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Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Thursday, 14 February 2008

Enduring Tajikistan's coldest winter

By Natalia Antelava
BBC, Tajikistan

After suffering its worst winter in 50 years, Tajikistan has finally appealed to the United Nations for aid. But a total loss of electricity is still a possibility, and could have terrible consequences.

Children and donkey in the snow
Temperatures this winter have dropped as low as -20C

Ermukhmad's soft voice fills a small, stuffy room. Seated in the dark corner, my host remembers the day when the president of Tajikistan inaugurated a brand new hydropower station, built with the help of Russian investors.

It was a festive ceremony and President Rakhmon sounded upbeat as he blessed the project, promising that it would soon bring light and warmth to thousands of homes across his energy-starved nation.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on 20 January and it was, Ermukhmad says, the last time his family had electricity.

The irony of the coincidence is not lost on Ermukhmad.

As he tells me this story, his face - lit by the flickering, bleak light of the kerosene lamp - stretches in a gloomy grin.

I lived in Sierra Leone during the war there but I think this is worse
Aid worker in Dushanbe

Seconds later, a long rasping cough fills the room and he becomes serious again. "She is getting worse, but we can't afford to take her to a hospital," Ermukhmad tells me.

"She" is his 11-year-old daughter, who is sitting across the room from us and is, quite heroically, reading her Tajik literature textbook.

She traces the pages with the blue light of her small key-ring torch. Spread on their bellies by her side, her two little brothers are drawing something in the dark, their tongues stuck out in deep concentration.

Hardships

Ermukhmad's entire family of 10 lives in this tiny room.

Hydropower station

Its air is heavy and full of smoke from the crackling woodstove. Gargling on top of it is rice porridge, the only thing they have eaten for months.

Left without heat, electricity or running water, they are among hundreds of thousands of people who are trying to survive the coldest winter Tajikistan has seen for decades.

"They have no future here," Ermukhmad tells me, pointing at his children. "This country," he adds, "has no future."

Tajikistan is well versed in hardship. It is Central Asia's poorest nation.

In the last decade alone, it lived through a civil war, has been shaken by several earthquakes, and been hit by severe avalanches.

Energy has always been scarce here, life has always been hard and yet, for Ermukhmad and millions of others, this winter has simply been too much.

It only took a few weeks of cold weather to throw this country decades back in time.

Overloaded power system

In January, as temperatures dropped to a record low of -20C, people started consuming more power to keep warm and the country's entire energy system began to shut down.

Map of Tajikistan

In the mountains, rivers froze, leaving hydropower stations without supplies to run their turbines.

And in the cities and villages, frozen pipes left millions of people without a source of drinking water.

"I lived in Sierra Leone during the war there but I think this is worse," one aid worker in the capital, Dushanbe, told me.

It may sound like an exaggeration but, after a few days in Tajikistan, I was ready to believe it. There is something extremely oppressive, almost humiliating, about being constantly cold.

The merciless chill seeps through clothes, bites into skin and never lets go.

Left without heat and electricity, most people have nowhere to hide from it.

The sheer effort spent on trying to keep warm has exhausted people and their finances.

The UN agencies say that, with more money spent on fuel or wood, people have nothing left to eat and that food shortages are becoming severe.

The main reservoir of the country's biggest hydropower station is slowly but steadily running out of water.

It is like a giant bathtub that has been unplugged and, once all of it goes, the whole country could shut down.

Health fears

At a freezing-cold maternity ward outside Dushanbe, a nurse told me she was terrified of the disaster that a total blackout could bring.

Nurse with baby in hospital
Keeping hospital patients warm is extremely difficult

Electricity supplies to her hospital are already scarce and there is no heating.

Wrapped up in several blankets, newborns are kept warm with bottles of hot water that hospital staff put in their cribs.

The method does not always work.

Floating around Dushanbe are horrifying accounts of babies freezing to death in maternity wards, or people on life support, dying during electricity cuts.

Aid workers confirm these stories but the government does not.

Warnings ignored

Authorities say the deaths are not related to the energy crisis.

Over dinner in a cold, candle-lit restaurant in Dushanbe, a Tajik journalist, who did not want to be named, said that the government was in denial.

"Across the border in Afghanistan," he said, "the cold has claimed hundreds of lives.

"China's communist leaders also admitted that they had a problem. Why can't our government do the same?" he said.

Last week, as things got progressively worse, the Tajik authorities did ask for help and the UN promised it would soon arrive.

But many people here are angry that this appeal did not come earlier. And they are asking why the government ignored weather warnings and failed to prepare for the winter.

Said, a driver in Dushanbe, told me he knew the answer. "They just don't care about us," he said, as we drove through the pitch-dark streets of the capital.

"Tomorrow, he added, "if every single person is dead in the city, I wonder if they will even notice."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 14 February, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Tajikistan
15 Jun 05 |  Country profiles
Winter shortages fuel Tajik anger
12 Feb 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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