A submachine gun that started a quest to know more about the Kirghiz exodus from the Pamirs
When one is trotting on a horse at a high altitude through a mountain pass, accompanied by a friend who’s running low on sleep due to low oxygen, there is a slight hope that one won’t be bothered by his fluctuating ‘moods’. But to top it off, if he is also homesick after a week of hard travelling, then it is perhaps advisable to keep a safe distance from him so the howling gale would drown his grumbling.
This was exactly what I was trying to do in September of 2014 while trotting through the 12,460 feet high Baroghil pass. The clouds were low, ice flakes and raindrops started battering our hooded jackets, the wind had picked up and with some distance between me and him, I could hardly hear my friend Shahzad Hasan, who was no doubt, grumbling.
We’d reached the edge of the pass a few days ago to attend the Baroghil festival, organised by Chitral Scouts. It took a total of three days for us to travel from Peshawar, over the Lowari pass, to Chitral and Mastung, to reach the Baroghil pass. The pass connects the northwestern tip of Chitral with Wakhan, a thin corridor in Afghanistan which separates Pakistan from Tajikistan, formerly a Russian state. Wakhan was one of the last far-off wild territories which were nomadically independent and filled the maps as insignificant blank spaces. In the summer of 1883 the ruler of Badakshan, a vassal of emir of Kabul occupied it forcefully. This corridor was formalised after a border agreement in 1893 between the British India and Afghanistan created by the Durand Line. It acted as a buffer separating the Russian and the British Empires. The eastern end of Wakhan bordered China’s Xinjiang region.
In the 1950s a young American couple Franc and Jean Shor set out in the footsteps of Marco Polo, a journey that transformed their lives. They became the privileged guests of the Shah of Iran and picnicked with his family in his summer palace in Tehran. They were entertained and given permission by King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan to ‘cross the forbidden and forbidding’ Wakhan Corridor. The journey also began a lifelong association of Jean Shor with National Geographic Magazine for which she became a regular contributor. She compiled their adventures into a book, The Trail of Marco Polo, the high point of which was their passage through Wakhan. But on finding the Chinese border closed due to infighting between Nationalist and Communist forces, they turned east on the advice of Rahman Qul, the Khirgiz Khan and crossed into Pakistan through the Baroghil Pass.
After two hours of trot, the weather cleared. We had reached a small pile of stones beyond which our escort guides refused to go. For it was the Durand Line and beyond it lay Afghanistan. We dismounted from the ponies and settled on the stones for a breather. Water gushing down from the mountain on the left got naturally divided into two streams; one flowed west into Afghanistan and other eastward from where we came. Thus we were resting at the watershed and the laws of geography defined the international boundary.
Shahzad’s grumbling had given way to excitement. He wanted to continue further west. We noticed imprints of single motorbike tyres in soft earth as if someone from Afghanistan had come to this spot and returned back. This meant that the gradient and road conditions were probably better across the Durand Line as reaching the border on a motorbike form the east is unthinkable. Though the tracks were a few months old, they deterred our guides, leaving the two of us to continue.
At night, as I read Jean Shor’s book in the dim camp light, I found that the couple, too, had been shocked in 1951 to come across a fresh track of a motorbike tyre in Wakhan. Their guide had apparently never seen a motorbike in his life and “doubted that such a monster existed”. The mystery of the motorbike was solved an hour later when they overtook a white-bearded Afghan trader leading a pony. On the request of her husband, the old man lifted his boots suspiciously. “They were soled with tyre rubber.”
Rahman Qul attracted my interest in 2011 when I was working on Diamer Basha Dam project and would frequently visit Gilgit to meet Saif Chattha, the then chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan. A sub-machinegun mounted on a wooden frame adorned the wall of Chattha’s house. The plaque said that it was presented to him by Rahman Qul, a Wakhi Khan who migrated to the Northern Areas and was airlifted to Turkey along with his tribesmen after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Why was he airlifted! Was he into ‘Great Game’?
