Sunday, November 26, 2006

Whither Tajikistan?

This was written on Sunday but I thought it better not to post it till I had left the country.

Yesterday visited a home for children with disabilities. This is a new institution replacing the one which burnt down at the beginning of the year, killing 13 children. This caused an outcry not least because the fire brigade took an hour to arrive at a location in the centre of the capital. But then, it was a very fine and expensive location, next to the World Bank and Unicef (with all their guards), and rumours existed about the value of the land as a building site.

The new home, on the site of a home that existed many years ago, was put together in next to no time, and in September the children moved in. The place certainly looks very nice and the children have some more space. I know that the regime has improved in that the children now have some teachers and materials for arts and so on, but some things are still questionable - do the most seriously disabled children really have to have their 'potties' in their play room when the toilet is next door? (Also the potties are made for very small bottoms). There is a serious lack of staff, partly also because this new centre is out of town, up a hill. But training is going on through UNICEF, the Turks are funding a sports and treatment centre so it is hoped that things will continually improve.

Wandering through the town in the afternoon I spotted some changes:

  • there are many new fanciful street lights (in a country where there is an electricity shortage);

  • in one street all the general shops have become computer shops;

  • my favourite DVD shop, which was suddenly closed by the authorities in May is now open bigger and better (and with very nice and helpful staff);
  • the most dreadful Chinese restaurant near the opera, a right soviet restaurant palace, has finally closed and I hope someone else is taking it over;

  • there is a lovely supermarket near the opera with better products that the President's daughter's supermarket nearby.... at a price...
  • there are now five or six mobile phone networks as opposed to the two that existed two years ago
  • the cars are becoming more European rather than Russian

All this of course is typical ex-pat stuff. I have not been around the markets to have a look at goods and prices there. Of course people are begging in the streets (though less visibly than in Georgia - but maybe here there are fewer rich people to beg from).

What has not changed?

  • bribery and corruption. On the way from the airport, about 5 miles, we were stopped twice by the police. Here no driver crosses a red traffic light because immediately behind it there will be a policeman with his hand open. (and in Georgia they do because the better-paid, and less prone to bribes, policemen are fewer in number... weird or what?). I have heard other stories of bribery and corruption that make your hair stand on end. This is also the only country where I have had to pay bribes - vastly against my principles, but when a bribe is needed to allow me to go home (because the visas were not correct) I also have no compunction.
  • people complain about living conditions, but still the president was re-elected; partly because the memory of the civil war and the fear of another one remains in people's minds.
What does the future hold? In a country where a million men work in Russia, in terrible conditions and jobs, having had to bribe their way to get air tickets, living illegally, often falling victim to mysterious fires and other accidents; where the birth rate is the highest in the former Soviet Union, where there is almost no social protection (hence the birth rate). I don't know.

The country has considerable charm in terms of landscape, mountaineering (provided the KGB does not follow you, as it did one walking group in May), people are very hospitable but it has very little tourist infrastructure - if you are prepared to rough it, you will be fine. Just don't drink the municipal water!

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