Another day, another fiasco.
Carolyn and I, along with a translator and a driver head to villages outside Khojand. We get an early start and drive for about an hour to a town called Taboshar, where a uranium mine was active during Soviet times but has been dormant since Tajikistan's independence. Most of the Russians and Ukrainians who once lived in Taboshar have emigrated, leaving behind the many stately stone houses originally built by German prisoners from WWII.
Our car stopped near the small outdoor market that appeared to be the only economic activity in Taboshar. Carolyn took her camera and went in search of pictures; I went into the bazaar looking for people to interview. Three minutes later, my cell phone went off. It was Carolyn. "The KGB has me."
I returned to the street. It was true. Carolyn was in the backseat of an ancient Lada hatchback, a short Tajik man in an off-black suit standing to the side. He told me Carolyn was to ride with him and I should meet him at the KGB office.
The office turned out to be a house, one of those big German-built stone homes. Carolyn was waiting in the small backyard, along with a burley guard dressed in camouflage army fatigues and black leather dress shoes, who immediately ordered me to turn off my cell phone. He aggressively barked his questions: What is my business in Taboshar? What have I seen? Who is my driver? I bristled back. He was less intimidating than infuriating. Carolyn told him to stop asking the same questions.
Our translator took our documents (passports, press accreditations) and went into the building, leaving us with the guard, who soon drifted into a stoic trance and began to smoke cigarettes. We waited, annoyed. I paced.
After 45 minutes, maybe 90 minutes –I really have no idea how much time passed-- we were summoned inside. Up a flight of stairs, past a photo of President Rahman, we were ushered into a room reeking of cigarettes. A beefy, middle aged Tajik shook our hands. This is a closed city, he told us in Russian. Carolyn must delete her photos – she's a veteran of that directive and so pushed a few buttons to pretend to do so. He had called the foreign ministry, he said, and now he must take our accreditations and send the cards to his counterparts in Khojand. From there, the authorities will decide whether to return our credentials to us at our hotel --"this is what will probably happen tomorrow morning," he says almost coaxingly-- or they may forward the cards to Dushanbe. It's out of his hands. He's only following orders. In any case, we must return to Khojand.
We argued for a while. We wanted to ring the foreign ministry to ask for the intervention of our ministry contact – he had told us to call if we run into problems. We promised never to return to Taboshar. We offered to put on a puppet show. The man was intransigent.
After interrogating our driver, we got back into our car and departed, without our press cards. The Tajik official who originally detained us followed in his Lada until the town limits. On the road back, we debated our options. Worse than being without press credentials, we were now officially forbidden from conducting journalism. Not a big problem in the cities, but we were vulnerable for further harassment or detention in the countryside, especially anywhere around the borders.
So that the day wasn't a complete waste, we stopped in a village near Khojand. It was a brand new village, still only partially settled. The empty land had been owned by a bus transport company. Now retired employees were building houses and planting rows of apricot trees. They had laid down a pipe from across the road and paid government officials in advance for a season of irrigation water, which they seemed worried about actually receiving. They invited us to stay for lunch.
I took a walk around the village with our translator, whose day job was at a Khojand NGO dedicated to helping farmers. "This village demonstrates some of the problems with our farming," she said, ticking off the impediments. "What do retired bus drivers know about farming?" She said even if irrigation water is delivered, it's likely to be in inadequate quantity. The bus drivers are depending on summer labor from their sons, who are likely to drift to Russia or to a Tajik city because any harvest will yield so little payoff.
As we turn a corner around a half-built house, a yellow dog whips toward us. We freeze. The farmers had warned us the village dog is vicious. I spread my legs, anticipating contact. Just before reaching us, the dog's tail shoots between his legs and he skids until prostrate. "I'm sure the chickens are a terror," I say.