My friend Sibtain Ahmad, the commissioner of Gilgit, provided a few answers. According to him, Rahman Qul was a Turkic speaking Kirghiz Khan from Sirikol in Pamir and not Wakhi as on the plaque read. The Soviet military in 1946 drove the Kirghiz nomadic tribes into the Chinese Pamirs. Three years later, in the wake of the Chinese Communist revolution (1949), these nomads retreated again to the Pamirs (Wakhan) of Afghanistan. The closure of the Chinese borders resulted in further isolation of the Kirghiz from Turkic Central Asian centres of economic and cultural activities, and they found themselves the only group of Kirghiz nomads left outside Soviet and Chinese control.
In July 1978, Haji Rahman Qul with more than 1,300 Kirghiz crossed over to Pakistan from Little Pamir. These refugees brought their herds and most of their household belongings
In her book, The Trail of Marco Polo Jean Shor provided a candid description of the swashbuckling character called Rahman Qul. She noted that when they were deep into Wakhan towards the Chinese border, their deteriorating physical condition forced them to take refuge with nomadic Kirghiz despite the extreme reluctance of their guards. They found Kirghiz friendly in amazing contrast to the backward Wakhis. Most men were tall—six feet tall— women were clean but not attractive and they were led by a Kirghiz Khan whose very name made their Afghan escort uneasy. Rahman Qul entered the yurt wearing ‘karakul topi’, Enfield rifle slung on his shoulder and a pistol dangling in the holster. Everybody stood up quietly. Such was the awe of the man who shook their hands and greeted them in Persian.
It was widely known that Rahman could speak Urdu, Persian, Pushto, Russian and some Chinese in addition to his native Turki. However, one day as Shor was typing a letter to her parents; Rahman Qul entered the yurt and started reading the letter loudly. It turned out that Rahman had learnt to read English years ago from a British archaeologist working in western Sinkiang, yet he could speak very little.
Shor was impressed by his hospitality and was grateful for his help in crossing the Baroghil pass safely into Pakistan; for the name of Rahman Qul, was enough to ensure sanity in times of ordeal.
Safely in a village near Hunza, the American couple told the headman about Rahman Qul who in return, told them a few harrowing tales about him, the veracity of which has not been ascertained. According to him, two years ago, Rahman and his tribesmen had crossed into Russian Pamir, looted a caravan and murdered everyone. Why then did he spare the American couple? Shor wrote in her book; “Perhaps there is a touch of Robin Hood in every highwayman.”
The Soviet-inspired military coup of April 1978 in Afghanistan, forced the Kirghiz Khan to run from yet another Communist revolution. In July 1978, Haji Rahman Qul with more than 1,300 Kirghiz crossed over to Pakistan from Little Pamir. These refugees brought their herds and most of their household belongings. Within a few months, their animals were either sold or slaughtered and the herds totally depleted because of inadequate pasture and fodder in the area. To add to their miseries, the heat and exposure to new diseases in Pakistan took their toll on the Kirghiz causing the death of several hundred people during the next four years. Kirghiz colourful yurts and huge watch dogs attracted much attention in Gilgit.
Rahman Qul wanted to migrate to Alaska because of similar climatic conditions but the permission was denied. Kenan Evren, the president of Turkey visited Pakistan in 1981 and came to know about the plight of Rahman Qul and his band of Kirghiz. He ordered their resettlement in Turkey on the basis of Turkic historic, ethnic and linguistic similarities. In August 1982 the Kirghiz Khan and his tribe were airlifted to a village near the shores of Lake Van in Eastern Anatolia. This also marked the end of a historical process that began almost a thousand years ago - the westward migration of nomadic pastoral tribes from the Central Asian steppes to Anatolia.
“The Kirghiz odyssey is indeed a sad commentary on the plight of millions of nomadic pastoralists who, for the sake of their cultural integrity, managed to adapt for centuries to extremely unfriendly natural environments, only to be destroyed by the revolutions of this century which, ironically, promised or promise to liberate humanity.”
Before Rahman Qul left Gilgit he presented a sub-machinegun to the chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan. It was this unusual present which drew my attention to the Kirghiz Khan and started my quest to know more about him. No formal record existed in Gilgit regarding the Kirghiz exodus from the Pamirs. He died in 1990 and is buried in Turkey, far away from the roof of the world and far away from the Baroghil pass where I accidentally discovered him while reading Jean Shor’s out-of-print travelogue. Rahman Qul, the Kirgiz khan, was truly the last player of the classical Great Game.
The writer is a civil servant, conservationist and animal rights activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org