Lonely Planet, July 2007
Press play to listen to a short section of the recording we made of the gunfire throughout and surrounding the town of Khorog.
Khorog, Tajikistan. Sunday 21nd July
Rumours float around the hostel that someone had been stabbed to death on the road into the town.
4.30am. Sunrise. Monday 22nd July
Woke to the sound of nearby gunshotscoming from the town.
Approached by a guy in the street who, pointing up into the surrounding mountains, warned us “Hey man. Hey man. The town is not safe”. On returning to our hostel, which overlooks the centre of town, we’re surprised to learn that some of the other tourists had been given similar warnings. Including an American woman who was overheard talking on her mobile “Shouldn’t we warn the other foreigners?”.
Several NGO vehicles seen leaving town.
Cycling around town, I notice the three ATMS are all out of order. I head back to the Internet café I was recently sat in, to be told I need to be quick as they have to close. On my way back to the hostel, apart from a large gathering of people in the town square, the rest of the town seems deserted.
An American woman heard talking on her mobile phone saying “… shouldn’t we let the other tourists know?”.
At the hostel several people report that they have seen large amounts of military arriving in town.
4.30am. Sunrise. Tuesday 23rd July
We are woken by the jarring and unsettling sound of machine gun fire.
Everyone in the hostel is awake and nervously hypothesizing about the situation.
Mary and I are sat in our room, nervously searching through the Lonely Planet for the British Embassy’s phone number in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. We debate whether or not the situation is serious enough to contact our families. What can they do? Could they inform the embassies? Is it worth creating the panic? We try Mary’s brother along with both numbers given for the British Embassy. The mobile network has been turned off.
In the late morning military helicopters are seen flying over town. At first we wonder if these could be the *press documenting the situation, but then we see a large white helicopter, apparently Russian made, unloading troops onto the mountaintop opposite. It becomes clear that the military are fighting someone. A second helicopter, armed with guns, flies over and is followed by the sound of heavy gunfire pounding the mountains around the city.
The family that run our hostel give us the obvious news that it’s too dangerous to leave. We have to wait. We are told that up to six hundred military troops have been brought into Khorog to kill the five peoplelinked with the recent stabbing. The owner seems to think the hunted five are now being supported by up to two hundred local opposition fighters. This doesn’t seem to be a spontaneous fight. Both sides seem very heavily armed, with enough ammunition to fight for days.
Isolated cracks and pops of individual gunshots echo around the surrounding streets of our hostel. Torrential machine-gun fire in the town below. Heavy anti-tankartilleryexplodes in the mountains. This continues until dusk. At times we hear the surreal whizz of bullets as they pierce through the hostel garden.
Everyone in the hostel is very nervous. Some people try and provide reassurance with their imagined hypothesis of the situation, whilst others dare to mention the possibility of a hostage situation.Some of the girls go up to the family kitchen and make soup for all twenty-five guests. Characters seem exaggerated as peopleestablish their roles within the group. It reminds me of the characters developmentthe TV series Lost.
Impossible to tell which side is creating the dominant sound of gunfire, we are told that the opposition two hundredis maintaining a strong position in the town.
It becomes difficult not to indulge the futile thoughts of why we didn’t leave town yesterday… or why are we even doing this bloody trip?
The hostel owners tell us that they have heard on a neighbour’s television that Russian media has reported that two hundred people have been killed while Tajik TV reports only twenty-five dead.
As the shooting more or less stops over night, we sit around on the veranda outside our hostel rooms, and try to rationalise what is and what might happen. Has the army left town. Will it continue in the morning? Do other countries know what is going on? Will they get involved? Do our embassies know we are hear?
Somehow there is a strange mixture of getting on with the day, making food, washing clothes, talking… with a very uneasy background noise of war.
4.30am. Sunrise. Wednesday 24rd July
Gunfire begins. How long will this go on for?
The gunfire becomes more intermittent and eventually seems to come to a halt. With our heads down, a few of us run out of the gate of the hostel to the homestay our friends are staying at. They don’t know much more than us. They’ve had a similar twenty-four hours. They could even see tracer bullets being fired from the neighbour’s window.
We are told by the homestay owner’s husband that there is a temporary ceasefire as the military and opposition leaders meet in the town. He tells us that he will go into town and return with news at 1pm. When we return to our hostel, there is a guy talking with the owners, with blood on his trousers. Every now and then he pulls out a walkie-talkie from a plastic bag and speaks to someone. After ten minutes of nervous questioning and dodgy translating we are told that it would be a good idea to pack up and leave Khorog before the meeting finishes.
No-one needed to be told twice. Most people pack up immediately and leave the hotel. All ten cycle tourists left the hostel in convoy, safety in numbers. As we ride down the lane towards the main road we see three guys in cammo, definitely not military, holding massive machine guns, bullet shells cover the road. We hurriedly cycle past burnt out cars, smashed glass, blood on the road. It seems all the woman and children are fleeing the town. As we cyle we’re over taken by small buses flying make-shift white flags out of the window. Hopefully we’ll never be in a situation like this again.
Within twenty minutes we’ve left Khorog and are making our way into the Pamir Mountains.
Read more about the situation on the BBC website – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18965366
See photos that one of the guests in our hostel took on her way out of the town – http://www.bbc.co.uk/tajik/institutional/2012/07/120728_zkh_album_badakhshan_operation.shtml
*I realised how unlikley it is that the helicopter will contain press. Read this – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_in_Tajikistan