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 nationalism
November 17, 2010
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. On its way to the border, Ziyo’s van will pass a prim, neatly-trimmed square in the capital, Nukus. There two flags flutter in the wind; one of Karakalpakstan and the other of Uzbekistan, custodian of the semi-autonomous republic since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The writing above the door of the nearby parliament is in Uzbek first and Karakalpak second, telling passersby everything they need to know about the balance of power in this uneasy coupling of nations. The story is hardly unique. Crises of identity and ethnic divisions have plagued central Asia throughout its history, often culminating in bloodshed. This summer, violence in Kyrgyzstan left several thousand people dead and some 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks displaced. Aftershocks from the crisis reached Karakalpakstan: many ethnic Uzbeks with Kyrgyz passports were barred from entering neighbouring Kazakhstan, and there were violent incidents on the border. Rising ethnic nationalism is not unique, but its impact on Karakalpakstan is compounded by its other existential threat, that of environmental catastrophe. In this overlooked slice of distant, desiccated farmland, two of the most critical challenges of the 21st century—ecological change and resurgent nationalism—have become irrevocably enmeshed.

An Uzbek propaganda sign

Villager Farhod hunting

Nukus is a stark, space-flooded city which magnifies the smallness of its occupants. Its central squares are splotched with trees and criss-crossed with paths wide enough for a military parade; they seem to stretch off into infinity. There are occasional signs of activity: a cluster of schoolgirls, the faded neon aqua-park, a clutch of corrugated iron garages where a lone man is sorting through empty vodka bottles. “Love is dead,” proclaims the graffiti on one makeshift wall. “Long live Linkin Park.” Sulton has lived in Nukus his whole life and knows its secrets; after sitting me down in his plain, white-walled living room, he unplugged his phone before talking. “Everywhere is bugged,” he said, jerking his thumb vaguely in the direction of Jaslyk, a town 200 miles away that houses a high-security prison. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has locked up hundreds of his political enemies there, some of whom have reportedly been boiled to death. Jaslyk is referred to locally as a gulag, a place from which no one returns. It is a cog in the larger Uzbek security machine which ruthlessly suppresses opposition to Karimov’s ruling clique. “If they catch me talking, I go there and don’t come back,” said Sulton. Like most Karakalpaks I met, Sulton was friendly in a detached, somewhat apprehensive way. He was 44, old enough to have served in the Red army, and proudly recalled his time spent guarding missile bases in Siberia. The rest of his contact with the outside world has come in scattered fragments: a pirate Hollywood movie here, a snippet of Russian television news there. But by and large, to him the universe beyond the borders of Karakalpakstan remains shrouded in fog. With Sulton, I left Nukus and travelled south. We passed numerous checkpoints—foreign journalists are effectively barred from Uzbekistan, and each time soldiers flagged down our creaking Volga, Sulton gulped nervously. Karakalpaks are not the only recipients of Karimov’s brand of political terror; Uzbeks were mowed down in their hundreds by government forces after an uprising in 2005. But in Karakalpakstan there is a different current of fear, stemming primarily from the timeless insecurity of exclusion. Karakalpaks, a people who trace their roots back three millennia to Aral sea marsh-dwellers, are culturally and linguistically closer to their Kazakh neighbours than they are to Uzbeks. They have their own language, customs and dress: Karakalpak means “black hat,” a reference to the ethnic group’s distinctive traditional headwear. Although today the 510,000 ethnic Karakalpaks are a minority in the republic (which includes 560,000 Uzbeks and 392,000 Kazakhs), it retains a separate identity—which explains the presence of soldiers and policemen on the streets, and the undercover agents in every village. The Uzbek regime in Tashkent is desperately twitchy about any hint of an independence movement. In the 1990s, just such a movement broke out and was crushed by Karimov’s troops. Many experts still consider Karakalpakstan unstable and any conflict would have huge repercussions across the region. A dispatch on Radio Free Europe last year claimed that a new separatist group was accusing the Uzbek government of genocide against the Karakalpak people. (The story’s main source has since been arrested.) Ever since the 1920s, when Stalin divided up the old region of Turkestan into republics based on “nationality” (Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik and Kyrgyz) the political elites in each territory have tried to construct a narrative of cultural and political unity. This process accelerated after the collapse of communism and the advent of independent nation states. Breakaway enclaves within these states pose a mortal threat to their already fragile legitimacy; one doesn’t have to look far in the shadows of the