Friday, July 27, 2012
Khorog Operation-history repeating itself!
Gorno-Badkhshan, the peaceful region of Tajikistan bordered with China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzistan is on fire again!
CNN reported that, 'fighting erupted Tuesday in an autonomous region of Tajikistan after central government forces moved in on a former opposition warlord believed to be behind the killing of a top security general. At least 12 soldiers and 30 opposition fighters were killed, said a statement from Tajikistan's security service. It said the military operation was continuing'.
Here is a eye-witness account of what happened in Khorog, on day by day basis:
This morning, July 24, 2012, as early as 4 am, the city of Khorog was awoken by intensive machine gun fire rounds supported by persistent artillery shelling. The military invaded a town full of sleeping civilians with armoured personnel carriers and a convoy of trucks carrying heavily armed soldiers. Dumbfounded residents stepped out of their houses into the streets, which were so quiet and peaceful only a few days ago, to witness what seemed to be an endless chain of khaki-coloured army vehicles, whose occupants stuck out the long points of their guns out the side windows.
At the break of dawn the residents began to notice soldiers on mountain sides all along the main road leading uptown. These turned out to be snipers looking out for any possible targets beneath. Immediately, people attempted to contact their relatives and friends in parts of the town under attack by mobile phones and the landline only to learn that both were disconnected for an indefinite time (the connection has still not been restored almost 2 days later). In addition, people could not even move about town as it was divided by numerous police and military check-posts blocking access to the hospital and food stores. Even doctors trying to get to their workplace were not let through; instead they had to stand before troops holding guns while the wounded and dead suffered in the hospitals.
They finally did it, the central government delivered on their long-made promise of bringing forces into Khorog in order to do away with the last of the ex-opposition fighters to whom this small mountainous town is home. Every year, come summer, over the past decade now, everybody hears by word of mouth of a massive military operation to be implemented against groups and individuals who still have arms left in their possession since the times of civil war in the 1990s.
Although the government regarded these people as bandits, for many they remain community leaders who protected them during those years of war from the attempted invasion in 1992. They stood then on the mountain passes blocking an army of tanks and helicopters to prevent the horrors of war from coming into their city filled with refugees and thousands of unprotected vulnerable people – elderly, women and children in their midst. And the reason they have held on to those arms is the distrust for the same government that led tanks against their homeland 20 years ago. Talk about history repeating itself!
Gunfire and artillery shelling continued until midday allowing only a short respite for the people under attack now and then. The army assaulted residential areas, firing from APCs machine-guns and small cannons. Two helicopters, meanwhile, were circling the area adding to the gloom of the day that started so early around daybreak. Dark clouds formed over Khorog, pouring in rain as if shedding tears of grief for the city’s vulnerable and unarmed residents. Smoke rose from houses that caught fire in the perfidious attack and even a student dormitory was put to fire; there was no concern for women and children. As all means of communication were cut off, one could only imagine what state the inhabitants were in, whether they were dead or alive.
Two more hours passed, three, then four, the gunfire still persists. By now, however, military trucks, jeeps and ambulances speed up and down carrying their dead and wounded back to the base near the airport. At least 3000 troops were said to have been involved in the assault against possibly only two hundred or so defending Khorog. All in all the battle took 13 hours. Rumours were spread that all the local resistance fighters have been killed and that the attacking army has completed its operation. Crowds of men and women were standing outside their homes all with sad faces while fearfully awaiting further news and recalling the gruesome scenes of genocide that this small minority was forced to live through only two decades ago.
Shortly, the news came that it was in fact the complete opposite of what they had heard. An APC which was charging on the Khlebzavod area was shot down by the resistant groups with a grenade launcher. The majority of people in the mountains, previously in despair and full of fear resulting from the unexpected assault on their town, while unable to communicate with friends or family over the telephone (which again is still the case), at least had some cause to celebrate that a small number of their brave brothers and sisters, fellow citizens, had stood up against the aggressors to protect them.
As the disproportionately powerful but battered army crept back to their barracks, the multitudes of local inhabitants have come together for a council to decide how to proceed in this trying situation. What is unfortunate is that those people who had tried to let go of the horrid memories of the civil war and had decided to place their faith in the current government, that it would be just and work toward the progress of the country as a whole, have now had their hopes and faith shattered by a regime that decided to show its true colours by attacking its own citizens only because they are a minority groups – but one that will not accept being treated as second-class citizens, whose honest and hard-working individuals had to face profound fear and humiliation once-again. Old wounds heal but leave behind scars, was it wise for the current regime to have torn open those brutal scars and inflict more wounds?
Today, the main road was blocked, this time by the residents who fell long, thick poplar trees and laid them across the road. If the army was trying to restrict people’s movements, now the people were restricting the army’s movements and no more trucks with soldiers could come through.
Unfortunately, even so, civilians were not spared by the aggressing forces. Snipers in position from the previous day targeted and successfully killed civilians in front of their families while they were performing daily tasks such as fetching water or tending to their gardens within their own compounds. It is impossible to imagine the trauma of a child watching his father’s or mother’s life taken by a sniper’s bullet, knowing that his or her parents had done absolutely nothing but remain at home. What do the government forces seek to prove to these children when unity in the country is already so fragile? How will such bitter memories affect them in their lives and how can those scars ever be healed?
My friends have suffered losses and have shared traumatic stories that are so degrading. One lost his cousin, a 46 year old man with 4 children, and the family couldn’t recover his dead body from the house courtyard because the sniper kept shooting at anyone trying to approach the dead body. These snipers are all around; they have completely surrounded the town and are camped out in the mountains. The town is in a deep valley, so it’s easy to watch every inhabitant’s movements outside from the mountains. It’s impossible to walk around without feeling fear in one’s heart.
Nevertheless, later in the day, people had become so fed-up that they gathered in the main square in front of the government buildings, after all the shootings had taken place, and voiced their protest and distrust towards the government. During that time, around noon, the governor came out from the building and said that he had spoken to the president, who had announced a cease-fire, promising that the phone connection would be restored shortly (by 2pm) and all they wanted in return was for the resistance groups to surrender their arms. However, it’s difficult to give up your only means of defending yourself when you have been faced with an unprecedented surprise attack against your people.
The phone connection was never restored and the army announced that they would be remaining in the city. However, my fellow residents were able to finally move around, only to discover dead bodies lying in the streets, the sidewalks, and neighbour’s gardens. The government wanted the roads cleared so that they could send their dead military troops to the airport and back to Dushanbe, the capital. As for the dead civilians, they seemed unconcerned. We carried white flags so that we could bury our dead without being shot. All the foreigners had by then been evacuated, except for a group of 28 cyclists and some students who had no way out of the town. The rest of the evening was quiet but tears were everywhere and panic was written on everyone’s face, for no one was aware of what would happen the next day.
At about 7am word had spread in the streets (all telecommunication remains offline) that a new ultimatum had been delivered by the government. It stated that all weapons should be surrendered otherwise a new full-force attack would be launched on Khorog. Once again, the majority of residents remain uninvolved and are innocent bystanders in this conflict. In the meantime, helicopters are hovering over the mountain tops and dropping munitions and food supplies down to the snipers. Almost all food stores still remain closed and those which are open are running out of supplies. More and more, this is beginning to look like a blockade. Young and old alike took to the streets to protest against this sudden and unprecedented aggression. Now, the main square is full protesters who want the army out of Khorog. The US Embassy is arranging for the evacuation of foreigners who are instructed to walk to the Serena hotel which is about 5 km outside Khorog.
It’s now 15:30 local time in Khorog and we are awaiting news of what will happen next…