If you haven’t yet read Uncertain Light, I won’t be giving anything away by telling you that the story was sparked off by a real incident: in December 1996, twenty-three people in a UN peace negotiating team were taken hostage in Tajikstan. By a few weeks later only twenty-one had been released. I could find no record in later reports of what had happened to the other two – and that is where my story begins.
Now reality has been stalking the fiction once again. In Delhi, just before giving a talk about Uncertain Light, someone introduced a friend she had brought along, a slightly built young man. ‘He has worked in Tajikistan,’ she said. I asked what he was doing there. ‘Negotiating with rebel leaders in the mountains around Gharm,’ he said. Gharm is the small town in the mountains of eastern Tajikistan where Uncertain Light begins — But no time to ask more, the event was about to start.
Sometimes when you are speaking to an audience you notice the eyes of one person in particular, and it helps if you focus on them. This time the eyes were, unavoidably, his. What was he thinking as he listened?
Meeting over, I asked if we could meet for me to hear his story. We met the next evening in an American Diner in the Habitat Centre in central Delhi – it would be hard to imagine a place further removed from the mountain valleys where he had worked. He – let’s call him Olaf – was in his early forties but he looked much younger. Like Rahul Khan, the central person in Uncertain Light, Olaf was an outsider to Tajikistan but spoke Tajik fluently; how and why he learnt it is another equally extraordinary story, which I hope he himself will write one day. He sketched a map for me of the places where he had worked – exactly those where in my imagination Rahul worked – at precisely that time – talking to the same rebel leaders. Though it is almost 20 years ago he remembered the name of every village along that road from Dushanbe to Gharm, and beyond into the Pamirs. He traced the landscape that I have imagined so intensely – how the road winds up a ravine with steep mountains on either side – if you encounter trouble, there is only one way out, and that is back. He circled the area controlled by each commander, and he wrote their names, gave them personalities. The dominant commander of the Tavildara area was a charismatic bearded man, a renowned fighter; he was accompanied by a quiet man with whom they sat and drank tea. One name I knew from my reading – Namangani, who founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He based himself in the mountains of Tajikistan but later would stage raids back across the border into Uzbekistan. In Uncertain Light I took a liberty with dates and had that happen a few years before it actually did, so that it could form part of the story. And then there was a commander who, Olaf said, simply, was mad. Really off his head, and therefore terrifying. Rezvon. That’s the Rezvon Sadirov of my story, the hostage taker. He was real.
Olaf – again, like Rahul, was working with people displaced by the civil war, in one of the few organisations that could go into those unpredictable mountain valleys. He was an interpreter, accompanying a more senior person, but he was the one who did the talking and listening. Their task was to make notes about houses destroyed in the fighting and people who had fled. They would match those later with the names of people who had survived and turned up in refugee camps, so that eventually they could help them resettle. It was an extraordinary job, he said. We got to hike in mountains, we were welcomed into homes. Constantly fed, that expansive Tajik hospitality everyone from outside comments on. ‘So they had food enough?’ I asked. Sure, he said – those valleys are fertile, and those who are better off have land, goats, sheep and of course there’s the wild game. In each place Olaf and his colleague would negotiate access from the commander. ’You travelled unarmed?’ Of course – with our role, how could we have weapons? ‘Weren’t you scared?’ All the time, he said – yes seriously, all the time, but you get high on it too. It’s a life like no other. He was laughing now, and so was I.
There were constant reminders that the dangers were real. Once he and his colleague were summoned by radio to return to the capital, Dushanbe: there was a security alert. News spreads in the mountains, and they tried to find out in villages they passed through what had happened. It seemed that two humanitarian workers travelling that road had been shot at when they stopped their car on a stretch of no-man’s land between two checkpoints. The man peed behind a rock on this side of the road, the woman on that side – unaware that they were defiling rocks that served as a shrine. Suddenly shots were being fired into the air around them. They scrambled back to their car and retreated out of range. Back in Dushanbe Olaf reported to his manager what they had heard. She said, ‘Olaf, I know you like to find cultural explanations, but there are limits.’
Another time he narrowly avoided being killed. He and his colleague had taken permission from the local commander to go to a village where men who had been captured in the fighting were being held: their role was to check that as prisoners of war the men were not being ill- treated. They arrived at the isolated village, equipped with a letter from the commander, but didn’t get near enough to show it, for they were met with aggressive hostility – were told to fuck off. This had never happened before. Confused, Olaf retreated to the car, trying to work out what was going on. Suddenly bullets were whizzing past his ears, shattering the car windows – the noise was deafening – they were stunned by the suddenness. Miraculously unhit, he managed to get into the car while his companion reared the car back out of range. By now they were shaking with delayed shock. To get out of that narrow valley, they had to drive back down, back within range of the men shooting. To stay where they were would have been even more dangerous – they were trapped in the upper side of the valley. So they went down the road – and got through, to another village where they were known.
I asked him about the hostage-taking incident I had read about, the real-life spark for my fictional story. Did he remember it? He had to think a few moments, but yes, it came back to him. He was in Dushanbe when news came that a group of UN military advisers had journeyed into territory controlled by Rezvon, the mad commander, and been taken hostage. One of Olaf’s managers said she herself would go to negotiate the release of the hostages. Olaf said, ‘That’s really not a good idea, the man is mad.’ She insisted, and expected him to come to interpret. But by now he had reached his own limit. His wife was about to have a child, it was not a time to be taking extreme risks. He refused; she took a Tajik to interpret – and they were both instantly taken hostage.
Olaf had to break the news to the family of the Tajik interpreter. He remembered that the whole affair lasted a couple of weeks. The government sent in the army; as it approached, Rezvon made all the hostages lie face down in the snow, with guns pointed at their heads, and radioed to the government forces that if they advanced one step further, he would give the order to shoot. ‘And he would have,’ Olaf said. When the hostages were finally released, it was he who had to go in the car that went to fetch his manager. She was treated as a hero. To his mind that was bizarre – she had acted irresponsibly, putting herself and her colleague at unnecessary risk, and for zero tactical gain.
Olaf stayed on in Tajikistan for several years more, but he could not go back into that adrenalin-fuelled role. Rezvon got away, and lived another year to take more hostages. On one occasion government forces surrounded the rebels to attempt a rescue, and a young French woman among the hostages was killed. Olaf knew her.
Since the mid 1990s the risks for people working in humanitarian agencies have markedly increased, and Tajikistan is not by any means the most dangerous country to work in. Worldwide in 2012 there were 167 deaths of aid workers, and more of local journalists reporting on things their governments did not want known. For every one of these courageous people, and for all those close to them, there is a story that will probably never be told. But we can imagine it. Just.