Saeed Beg and his family live in a two-room mud house with no electricity or running water, no bathroom, no kitchen and no furniture apart from a few threadbare rugs and a couple of thin mattresses.
With his mother, wife and five children aged from 8 months to 14 years sitting alongside, he describes life in the Sarkand valley of Afghanistan’s far northeastern Wakhan corridor as ”very difficult.” As he talks, the face of a child laying kindling on the roof to dry appears in the pentagonal hole in the ceiling – typical of the homes of Ismaili Muslims, supported by five pillars. The hole lets in the fading evening light, and when Beg’s wife Azalma sets a fire, the smoke curls up toward the velvety-blue, starlit sky.
Beg describes how he exchanges his sheep and goats for food – rice, cooking oil, salt – in the barter system that is the main form of financial transaction here in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.
”We do it because there is no money,” he says. ”We don’t have any income, and if we don’t do it, my kids will go hungry. We’ll all be hungry all the time.”
He looks at his boys, snotty-nosed but healthy, their clothes dirty but enough to keep them warm as they tend the livestock after school. Beg wants them to grow up to work for the government ”so then they can feed me.”
The Wakhan corridor, which has been named Afghanistan’s second national park, is the country’s most – perhaps only – peaceful region. But it is so poor, even for Afghanistan, that people get food on credit or barter for it, and children go barefoot during the long, harsh winters. The Ismaili Shiite Muslim community here also fears being targeted by the nearby Sunni Taliban – so much that many women in Iskashim, the town at the mouth of the valley, have started to wear the all-covering burqa.
Wakhan, in Badakhshan province, is an aberration of 19th century geopolitics, split east to west in 1873 to create a buffer between the Russian and British empires. Afghanistan confirmed the new border 20 years later, and Wakhan has been mostly forgotten ever since. Ask any Afghan where it is, and they make a fist with their thumb protruding like a hitchhiker; the thumb represents a landlocked peninsula that ends at a 76-km (47-mile) closed border with China, sandwiched between Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south.
An unmade road cuts along the southern bank of the Amu Darya river that divides Afghanistan from Tajikistan. The valley is overlooked by perpetually snow-capped peaks that ensure punishing winds and night-time temperatures close to zero even during the short summer.
On the Tajik side, the road is sealed, and electricity lines feed villages with bright yellow satellite dishes on the rooftops. On the Afghan side, the region is home to around 17,000 Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan, one of the world’s wealthiest men and their hereditary spiritual leader for 49 generations. For the past century, the Aga Khans have been better known in the West for their glamorous lifestyles, including a penchant for marrying models and movie stars, a love of horse racing, and a custom of receiving their body weight in gold as annual tribute from their impoverished followers.
Here in Wakhan – where the largely Tajik people are known as Wakhis and speak a Pamiri dialect called Wakhi – paper money is almost useless. Villagers measure their wealth in livestock, and grow wheat for bread and oats for their animals. This year a blight has turned the wheat ears red and the bread black, forcing people to use more livestock to barter for food. It’s a long and arduous drive for truckers bringing in rice, so the price is triple that in the capital, Kabul, almost 400 kilometers (250 miles) southwest.
The main street of Wakhan’s administrative center of Khandood is lined with shops – wooden shacks on stilts, most padlocked shut. A few young men, most wearing salwar khameez and plastic shoes, hang around, as there’s not much else to do. Some ride by on donkeys.
Mohammad Ayub took over his shop from his father; it’s been in the family for 50 years, he says. He sells biscuits, cigarettes, brake fluid, 50-kilogram sacks of rice from Kazakhstan, and locally-grown red onions – or he would if he had any customers.
Even people who have jobs are not paid regularly, he says. So he gives them what they need on credit – which means he has to shop on credit too.
”No one has any money,” he says. ”Everyone here owes everyone else. Sometimes I’ll accept produce, like sheep, rice, flour, tea, sugar, whatever people have.”
Fatima Roshan is conducting a basic necessities survey in 18 of the 42 villages in the Wakhan corridor for the World Conservation Society. She’s been into the homes of people who never eat meat, don’t know what clean water is and go months without washing.
Many men in the corridor marry, she says, ”three, four, five times, one woman after another because their wives die in childbirth.” For their part, the women fear pregnancy, thinking they will die during or after giving birth.
While the level of poverty here is breathtaking, things have improved in recent years. Foreign governments and organizations have funded bridges, irrigation channels, reforestation projects, schools and a clinic. The list of donors only emphasizes the Wakhan’s almost complete reliance on the largesse of the outside world.
For lack of any other opportunities, many young Wakhi men join the armed forces, according to Shah Ismail, whose ancestors have represented the Aga Khan for hundreds of years.
”The people here feel ignored, isolated and hopeless,” he says. ”There are no human rights, equality or justice for the people of the Wakhan.”
The local authorities are trying to change things. Two years ago, the Kabul government named the Wakhan a national park. According to district governor Nasratullah Nayel, many locals were concerned the declaration meant their land would be taken away. So this month officials are travelling through the valley to convince people that the national park will attract tourists and create jobs.
Nayel concedes that with only 100 tourists a year, it will be a long time before any economic benefits start to flow.
In the meantime, he says, his administration is dealing with other consequences of poverty, including rising opium addiction. Opium production, worth up to $3 billion a year, helps fund the Taliban insurgency. As opium gradually makes its way into the Wakhan, the number of addicts is growing, Nayel said.
He is hoping the Taliban-led insurgency that has reached Badakhshan does not come to the valley too. Just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Ishkashim, the town at the entrance to the valley, the Taliban and other criminal groups control the world’s oldest lapis lazuli mines, in Warduj district. According to mining officials, the Taliban make millions of dollars each year in protection money paid by the gangs who smuggle the rare blue stone to Pakistan.
The presence of the Taliban so nearby has further isolated the valley by making the road between Ishkashim and the rest of the country impassable. It has also instilled a fear that insurgents may target villagers simply because they are followers of the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam, widely considered a cult by other Muslims.
Shah Langar, uncle of Shah Ismail, says an influx of foreign tourists may attract the Taliban’s attention. Sipping salted tea in his wooden house in Qazideh village, he says the Tajik government closed the border bazaars, where traders from both countries could meet for business, more than 10 months ago amid security concerns.
”It generally hasn’t had a huge effect on us because the people here don’t have anything anyway, we often go without tea, rice, sugar,” he said. ”The government never does anything for us. We are in a forgotten corner of Afghanistan.”