The people of the central Asian nation of Karakalpakstan are being driven out by two of the 21st-century’s biggest challenges—ecological disaster and resurgent nationalismby Jack Shenker / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Aral sea has shrunk to 10 per cent of its original size
Listen: Jason Larkin discusses his photographs of Karakalpakstan
Ziyo hunts by day and flies by night, with a polished Winchester shotgun tucked under one arm and a cigarette between his lips. The van he drives can fit up to ten people, 12 at a push, and for the past 15 years it’s nearly always been full for the border run. Under the cover of darkness, Ziyo wends his human cargo past empty houses, which are isolated at first but then tumble together into hamlets, all weather-cowed and crumbling stone. No one talks. The desert watchtowers which mark the beginning of Kazakhstan are 13 hours’ drive away and there is little to do but stare out of the window as the salty landscape rolls on by in the gloom. Ziyo will return but most of his passengers will not. Tonight, as on so many other nights in this obscure corner of the world, a homeland is being emptied of its people.
No one knows exactly how many people have left Karakalpakstan. Few in the west have even heard of the nation, once declared by the writer AA Gill to be “the worst place in the world.” A former Soviet republic which is officially part of Uzbekistan, it is nestled deep within the bizarre confluence of ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of central Asia (below). Official figures put the exodus at over 50,000 people in the last decade from a population of 1.5m, but this figure doesn’t include those who, like Ziyo’s passengers, have been smuggled out. Yet while the numbers are disputed, the reasons for emigration are clear. Karakalpakstan is home to the largest man-made ecological disaster of the 20th century—one so severe that it has devastated the economy, health and community fabric of an entire society for generations to come. Karakalpaks have witnessed the awesome and terrible sight of one of the world’s biggest inland bodies of water—the Aral sea—disappearing into thin air. Locals simply know it as the Aral Ten’iz: a sea that fled its shores.