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Pamiris in Tajikistan

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    Pamiris are widely considered to constitute a separate ethnic group, differing from Tajiks in terms of language, religion and culture. Pamiri languages constitute a southeastern branch of the Iranian language family. While most Tajiks are Sunni, Pamiris are followers of the Ismaili branch of Shi’a Islam. They refer to themselves as Badakhshani or Pomir in their own languages. As none of the Pamir languages are written, Pamiris use Tajik in many aspects of daily life.

    Pamiris live mainly in the Gorno-Badakhshan (officially known as Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast or GBAO). It is a mountainous region to the east of the country and is considered the most economically disadvantaged part of Tajikistan, where they make up the majority of the population. They are divided into several linguistic groups: Shughnanis and Wakhi in the western and central parts of the province, and Darwazi and Yazgulami in the north. Aside from subsistence agriculture and tourism, the economy of the region and its inhabitants remain heavily dependent on the various development initiatives of the Aga Khan, who is regarded by Pamiris as their spiritual leader.

    Historical context

    Pamiris have for much of their history been isolated due to the extreme geographic remoteness of the Pamir mountains which they have inhabited for many hundreds of years. During the late 1980s, a separatist movement emerged. A Pamiri nationalist party, Lali Badakhshan, gained control in Gorno-Badakhshan after 1991. There followed anti-government protests in the province, including a declaration of independence in 1992, though this was subsequently revoked. Many Pamiri civilians were massacred during the civil war, especially in Dushanbe and in western parts of the country, apparently because they were perceived as backing the united Tajik opposition.

    In 1993 the government introduced certain policies of reconciliation, having signed an agreement with the Gorno-Badakhshani authorities. Nevertheless, the government subsequently imposed an economic blockade on the region. It also carried out punitive expeditions and detentions of local leaders. In response, ‘self-defence’ paramilitary units, linked to the local authorities and the opposition across the border, began to emerge.

    Gorno-Badakhshan was the main scene of military operations in 1994 and 1995, with opposition attacks provoked by the increasing government military presence in Tawildara. After 1993, although officially a part of Tajikistan, Gorno-Badakhshan became a de facto self-ruled breakaway region.

    Current issues

    Many Pamiris complain of marginalization within Tajikistan as a whole and even within Gorno-Badakhshan itself. Long categorized by authorities as a Tajik sub-group, despite their self-identification as a socially and culturally distinct community, they continue to face a range of obstacles in language rights and other areas. Gorno-Badakhshan has the highest poverty rate in Tajikistan, namely 39 per cent. It has never been known for being prosperous. Outside Gorno-Badakhshan, Pamiris complain of continued discrimination. They are largely excluded from exercising any significant political influence or participate meaningfully in public life.

    Although Gorno-Badakhshan is designated as an autonomous region, the central government has gradually strengthened its close control over the local administration. Regional authority representatives are appointed, but many local communities continue to elect their own community leaders. Most communities therefore have a parallel leadership system, with local leaders designated to mediate with the authorities. As with many minority and indigenous communities, Pamiri civil society also has an important and far-reaching role, involving representation, community organizing, economic and development initiatives and acting as centres of cultural, linguistic and religious practice.

    While autonomy and these community leadership structures have provided a measure of local political control and participation, these powers are still limited. The vagueness of the Constitution and the President’s power to appoint the chair of the Gorno-Badakhshan assembly and the province’s judges are being used by the central authorities to circumvent some of the province’s autonomy.

    The legacy of the civil war, when many Pamiris sided with opposition forces against the government, has left a legacy of bitterness and estrangement between the central authorities in Dushanbe and Pamiri communities, which has been manifested in a number of episodes of violent unrest. These include the killings of dozens of civilians in clashes between government forces and local opposition groups in June 2012, following the death of a security official. In May 2014, further protests occurred after soldiers killed and injured several civilians in an exchange of gunfire. During the clashes, administrative buildings were set alight, three people died and five were injured. Following this, government officials accused unspecified ‘foreign states’ of trying to undermine stability in the country. Protest leaders reportedly reiterated demands for more autonomy for Gorno-Badakhshan and expressed their suspicion of Dushanbe’s policies, especially the appointment of people from other regions to high-level government posts in the province.

    Language issues remain another sensitive topic. There is a general trend of loss of Pamiri language and culture, due to an absence of measures for their promotion by the state and the education system. A lack of programmes in Pamiri languages on national television and radio has been a chronic source of discontent in Gorno-Badakhshan. Even the regional television station, along with other media, is seen to have been co-opted for propaganda purposes, whilst Pamiri cultural and language content has been removed. Social and other cultural gatherings are often reported to be restricted or prohibited, while residents report being afraid to hold such events.

