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'The Land Is Hard, The Sky Is Far': Afghan Turkmen In Dire Straits

File Photo of displaced families from Ghour and Badghis provinces in Herat.
File Photo of displaced families from Ghour and Badghis provinces in Herat.

The situation for ethnic Turkmen in northern Afghanistan's northwestern Baghdis Province is dire. They have already started to bury their dead.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been following the plight of the Turkmen from the Marchak district in Baghdis who fled their homes earlier this month only to reach a dead end when they reached the Murghab River that divides Afghanistan from Turkmenistan.

Fighting between Taliban militants and government forces has been raging for more than a week in the Marchak area. There has been a lull lately, but both sides appear to be using the opportunity to prepare for the next battle.

The group of Turkmen who fled the area of hostilities, numbering some 1,000 people, has been camped out on the river bank since leaving their villages, sleeping on the ground without anything to eat or clean water to drink.

Azatlyk spoke to one man named Hamid on April 24. Hamid managed to charge his phone and described the situation of the Marchak Turkmen: "We are not getting anything from any side," he said, "nothing to drink, nothing to eat, the open field is our home."

Hamid said people of all ages were now there but mostly women, the very old, and the very young.

Hamid handed the phone to an elderly woman who did not give her name. She told Azatlyk the people gathered along the river had "no bread to eat, no tea to drink."

She said people were dying and lamented there were not even burial shrouds to wrap the dead in before placing the bodies in shallow graves along the river bank. She did not say how many people had died or mention the cause of their deaths.

She said the last cooked meal anyone had had was six days ago, just before everyone bolted to the river as the Taliban and government soldiers fired bullets and rockets at each other. She also said the thirsty children had been drinking from the polluted river and many now had diarrhea and were vomiting.

"The land is hard, the sky is far," she said, using an old Turkmen saying to express a hopeless situation.

She returned the phone to Hamid, who said he met briefly with border guards from Turkmenistan on April 19 to see if the old, young, sick, and wounded could cross into Turkmenistan, where they would at least be safe.

Hamid said Turkmenistan's border guards told him they could not make such a decision. "Unless we receive orders from the top, we cannot do anything," the border guards told Hamid. And that seems to include even giving the Afghan Turkmen something to eat or blankets.

Azatlyk noted the fighting in Marchak has calmed somewhat in the last couple of days and asked Hamid if it was possible to return to one of the villages to quickly retrieve some essential items of maybe some food or water.

"There's no security, fighting has not stopped," Hamid replied and added, "There are lots of unexploded shells [lying on the ground]."

The militants remain within shouting distance of the displaced Turkmen and government soldiers are unable to clear the Taliban from the area.

Sadly, it appears nothing can be done to help the Turkmen of Marchak district unless the Afghan government requests that Turkmenistan's government at least provide some humanitarian aid to the displaced Turkmen on the south side of the Murghab River.

So far, there is no indication either Afghan authorities or Turkmenistan's government is even aware of the situation with the Turkmen of Marchak.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir