My final borrower verification visit took me down to IMON International’s outpost in Qumsangir, in the far southwestern corner of Tajikistan. Over my two and a half hours sitting in the front seat of a shared taxi, I watched the landscape change from high mountains, to flat farmland reminiscent of the northern Fergana Valley where I lived for a month, to sandstone hills of impossible aridity. This has always been one of the poorest regions of Tajikistan, and the reason is clear; it takes either dogged determination or magic to wrest crops out of this land, and sometimes even those aren’t enough.
The borrower I was visiting, Ismoil, lived in a village outside the town of Panj, which sits square on the Panj River that divides Tajikistan from Afghanistan. We skirted the Afghan border for the entire ride there. Glints of the river past eroded cliffs. A long double fence stretching through farm fields, punctuated by high black guard towers. I am looking at Afghanistan. I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. I knew for a fact that nothing would befall me here; 50 percent of the Tajik army is stationed on the Afghan border, and their job is to make sure everyone in the region stays safe. But I was jittery. Too much sadness has come out of that country. Too much pain, my friends’ and others’.
Ismoil’s village was the poorest I had yet seen in Tajikistan: a tangle of potholed mud streets bending around haphazardly placed house compounds, with large stones and errant livestock halting our progress into town. Ismoil himself had built his tiny store with his own hands, stacking mud bricks, nailing together shelves, and installing the generator-powered electrical outlet that powered his single tiny icebox. Our entourage of four took up all the available space in the building; outside, a group of schoolchildren, neatly dressed in their tiny suits and ties, waited patiently for the interview to be over. Ismoil’s store was the only one in town.
Southern Tajikistan was at the epicenter of the country’s awful civil war, which lasted from 1992 to 1997 and was ignored by everyone because Yugoslavia was imploding at the same time. Nearly every town in the region was ravaged; nearly every person’s life was destroyed. Cemeteries dot the sandstone hills. A past Kiva Fellow, Carrie Ferrence, once wrote a blog post exploring why no one in the south wants to speak about their past, their present, or their dreams for the future.
Before I came, I was told that, from a foreigner’s perspective, there wasn’t much worth seeing in southern Tajikistan. But something about this place haunted me.