    Other notable concerns include lack of access to education for Pamiri youth. Repeated internet blockades hinder access to online classes, research, and the ability for students to conduct exams and higher education applications. These blockades (especially during the key booking season) have also left hopes of a revival in tourism highly uncertain and have badly interrupted local dialogues with key international donors on regional development programs.

    Harmful gender norms and attitudes remain prevalent towards minority women in Pamiri communities. This has resulted in a growing tendency of forced migration, which in turn has negatively affected women’s participation in community development. A feminization of migration adds further to the risk of loss of Pamiri culture and language.

    In addition, in 2021, the closure of the borders with Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan (where freedom of movement and trade are essential to the economy of Gorno-Badakhshan), have exacerbated an already deepening pressure on the regional economy, caused by the loss of regular tourist seasons, due to Covid 19.

    Pamiris have faced security issues since the 1990s. During the civil war, Gorno-Badakhshan became a centre of opposition to the government – a reputation that it has not lost since. This is a region where, despite crackdowns, the population publicly expresses its disagreements with the government. During the past decade, however, protests and dissent in Gorno-Badakhshan have faced increased repression. The first recent incident happened in 2012, in what the government called a military operation, in which 22 civilians were killed by security officers. There was no investigation and little follow up to the incident. Another protest took place in Ishkashim in May 2013, following an incident in which security officer was involved in sexual relations with an underaged girl. The officer was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. The next protest happened in March 2014 in Rushan; it was triggered by an incident in which local police used force against seven residents, including shelling their car. One person was hospitalized with severe spinal injuries. A subsequent protest in May 2018 in Khorugh was sparked by another incident when police fired at a car in order to capture suspects. This time, two people were killed, and four were injured.

    On 25 November 2021, a local villager was killed extrajudicially by security forces. During the subsequent demonstration in Khorugh calling for accountability, security personnel killed two civilians. Although the authorities eventually made concessions, which led to the protests ending on 28 November 2021, most of these concessions were not implemented. No serious investigations have taken place into the killings, and no other civil society demands have been met.

    Instead, the authorities launched a propaganda campaign. They initiated criminal prosecutions against protestors for alleged petty crimes, while many were arbitrarily arrested with the purpose of intimidation. The internet blockade that was imposed in November continued up to March 2022. This along with the heightened military presence in Gorno-Badakhshan only increased the discontent among the local population and further alienated it from the central government.

    On 14 May 2022, around 1,000 people gathered in Khorugh to demand the resignation of the region’s leader, the release of all those arrested in the November protests and a proper investigation into the November 2021 police killing of the local resident. On 16 May, a local man, Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed during protests. On 17 May, dozens of residents in Rushan district blocked the main road to Khorugh; the participants of the action were trying to prevent a military convoy from getting through.  Afterwards, military forces opened fire on protesters in Vomar, the main town in Rushan. According to unconfirmed reports, the crackdown left at least 17 civilians dead, although other estimates were higher. Exact figures were hard to obtain as the security forces blocked access to Vomar.

    The authorities and security forces used the protests as a pretext for a violent and coordinated crackdown. As a result, numerous civilians, journalists and representatives of civil society were shot, detained, tortured and executed by the security forces. The number of detained or forcibly disappeared persons is still unknown. On 22 May 2022, community leader Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov was assassinated in Khorugh; according to local journalists, he was killed by gunmen belonging to the Tajikistani special forces. Meanwhile, several independent media outlets announced that they had to stop reporting on events in the region due to pressure from the authorities.

    In the following months, the security forces systematically shut down civil society in Gorno-Badakhshan. The authorities continued with their policy of systematic detention and torture of Pamiri civil society representatives, journalists and business leaders. The majority of those detained were sentenced to long prison terms. The repression has extended beyond the borders of Gorno-Badakhshan. Pamiris living in Dushanbe have faced harassment, while Pamiri and other Tajik activists living in Russia have reportedly been deported back to Tajikistan where they have been detained.  By December 2022, several prominent Pamiri civil society leaders had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Among them is journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, who received the longest sentence, namely 21 years’ imprisonment.

    The government’s crackdown has also encompassed Pamiri religious and cultural expression. Already before the events of 2022, Ismaili institutions were the focus of heavy-handed surveillance. Following the crackdown in May and June 2022, prayer houses (jamat khanas) were subject to searches, and many were closed at least temporarily. According to local media, Ismaili religious education initiatives were halted. Various projects associated with the Ismaili religious leader, the Aga Khan, were closed down or confiscated and nationalized. This could have a severe impact on the local economy, as Pamiris have benefitted considerably from these initiatives.


    Updated March 2023

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