former Soviet Union—south Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya and now Kyrgyzstan—to find people who have rebelled against their borders. Karimov, a 72-year-old dictator who ruled Uzbekistan under the Soviets before improbably re-styling himself as an anti-Russian freedom fighter, doesn’t want a revolt in his backyard. As the city’s low-rise suburbs gave way to fields, I asked Sulton about opposition activists. “There aren’t any,” he said flatly. “No demonstrations, no protests, no critical songs or books. Nothing.” We travelled past mountains of cotton piling up in district collection points, dropped off by farmers in accordance with government directives. The story of Karakalpakstan is bound up in this “white gold.” Uzbekistan is the world’s third-largest exporter (after the US and India) and unlike its neighbours, the industry is state-controlled. The price paid to growers is fixed each year by ministers—in 2009, it was 80 Uzbek som (3p) per kilo, far below what it fetches in Kazakhstan, and a fraction of the international market rate, which hit a historic high of £1.45 per kilo in October. In Karakalpakstan, meagre price increases by the state have failed to keep pace with the spiralling cost of living. Unemployment is high and the true rate is hidden behind the fig leaf of employment on collective farms, many of which lie dormant for much of the year. The fields we passed were mostly bleached-brown and dull, but some were sprinkled with colour: the bright clothing of children who, like their peers across Uzbekistan, spend every day of autumn picking cotton. NGOs estimate that half of Uzbek’s cotton exports are the fruit of child labour. For two or three months a year, the education system from schools to universities shuts down en masse as teachers lead their young charges out into the fields. Everyone from doctors to civil servants follows suit; once, when I went to interview the director of a prestigious Karakalpak medical institute, her secretary told me that she was out supervising the cotton harvest. Cotton also lies at the heart of the only thing to thrust a reluctant Karakalpakstan on the international map. In the first half of the 20th century, the Aral sea occupied 42,000 square miles; it held abundant fish and its resorts attracted Russia’s rich and beautiful. The cotton fields fanning out from its shoreline were its downfall. In the 1940s, work began on irrigation canals diverting water from the sea’s two main tributaries, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. It boosted the harvest but meant less water arrived in the Aral basin every year. By the 1960s the Aral was losing up to 60 cubic km of water a year; by the 1980s the level of the sea was dropping almost 10cm a month. Yet the architects of the transformation were unmoved; one Soviet engineer dismissed it as “Nature’s error.” The Aral sea has now shrunk to 10 per cent of its original size. In its wake has formed the world’s newest desert, from which 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand are whipped up by the wind each day and dumped over Karakalpakstan and nearby regions. Lung-related diseases in the republic are three times higher than the Uzbek average. The fishing industry, Karakalpakstan’s financial lifeblood, has collapsed. The disaster has caused the republic’s Kazakh minority to return to their ethnic homeland in droves, encouraged by the Kazakh government. In some villages I visited, Kazakh-language schools had shut down because every pupil had left. Kazakhs who can leave are doing so, however wrenching the transition may be. “At my age, it’s hard to adapt to a new climate,” I was told by an ethnic Kazakh farmer whose brothers had already left. “This is my land, and who wants to change their motherland? But there are no jobs.” Ethnic Kazakhs who arrive in Almaty, the country’s capital, are expected to discard their identity like an old jumper and pull on a new one, even though many have never seen Kazakhstan before. For ethnic Karakalpaks, the choices are even harder. Many have moved to Uzbekistan; others use fixers like Ziyo to change the ethnicity on their passports to Kazakh and escape across the border. When they make it to Almaty they find that resentment is rife between the Kazakh population and ethnic Kazakh immigrants; ethnic Karakalpaks go straight to the bottom of the social pile. Meanwhile, those left behind are struggling to come to terms with emigration; should those who have fled be condemned or emulated? For economic reasons, some Karakalpaks argue for closer integration with Uzbekistan; others believe this will lead to the death of their nation and want more autonomy. For many, these tensions resolve into a vaguely articulated sense of bitterness at the status quo, in which life carries on as best it can and emotion only shines through in nervous jokes and a rare flash of anger. That night I slept in a village at the home of Farhod, a Karakalpak man in his mid-sixties. As we delved into his photo albums stuffed with formal poses of marriage and war, the television flickered in the background. “You know what the Russians say,” Farhod said as he poured a cup of green tea. “‘If you want to see heaven, watch Uzbek TV; if you want to see hell, go to Tashkent.’” The words were met by everyone with uproarious laughter that gave way to quiet nodding.

