number of awards. He was also a good father. We had a lot of dreams, we were waiting for our third child. They were supposed to give him a larger, four room, apartment. On the 7th of March 1992, he went to work and never came back. 11 days after his death, his third daughter was born. I was left alone with my small children. Until my husband's death I had not worked anywhere. As soon as I had finished school, my parents had given me to my husband. I didn't have any skills. Those first years after his death, my parents and my brothers helped me a lot, but their lives also became difficult. My brothers were unemployed, and those that did have a job, they were not being paid. One of my brothers was studying at the university. In 1993 I was forced to start working at the Hospital No..3. First I became a cleaning lady. But the salary was almost nothing, and I started taking money from the parents of sick children in the hospital. The relatives of other patients were also helping me a bit, and that is how I was making ends meet. I became interested in the work of the doctors. Then, even though we were very poor and my kids were small, I enrolled in the medical school. I studied during the day, and at night I worked in the emergency room. My younger brother, who was studying at the university, lived with us and looked after the kids. I finished my studies in 1997 and since then have been working in the same emergency room, but now as a nurse in the children's surgery department. My life became even more difficult. My salary is not enough for my children's needs. They have grown up, they go to school now, I need to buy them books and clothes. My parents are helping me a little bit. My kids, thank god, study well, they are well behaved, even though the kids in the neighborhood can be such bad influence. My future hope is only this, my kids. I want them all to do well in life, get good jobs, be well educated. I am trying so hard to make sure they have enough money.
At the end of 1996, because I had so little money and because I didn't want my children to be without a caretaker, I married for the second time.
This man used to come to the house, he showed his best behavior. He was also good with the kids. After thinking a lot and consulting with my parents and my brother, I agreed to marry him. From the beginning he asked me not to work any longer. But my parents pleaded with him to at least let me finish my studies. He had nothing himself, no house, no good clothes even. Maybe I pitied him that is why I let him in to my house. After a while he started coming drunk from his work and would hit me. When he'd sober up, he would apologize and promise not to repeat it. But he would again. I had become pregnant from him. Sometimes, he would act really strange. When I searched his pockets, I found some drugs and realized he was an addict. So I had an abortion. I knew that I wouldn't have a healthy child from a man like this. Then my father came around, and talked to him at length and told him that if he hit me one more time, that I would divorce him. At first, he started to behave for a while. He would even help the kids with their homework. But after a while he started hitting the kids and me too, once he almost broke my head. Every time I would leave the house, to go to school or to the market, I would be scared that he'd come home drunk, beat the kids or even rape them. At the end my neighbors helped me to throw him out of the house. And now, I thank god every day that I am on my own but I am at least safe. I don't have a desire to marry anymore after all this."
6) Mukarram S.
Born in 1963 in Dushanbe
"When I was 17, I married Khokim, born in 1955. He was an orphan like me, and he had studied in Riga and worked in the prison No.1 in the City. We met at a wedding and fell in love, then we married in Kofernihon.
After the wedding, we continued to live in Kofernihon, with his mother, who had five children. We lived for three and a half years in that house.
But the place was very tight, and they gave a dormitory to my husband from his work place. In 1989, we bought a house. We had 4 children then, now I have 5. Thank God they are all healthy, but now they are all orphans. On the 7th of February 1994, my husband gave a ride in his own car to the prison workers and didn't return himself. In the morning we went to his work place. They said that last night he had taken someone home. Everyone started looking for him. He never talked much at home. He used to bring his salary home, always on time. We had a good life. After a week they found his body in the hills outside of the city. He had no holes in his body, but was all black and blue. They must have beaten him and tortured him. We buried him that day. The local mosque had announced that they had found a body, and the Head of our neighborhood recognized him. His kids suffered a lot.
On the first year, we received some help from the Red Cross. We got rice, macaroni, and clothing every three-month. Before I had never worked. After the death of my husband I started selling bread. I make about 2,000 Tajik rubles ($4) a day and I get another 2,000 a month as pension for my kids. I go stand in line at 5 AM to buy bread, then I stand in the street and sell it until 8-9 PM, rain or snow. I sell about 100 pieces before lunch, and about 50-60 after. My eldest finished his school with excellent grades. He had a lot of dreams to enroll at the University, but I couldn't make enough money. He now works in a bakery, he makes dough, he works from 6 AM to 7 PM. My second one left school when he was 8. His intestines were hurting. The other two don't study either. My 12-year-old daughter does all the housework. Their father always wished that they would get a good education. I don't have any hope for anyone's help. Thank God we are alive I say to myself everyday. What else can I do?"
7) Guzar S.
Born in 1956 in Kuibushev. She has never been to school. "My father died when I was three years old. My mother, who was a gynecologist, went to Komsomolobid, and married again and had more children. She has 8 kids now. In 1973, she married me off to Ne'mat. We used to live in Kofernihon first, and my husband was a truck driver. When we had more kids my husband went to Qurghon Teppa to make more money. He bought a house, we had some things for ourselves. But during the war they burned everything and we became refugees back to Kofernihon. My husband went back to his work as a driver, this time driving long distance buses. We had 7 kids then. My husband used to take me on his trips, perhaps he was scared to go alone. The last time it was around the time I had to give birth. Nevertheless he asked me to accompany him on a trip. I didn't feel right about this trip at all. At that time I was at my mother's house with the kids. It was like he had some kind of premonition or something, because he took us from my mother's house and said goodbye to his mother in law. We all came home and he said "Get ready, I will go to Faizobod to get some gas for the car and to see a couple of friends. Then I come back and we go on the trip." I bathed and prepared some food for the road and waited for him. After lunch they brought his body to the house. I was so shocked I fainted. My kids were wailing around me. A so-called "accident" had happened in Faizobod, after he had gone in to see his relatives.
