Twenty years of peace in Central Asia’s forgotten country

When Mission East started distributing food to thousands of people in Tajikistan, the country was still ravaged by civil war. Later, the population got help to feed itself. And now, 20 years later, Mission East is working on projects involving water, sanitation and hygiene, assistance to persons with disabilities and the defense of girls’ and women’s rights.

By Svend Løbner, journalist, September 2017

Tanks everywhere. Ruined houses. Walls full of shotholes. This is what Tajikistan looked like 20 years ago following a five-year civil war in the former Soviet republic.

“What was striking when we arrived were the tanks. They were everywhere, even right in front of the schools, with the aim of protecting the school children,” says Ruth Faber who was Mission East’s first project coordinator in Tajikistan.

“We saw children running barefoot without coats in the icy snow. It was tough to see that the children we met seemed to have no toys, and were also not playing. All their energy was focused on survival,” adds Alex Ramos-Peña. She was a volunteer in Mission East’s relief team that traveled across the mountains from Uzbekistan to enter the war-torn country.

Would not survive the winter

The war began in May 1992 as fighting erupted between government forces and a loosely organised opposition. The war brought total destruction to the country. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and more than a million people were forced to leave their fields and their homes and now depended on outside help to survive.

In June 1997, a peace agreement was signed. But an estimated 300,000 people would not survive the winter without humanitarian assistance. In November that year, Mission East decided to launch a comprehensive relief programme. The team managed to obtain containers with flower, oil and other basic foodstuffs. 

”We were all driven by a strong desire to help the many families we met, fathers, mothers and children, but we had to learn as we went along! We had a lot of help from energetic, mostly young, Tajiks who were eager to get involved in relief operations and contribute to the development of their beautiful country,” says Alex Ramos-Peña.

Everybody was under pressure

The war was over, but there were weapons everywhere and a quite tense atmosphere, Alex recalls:

"We tried to move carefully, every time moving as group. The biggest stress was the uncertainty. We knew that the people with guns where under stress themselves, the police, the army and opposition groups. But people were very hospitable towards the Mission East team. We met a family of seven, who literally only had some honey and four onions left. It was here that I had my most humbling experience. In spite of their total neediness they insisted on sharing this with us. We experienced this rich culture of hospitality in many places. To relieve its pressure where possible, we would meet in public places."

A lead agency for water, sanitation and hygiene

Today – 20 years later – Mission East is one of the most important international organisations in the country. What started as an emergency relief operation led to agricultural projects to secure livelihoods for the population. Today, Mission East is a leading organisation in the areas of water, sanitation, hygiene and disaster prevention.

”Together with Tajik civil society organisations we advocate for the rights of girls and women, and for persons living with disability. And we provide emergency relief when areas like the Zerafshan Valley in the north, and the southeastern part of Gorno-Badakshan, are ravaged by floods and mud slides,” says Maryse Tanis, Mission East’s programme manager for Tajikistan.