A motorist crossing the Amu Darya river on a makeshift pontoon

I had been waiting on the outskirts of Nukus for an hour in the mid-morning heat when Eldor finally showed up. I was staring at one of President Karimov’s ubiquitous propaganda signs, though its message, “Uzbekistan has a wonderful future,” was obscured by Western Union adverts aimed at those receiving money from relatives overseas. “What’s up my niggers?” boomed Eldor, delivering the first of many quotes from the film Bachelor Party 2 which I would hear that day. Eldor is part of a small but conspicuous breed of Karakalpaks who speak English, are well connected and who land plum jobs that cushion them from their compatriots’ woes. They hang out in places like Merlion, the city’s plushest restaurant, where I first met him and his friends. It had dark red walls, fake marble tabletops and a Sinatra lookalike in the corner who crooned listlessly along to an Uzbek pop track. Everyone in the group got jobs through their fathers—a position in one of the Karakalpak ministries, a management role at an asphalt company, a distributor for an Uzbek brewery—and they all issued formulaic responses to my questions about the nation’s predicament. The Aral sea issue is bad, but the water might come back. Political problems exist, but Uzbekistan’s democracy is young and progressing steadily. Some of this optimism may not be misplaced: one suit-clad 22 year old pointed to the return of émigrés from Kazakhstan who couldn’t find jobs there. He also mentioned a new canning factory, suggesting an industry which has been defunct for decades may be struggling back to life. But with no free media in Karakalpakstan, ignorance and apathy are an easy choice for the rich. Mid-conversation, the lights suddenly disappeared and lasers fired out from all sides of the room. Wordlessly, everyone left their meals and hit the dancefloor for a surreal half hour of pulsing action. Then the lights came back on and the revellers returned to their seats as if nothing had happened. “Why are they complaining?” asked a panting Eldor, in response to my earlier question about critics of the regime. “If they worked harder they would move upwards.” ***** Days later, Eldor and I were in his car speeding across Karakalpakstan’s north on the way to pay a visit to one of these complainers. Our destination was a village in the Qazaqdarya region, which borders the old shores of the Aral sea. The route took us across the Amu Darya river. The only nearby bridge had fallen in so we joined the queue for a tiny floating pontoon. It was already laden with a jeep, a microbus and 25 chatty revellers on their way to a wedding; the men in suits, the women kitted out in red and gold. This river was once the legendary Oxus, so vast that it took Alexander the Great’s army five days to cross it. Now the pontoon, pulled along by a grizzled man clutching a rope, made the same trip in about ten minutes; the water reaches only halfway up the channel it flows through. Nazar was waiting for us in his village, which lies on the banks of a green canal in the middle of nowhere. It was a quiet little place, full of reed and stick fences, grazing lambs and goats, and homemade barges floating across the water. It’s also in the grip of gangsters; Nazar pointed some of them out as he led us to his home. They were young, well-built men with caps drawn low over their faces, and they were chatting to a couple of local government security agents who extort money from villagers. Later, one of the agents drunkenly staggered by as I strolled through the fields, paying me no heed and bellowing into a mobile phone: “I’ll kill you motherfucker, I’ll find you and kill you.” His girlfriend tottered along behind, giggling. “Where are you, bitch?” he yelled. Nazar is 38 and works as a teacher. When we met he was battling with his superiors over the non-payment of wages. He theoretically earns £75 a month, on which it is a challenge to support his wife and four children, but the money often doesn’t come through at all. His latest bone of contention was the method by which teachers are paid. “They want to give us plastic cards and have us withdraw our salaries from ATMs,” he snorted as he laid out a plastic tablecloth and served us bread and cheese. “How will that work? There’s only one ATM in the whole of Karakalpakstan, and it’s broken!” For the past few years, Nazar has been agitating for better rights. His colleagues are aghast at his effrontery. I’m not surprised: he was one of the very few I met in Karakalpakstan willing to express a degree of open hostility to the authorities. But Nazar is convinced that his nation must break free of Uzbekistan to prosper. “Our country is Karakalpakstan and our enemy is Tashkent. I saw Ossetia rise up from nowhere and demand independence, now we must do the same.” Reuel Hanks, a professor at Oklahoma University and an expert on Karakalpakstan, believes it is highly significant that anyone there would speak like this to a foreigner, even given anonymity. “With the security structure in place there, for one active dissident to be able to express these sentiments you need a much wider passive group around him who sympathise with what he’s saying to the extent that they won’t inform on him to the police,” he told me. “It means people are losing their fear and that’s remarkable.” Yet the very poverty that could help motivate a rebellion against Uzbek rule is also a limiting factor against it; people are too occupied in surviving to take on their political masters. Nazar took us out to visit the grave of Alako’z, a 19th-century Karakalpak tribal leader who united his people and defied the nearby khan of Khiva (a town which lies within modern-day Uzbekistan) by establishing an independent khanate. He was eventually betrayed by some of his compatriots and retreated to a coastal fort on the Aral sea, holding out against the besieging Uzbeks for three months before succumbing. Alako’z was buried where he was killed, where the waves could lap at his grave, but 150 years later his tomb is surrounded by 70 miles of dry land. An elderly shepherd decked out in the flamboyantly-striped gown of an Uzbek peasant wandered over to us as we stood over the grave, and explained that he too wanted to be buried under the old seabed. “One day maybe the sea will come back and wash over me,” he said. His wish is unlikely to be realised. The sea will not return to these parts. It is a pattern found elsewhere in the world, with regions from California to northwestern India to the Nile delta facing severe water shortages in the next half-century. In some places water tables are falling due to over-extraction; in others upstream agricultural demands have caused domestic water deficits. And the problem will only get worse; water use is growing twice as fast as population. Many analysts think water may be the next trigger for geopolitical conflict; globally, the UN has identified 300 potential flashpoints over water insecurity. “Water,” Mikhail Gorbachev has said, “like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people.”

