By Sam Colvett
On 14 September 2022, Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards exchanged fire in the northern area of their countries’ contiguous districts, sparking a geopolitical conflict that has killed hundreds and uprooted local communities. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 20,000 people in Tajikistan and over 130,000 people in Kyrgyzstan fled the area in September to escape the violence, with many still hesitant to return after an apparent ceasefire.
The UN’s Emergency Assessment and Rapid Emergency Assessment Coordination Team (REACT) has been active in the area since 19 September, providing shelter and emergency assistance to those affected. However, OCHA reports that most people are being held in private households, sometimes separately from other members of their families. This complicates humanitarian organizations’ abilities to track the movement of people, which is vital in aid provision.
Conflict over the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is not new. According to Gulzana Kurmanalieva, a writer for the French journal L'Europe en Formation, there have been over 70 incidents in the border area between the years 2004 and 2015 that were reported by local media sources. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that in April 2021, 50 people were killed and over 50,000 displaced over a similar border skirmish.
The dispute has its roots in post-Soviet border demarcations, which created a “complex geography” in the area, according to Foreign Policy. Only half of this border area is properly delineated, with Tajik exclaves of Vorukh and Kayragach located within Kyrgyzstan itself. The border conflict centers on the use of natural resources for agriculture and pastoral work, with the two countries using maps from different years to claim ownership over certain areas in the region.
Nevertheless, this incident diverges from previous border disputes in important ways, representing one of “the most serious interstate military escalations in Central Asia’s history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” according to The Diplomat’s Aijan Sharshenova. Pointing to the seemingly explicit targeting of civilians, Sharshenova argues that this dispute should rather be characterized as an act of aggression by Tajikistan against Kyrgyzstan:
“When we call an act of aggression against a sovereign nation merely a “border skirmish,” we devalue the root causes of such aggression, disregard its explosive conflict potential, and leave it unresolved. If we call it what it is — an act of aggression — it immediately requires international attention and resolution within the means of international law.”
Indeed, HRW has called on both countries to uphold international humanitarian law of armed conflict after finding that “more than 300 civilian structures, including markets and schools, were set on fire or damaged during the hostilities” in September. OCHA further describes the loss of children’s education and the deaths of teachers during the conflict, highlighting the true impact of civilian targeting by military actors.
Thankfully, the situation appears to be de-escalating. OCHA reports that the two countries agreed to a cease fire and a withdrawal of troops on 18 and 19 of September 2022. As of the most recent update, Tajik nationals are slowly returning to the relatively safe J. Rasulov district and around two-thirds of the displaced Kyrgyz nationals have returned home. Nevertheless, many remain fearful of another sudden incident provoked by aggressive domestic politics, leaving the situation tense to the present day.