In November of 2021 protestors flooded the streets of the sparsely populated regional capital, Khorog, of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, in Eastern Tajikistan. They gathered to protest the killing of a minor by a police officer. That killing and the subsequent rejection of the regional government to open a probe into the killing ignited the decades old tensions between local governments led by Tolib Ayombekov, and the central government in Dushanbe. The GBAO makes up about 42% of Tajikistan, but its only populated by 3% of ethnic Tajiks, with a majority being the Pamiri people, forcibly relocated there during the 1950s. Those underlying ethnic tensions exploded in the 1992-1997 Civil War which killed tens of thousands and displaced 1 million people. Since then, an uneasy peace has rested in the region, until today.
The ensuing protests from the 2021 stabbing, along with this relationship led the Tajik government in Dushanbe to label these local leaders as separatists and supporters of terrorism. On May 14th, 1000 protestors had flooded Khorog, prompting national authorities to order them to disperse by 1600 on May 16th. Almost to the minute, government forces, bussed in from Dushbe thrusted into the crowd with batons and rifles. According to government officials, one civilian was killed while “mishandling a grenade”. Three hours after clearing out the square, the Ministry of Internal Affairs launched a special “anti-terrorist mission”, targetting local leaders in Rushan and Khorog.
At 0700 on May 18th, local residents crowded the Pamir Highway to block troop access to Khorog. Soldiers open fired and a fierce gun battle ensued between government forces and a mix of unarmed and armed civilians. The Internal Ministry released a statement that read:
“Organized criminal groups consisting of around 200 people used various kinds of weapons to block the Dushanbe-Khorog highway and the border guard commandant’s office in three points at the center of the Rushan district,” the statement said. “The criminal groups prepared for this in advance and brought in weapons from abroad for this purpose.”
In the early morning hours of May 19th, 21 bodies were returned to residents in Rushon, and several villagers have reported discovering a grave of 40 more bodies in the Wamara region. Survivors from Vamar claimed they were being targeted by massed rifle fire and mortars and when they returned to the scene the next morning, found naked bodies with bullet holes to their temples. This account is unconfirmed, but the stark difference between the official government report and survivors is startling. Much of these accounts were being published by blogger Khushom Gulyam, who has been detained by the Tajik Internal Affairs Ministry. They have also detained former United Tajik Opposition Forces commander Kholbashev, who was a prominent leader in the 1993 Civil War. The Ministry also claimed to have detained another 118 people accused of supporting terrorism in the region.
The Human Rights Watch has called for investigations into this breach of humanitarian law, but no significant action has been taken by major world players, especially not the Russian Federation which exercises great influence over the Tajik government.