After the death of my husband I went to his mother's house in Komsomolobod, but there again there were too many people living there and life was too difficult. After a while I brought back some of my kids to Dushanbe and started begging, door to door. I gave away my eldest daughter to a man, without a legal marriage or anything. A policeman was killed in our neighborhood and they blamed it on the local kids, including my 20-year-old son. When they came looking for him, he flew to Russia, and I haven't had any news from him in four years. He didn't even know that his father has died. Now I live in some teacher's house. I don't have a house.
I make these patties from bread and onion and sell them in the bazaar for 50 sum each. That is how I am making a living now. My kids don't go to school. I also work in people's houses. And the teacher is threatening to kick me out everyday. "
A day after the interview, her son came back from Russia and had found her. He had cried a lot, seeing her situation and realizing how low she had become.
8) Anorgul B.
Born in 1965 in Kofernihon, has 2 children. She goes to Kofernihon once a week to visit her girls who are staying with her mother, and to give them some money. She lives by selling bread, out of which she makes 700-800 ($1.5) Tajik Sums a day on the average. She was not working before her husband's death. Her husband, Zulfikor, born in 1965, was killed in 1994. He was the head of a garage in Kofernihon. Unknown gunmen had come to threaten him on numerous occasions, intimidating him to relinquish his position. At the end they had taken him away and shot him point blank.
"I used to live very well with my husband. He had a good salary, we had two kids, we had our own house, we lived there with my in-laws. Some men came two three times asking for him. I thought he knew them. Once he went with them and he never returned. They found his body, his body next to the river. His head was all bloody. They said he'd died of head injuries. They found his body after three days. That was two years ago, in 1995.
Now I am sitting in the bazaar, selling stuff. Sometimes I bring 1,000 ($2) Sums home, sometimes nothing at all. I lived with my parents for a while, but that couldn't go on, so I rented an apartment with a friend and started working in the bazaar. I pay 4,000 ($8) a month. I found myself the apartment and ran around a lot for it. If you don't run around yourself, no one will help you. The government won't help me. My mother is looking after my two kids. I go to see them on Saturday and Sundays. I take them things from the city. If I work well I make 1,000 sums a day.
But what kind of money is that, nothing. You can buy just ten pieces of bread with it. This is how I am living with my kids. Before when I had a husband, it was good. He used to take care of all my needs. What man will now do the same? Which man will help me out now? These men of today, they just want to have a good time, why should I lie.
My husband's relatives, they don't help either. When he was alive, his parents helped us a bit. Afterwards, they said: "My son is dead, get up, get up and leave. What can I say. He was my kid. Now he is dead, and you are not my kid." My mother in law said this right to my face. She said:
"Come on, get up and leave." They said: "What are you staying here for? You are young, you want to marry again or not, and we don't care anymore. Just go".
My husband had gotten himself another wife (in addition to her). That is normal among men nowadays. The other one was a bookkeeper. I tried to talk to him about it a couple of times. He yelled at me each time, he said:
"What do you care, I have provided for you, you have everything you want."
So what I could I say to that? I have never seen the other wife. He used to hit me too. He was a man after all. Husbands beat their wife, that is what they do.
My whole concern is housing now. My brother helps me a bit. I tell myself, maybe I should go live in Russia. Maybe there I'll get a house. These Tajik women, I hear, work in kitchens in Russia, cooking, washing dishes.
I am thinking of the future of my daughters. The eldest one must go to school this year. One school uniform costs 25,000 ($50). I am sitting in the bazaar, I don't know what to do: pay for the house, feed my children, or help my parents. These women in the bazaar they went to Moscow and came back, they made some money over there.
It was good when my husband was here. The man out of the house and the women inside. And now what? Even if I can take care of myself it is better to have a husband to look after you. It is better to have a husband teach the kids. The kids cry now when I go see them. They say: Mom, don't go to the bazaar, sit with us. If it were for me, I wouldn't sit here. I am sitting in the bazaar for the kids. The future of my daughters, I say, is up to them. They want to work, they should find their own way. They want to get married, they should find their own mates. It is up to them to decide whether they want to work or study.
When I heard my husband had died, it was like cold water had been poured on my head. I said, it is not true, how can it be, before work this morning he said goodbye to the children, he said to me: " hey woman, I will be back in the evening," that is what he said and he left. He didn't come back home. His parents and his brothers went looking for him, they
went to his work place, one said I don't know anything, the other one said he left work. He had a private car. It is still standing in his parent's house. His brother won't let me have it. He says: "If you had a son, we would have given it to him." I left their house with nothing but these clothes I am wearing. If I had any sons, it might have been different.
They say if I had a son, I might have a house now. They say girls belong to other people, they are no good. "