The Aga Khan wearing a black Persian hat, with a long, flowing purple coat covered with gold filigree, addresses his Ismaili followers during his visit to Badakhshan in May 1995. Photo: The Ismaili.
Background: An Eyewitness Account of the Civil War
“I was at my uncle’s and there were about 15 of us living at his house. I didn’t understand why suddenly all the grownups started to cry and say SHUKR MAWLO, SHUKR MAWLO. Then the news said that humanitarian aids would be sent as soon as possible…Time went and we reached the most momentous day in our life: May 25, 1995, a historical date that no Badakhshani will ever forget. We were blessed with Mawla’s didar for the very first time…This was the day for which all our elderly and ancestors were longing, for centuries.”
BY GULNAR SARATBEKOVA
1992: THE CIVIL WAR IN TAJIKISTAN
There is nothing more devastating than a Civil War and it was indeed a path to devastation in my country. Neighbors were killing neighbors, people who were once friends, bore arms against each other. Too many innocent lives were taken and too much blood was shed. Children were left orphans and parents had to bear the loss of their children and grandchildren. The whole country turned completely black. Things we never imagined could happen in our land, happened, and unimaginable pain and grief filled most each and every home.
A WAR never comes alone; it’s ALWAYS followed by poverty, hunger, disease, despair, moral and physical damage, blockage…you name it. That’s exactly what happened in our country. It became something so normal to hear cries; and when you did, you knew that someone had been killed somewhere. The whole country came to mourn, and it continued to mourn. Thousands of people became refugees; my family and I were among them. We had to leave everything behind; our home, our clothes, our toys, our friends and our childhood.
My siblings and I were living with different relatives. My dad was the last one to make it to Khorog after the war had already started. We heard nothing about him for months. I remember clearly when one day I went to get some water not far from my uncle’s house where I was staying. I saw a strange, exhausted man with dirty clothes, long hair and beard come close to me and call my name. Only when he dropped on his knees and started talking to me and crying, that I realized it was my dad. I remember I could hardly breathe; the shock and joy that my daddy was alive was overwhelming. He had been trying to get to Khorog for weeks. He’d crossed mountains on foot together with several other people. The roads to Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomus Oblast (GBAO) were blocked and there were hundreds of checkpoints on the road that basically hunted men. Only women and children were allowed to leave Dushanbe and its surroundings. The only way for men to get to GBAO was by walking through the mountains or to hide inside trucks. I remember my aunt had to bring my 15 year old cousin under the bus seats covered with luggage. He looked older for his age and if he were unlucky to have been found, he would doubtlessly, have been killed just because he was Pamiri.
In short time, we were running out of clothes, food, medicine due to the blockade. People started to die because of starvation and illness. There was shortage of everything and I mean EVERYTHING. We hardly had food, especially during winter and spring. Those were the worst times, and there was hardly any electricity. I remember we had 1 pancake each (made of water, flour and salt) with tea in the morning and didn’t know if we’d have anything to eat for the night or the next day. Without power, people began to cut trees for wood to heat their houses. Since GBAO is mostly a mountainous region, after a while, there were hardly any trees left. Well-known politicians, professors, doctors, and scholars had to sell anything they could in order to survive. I remember I was very creative, so handy, that I made shoes for my sister and I with a piece of cloth and cut-off tires.
More than 2 years after the beginning of this chaos and nightmare, it seemed this was the end for us. We had lost all hope; life stopped making sense any more. Most people were convinced that if no help arrived soon enough, that this winter would be the last for many.
Then a miracle. I was approaching the age of 12 and it was just before people lost complete hope. I remember clearly when I saw Mawlana Hazar Imam on TV for the very first time (it was when we had electricity for some hours). I was at my uncle’s and there were about 15 of us living at his house. I didn’t understand why suddenly all the grownups started to cry and say SHUKR MAWLO, SHUKR MAWLO. Then the news said that humanitarian aids would be sent as soon as possible. I remember the day people ran to the main road to welcome all the trucks with AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) and WFP (World Food Programme) written on them. I remember seeing women cry, including my mother, because they finally had hope that they wouldn’t witness their children starving to death. We could finally eat as much bread as we wanted, without thinking ‘we won’t have any left for the next day’.