Soviet-era junk in the garden of Viktor, an ethnic Russian

A stall selling shoelaces and socks set up in a pedestrian underpass leading to the central market in Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan

On my last day in Karakalpakstan I drove to the shores of what is left of the Aral sea. My guide, Viktor, was from Moynaq, a once-bustling port which is now landlocked and a ghost town; empty tower blocks bordered by clouds of dust and rusting tractors, an unused stadium and a single child on a bicycle freewheeling in the dawn mist. Viktor, who is ethnically Russian, lives in a disorientating timewarp. His garden was scattered with relics of a lost era: a bust of Lenin the size of a satellite dish, a stagnant swimming pool dreadlocked with vines and a rusting anchor, the tailfin of an aeroplane pressed into service as a weathervane. Behind his garage was a scrapyard holding a jumble of parts from tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Nailed to the adjacent wall was a 1988 calendar of topless Japanese girls, along with several dead birds of prey. Viktor was age-lined and quiet; his gnarled hands clutched a ten-inch machete that he was employing to make delicate alterations to the 4x4 that would carry us across the former seabed. “The government was just throwing this stuff away after independence,” he said gruffly. “I thought I’d collect it.” As we left town, Viktor told me about his late father, a fisherman who wanted his son to follow in the family trade. But by the time Viktor grew up there was no water left to fish in, so he became a pilot instead. He talked of this with no nostalgia; the only time he looked wistful was when he pointed to the gas and oil installations craning across the landscape before us. Mineral wealth has been discovered under the Aral’s old belly and Russian and Chinese companies are drilling and piping its riches out of Karakalpakstan to Tashkent. “We should be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia,” Nazar had told me. “The Uzbek government doesn’t give us a cent.” Over 150 miles away from its original coastline, we reached an escarpment looking out over the Aral’s modern shore; underfoot, dead wood vaporised and crunchy soil split into cakes around it. Then, suddenly, the sea appeared below. It looked like a half-filled basin, with the water—as baby-blue as it always has been—curving slenderly round the bowl. The wind was bitterly cold and there were no signs of life for what seemed like hundreds of miles. But the surf still lapped gently at the sand, a coy and crippled reminder of what had been. In the distance I could almost make out the former island of Vozrozhdeniya (Resurrection)—the site of an old Soviet bio-weapons facility. The seashore underneath me was the strangest terrain I have ever stepped on; neither sand, mud, nor salt-crystals, but a chemically-mutated mash-up of all three. Heading back, we passed one of the Aral’s ship graveyards, a cemetery for old fishing boats unwittingly liberated from the ocean. Some contractors from Uzbekistan were hauling the maritime corpses onto trucks; the metal would be sent to the Tashkent ironworks by rail. I asked one what this scrap would be used for, and he shrugged. “New ships, I guess, for a new Uzbekistan.” Behind us, the world’s youngest desert stretched to the horizon. “The sea is coming back, you know,” he said. “It has to. If it doesn’t, there’ll be trouble.”