For us, the kids, the best part was clothes and shoes, even though they didn’t fit. We couldn’t believe how beautiful all those clothes were and that they were actually used! We couldn’t believe people would just give away these clothes and shoes. I remember an instance when we were all sitting, very anxiously, in our cold classroom and our teacher came in with a box. She opened it and without looking inside started putting one item on each table. It was like Christmas for us. I remember the item placed on my desk was a pair of red overalls, about 5 size bigger, but oh boy, was I happy! I finally had “new” clothes!
FINALLY, MAY 25, 1995
Time went and we reached the most momentous day in our life: May 25, 1995, a historical date that no Badakhshani will ever forget. We were blessed with Mawla’s didar for the very first time. That is when we really knew that we would never be alone, ever again. This was the day for which all our elderly and ancestors were longing, for centuries. This is the date that changed our history forever. This is the day after which we knew that we would survive, no matter what, no matter how, no matter where. It’s amazing how lucky we are despite everything: because we are Mawla’s mureeds. We still have a long way to go even so many years after the war but I have hope for my country and people. I hope we will rise as high as the Pamiri mountains.
I end with a sincere prayer for all Ismailis around the world: May Mawla bless each one of us as we approach the celebration of his 60 years of Imamat, his Diamond Jubilee.
“In the years ahead, Insha’Allah, we will learn a great deal more about spiritual children from parts of the world with which we have had little or no contact, not only for decades but for centuries. And as they come forward, they will bring to us their traditions, their literature, their affection, their songs, their dress, their language, their practice; and this is what is so unique in our tariqah…we learn about the way the tradition has been continued even without contact with the Imam of the Time…A tradition that stems from Hazrat Ali.” – From remarks by His Highness the Aga Khan made in the 1980’s, and published in The Ismaili.
His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims.
“The Aga Khan is coming here, to the vaulting, nearly unreachable Pamir Mountains. Since early evening his followers have been arriving on foot, by car, by tractor or packed like bolts of brightly colored cloth onto the backs of trucks. Happy and excited over their Imam’s visit, many travelled on foot for hours to see him, while others made to the site on the back of trucks. In the morning, 50,000 people will greet him, and the men are busy cooking enough rice in the great caldrons so every person can feast.” – Kathy Lally, Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1995.
Happy and excited over the Aga Khan’s visit to the vaulting, nearly unreachable Pamir Mountains, many Ismailis travelled on foot for hours to see him, while others made to the site on the back of trucks. Photo: The Ismaili.
Volunteers off-load mats in preparation for the Aga Khan’s mulaqat (meeting) with his Ismaili followers and other Muslims during his visit to Badakhshan, Tajikistan, in May 1995. To make it fit for this historic moment, the Pamiris cleared and smoothed the rocky ground with their bare hands before laying the mats on the ground. Photo: The Ismaili.
“In our Jamat there is a long history of voluntary service, when people are in need, everyone contributes to resolving the problem, because you are all brothers and sisters and that is correct that you should always help each other. And I know that during the difficulties – the difficult years you have lived – this effort to help each other has been there” – His Highness the Aga Khan, Badakhshan, May 26, 1995. The Ismaili.
Volunteers cooked enough rice in great caldrons so every person – approximately 60,000 – who had gathered in Porshnev, near Khorog, could feast after the Aga Khan’s visit. Photo: The Ismaili.
“No single visit by the Imam in recent times has been quite as complex in its magnitude and logistics. Given the prevailing uncertainty in the region, the visit drew upon the finest skills, dedication and courage of the jamat, both in Central Asia and outside. Volunteers faced challenging objectives: assuring the visit’s effectiveness with minimal strain on the host countries and facilitating the participation in mulaqaats, of the jamat and of our Muslim brothers and sisters — often in significant but almost inaccessible concentrations – whilst assuring their safety and comfort.” – The Ismaili.
A great moment for Ismaili adults and children alike as they await the Aga Khan’s arrival. None of their ancestors had seen him before or any other Imam in centuries. Photo: The Ismaili.
The Aga Khan accepts his hosts’ hospitality by partaking of a morsel of bread dipped in salt, two essentials of life, representing that which is of most value. Photo: The Ismaili.
The Aga Khan is received by Ismaili leaders in Khorog, the capital of Tajkistan’s Autonomous Province of Gorno-Badakhshan. Photo: The Ismaili.
Ismailis sit on rugs spread out before the stage where their beloved Imam, the Aga Khan is seated. Photo: The Ismaili.
“Essential to the creation of a higher order of human relationships is the acceptance of pluralism. Within the Muslim world, for example, thoughtful and heartfelt differences exist in regard to the interpretation of the faith. Nothing is gained by imposing one interpretation upon people disposed to another. Indeed, the effect of such coercion is a denial of the principles of the faith. Religious plurality in the Ummah is a tribute to the richness of the faith, and a source of its strength. Shia and Sunni can co-exist and cooperate, true to their own interpretations of Islam but confederates in the faith. Similarly, people of particular ethnic, cultural or political groups must grow beyond narrow conceptions of clan rivalry to an acceptance of differences. Human genius is found in its variety, which is a work of Allah.” – His Highness the Aga Khan, Khorog, May 24, 1995.
The Aga Khan receives tokens symbolic of the Ismaili community’s historic cultural heritage during his visit to Badakhshan in May 1995. Photo: The Ismaili.
In a setting of spectacular natural beauty, the Aga Khan on May 27, 1995, addresses Ismailis and non-Ismaili Muslims in Ishkashim, Badakhshan. Photo: The Ismaili.
“The Qur’an refers very often to nature as a reflection of Allah’s power of creation, and it says, look at the mountains, look at the rivers, look at the trees, look at the flowers, as evidence of Allah’s love for the people whom He has created. Today, I look at this environment, and I say to YOU, I believe Allah is smiling upon you, and may His smile always be upon you.” – His Highness the Aga Khan, Rushan, Badakhshan, May 27, 1995.
Uniting the legacy of the past and the promise of the future in a jubiliant celebration, the Aga Khan’s visit brought together the old and the young in the Ismaili community. Khalifas and elders of the community came to Khorog to pay homage to their beloved Imam. Photo: The Ismaili.
The Aga Khan’s visit to Kyrgyzstan was suffused with warmth and colour from the moment of his arrival. Photo: The Ismaili.
“Today, the Ummah is constituted of hundreds of millions of people who are Muslims and who are bound by their faith – the Shahada, La-illaha-Illallah-Muhammadur-Rasullillah- and yet who over centuries have come to live in different climates, speak different languages, live in diffrent contexts, and who differ in some interpretations of their faith.” – His Highness the Aga Khan, Murghab, Badakhshan, May 26, 1995.
The Aga Khan in Murghab, Badakhshan, on May 26, 1995. Photo: The Ismaili.
Epilogue: Blessings and Prayers
“My deep and heartfelt prayers are with you for your happiness and well-being. Though I will be leaving you, please remember at all times you are in my heart, my thoughts and my prayers.” – His Highness the Aga Khan, Porshnev, Badakhshan.
Years on – Celebrating the Legacy of the Aga Khan’s Visit to Badakhshan
Ismaili girls proudly display a decorated frame holding a photo of their beloved 49th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. The was was taken in Alichur , a village at an altitude of 4000 metres which is comprised mainly of Ismailis. The photo was taken during Didar (Invitation) – a celebration that takes place on 28th of May every year to commemorate the anniversary of the Aga Khan’s visit to Badakhshan. During the celebrations the villagers dress up, dance outdoors to the accordion and drums and sing ginane (religious songs), which tell of him being their Noor (light). The photograph was taken as these girls, dressed in bright atlas silk fabric with crowns on their heads, were going out to dance. Photo: © Matthieu Paley.
Date posted: March 12, 2017.
Last updated: August 18, 2019 (new photos added).
Before departing this website please take a moment to visit Barakah’s Table of Contents for links to more than 170 pieces dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam and his family.
About the author: Gulnor Saratbekova, author of Background: An Eyewitness Account of this post, was born in Yavan, near the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. She fled to the predominant Ismaili town of Khorog due to the civil war in the early 1990’s. She has 3 siblings, 5 cousin-siblings whom she grew up with, a father and 2 mothers – her own bilogical mother, who passed away, and her aunt who then adopted and raised her.
The remainder of the material for the post was compiled and prepared by Abdulmalik Merchant from the following sources:
- The Ismaili (special issue), Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Visit to Central Asia, 22 – 31 May 1995, http://www.theismaili.org;
- The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com; and
- The Economist, http://www.economist.com.
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