DUSHANBE -- Rising Taliban violence in Afghanistan is imperiling a tradition of cross-border trade with Tajikistan.
Every week for the past 10 years, Afghans have come to Tajik border markets to buy food and to socialise with Tajiks who very well might be long-lost relatives. Commerce faltered several months ago after the Taliban began attacks in several provinces bordering Tajikistan.
As a result of the stepped-up fighting, two of the three border markets in Badakhshan, Tajikistan, have closed.
The markets in Khorugh/Khorog and Ishkashim are shut down. Only the one in Ruzvat, Darvaz District, continues to function.
As a result, the Ruzvat market has become the only conduit for border trade in the region.
Growing ties now under threat
Between 2005 and 2012, the governments co-operated in building six bridges linking their countries across the Panj River. Border markets opened near the bridges.
The Ruzvat market, the last holdout, operates every Saturday.
"Back in 2014, after the Taliban came to northern Afghanistan, markets in Ishkashim and Khorugh closed," a Tajik Border Troops officer who requested anonymity told Caravanserai. "They re-opened after a short time, but they're closed again."
"Our market in Darvaz is the most popular," he said, adding that shoppers and merchants from three Tajik towns and three Afghan towns provide "constantly growing demand" for merchandise at the market.
A fixture on the border
The market has the same name among Tajiks and Afghans: Afganbazar.
Afghans who shop there find essentials that might be harder to obtain in their war-torn country: butter, fruits, vegetables, pasta and clothing. The food sold there is free of tariffs, a major plus for Afghans.
Customers from both sides of the border fear that another upsurge in Taliban violence could mean the end of Afganbazar.
"You might encounter [Taliban] several times on the way to the markets in Khorugh and Ishkashim," Bobur, a resident of the Afghan side of the Darvaz region, told Caravanserai, explaining why those two markets shut down. "It's terrible that the people from those border villages can't reach the market."
Bobi, a construction worker from Faizabad, Afghanistan, told Caravanserai that this was his first time at the border market in Ruzvat. Formerly, he shopped only at the one in Khorugh.
"I'm very disappointed the two markets closed," he said. "That greatly complicates things for Afghans who live in border villages."
"Refugees from [fighting in] Kunduz Province" also need food, he said, noting that he had placed three Kunduz refugee families in his office.
Another Afghan customer who introduced himself as Abdullo missed the Khorugh and Ishkashim markets too.
"We eagerly look forward to going to Darvaz every Saturday," he told Caravanserai. "The food is delicious, and we make new friends there."
Some Tajik merchants see their job as more than strictly commerce.
"We are always happy to help neighbours .... whom the Taliban terrorise," Bibisoro, a Tajik merchant who regularly sells in Darvaz, told Caravanserai.
The Tajik produce that she sells is invaluable to the Afghans because disorder has kept agriculture from developing on the Afghan side of Darvaz, she said.
Ties defy borders
Many ties of kinship cross the Panj River because residents of the Darvaz region used to enjoy free movement back and forth before the Soviet Union built border fortifications. Today one side lies in Tajikistan and the other in Afghanistan.
Nuriddin Asoyev, who lives on the Tajik side of the Darvaz region, told Caravanserai that his cousins live on the Afghan side.
"When the border was drawn along the river, my father and his brother ended up on opposite banks," he said. "It was forbidden to cross the borders ... so they never saw each other again."
"When they opened the bridge in 2006 ... we found our cousins in the market," he said.
Asoyev thanks God that the bridge enabled him to unite his family.
Humanitarian aid continues
Besides keeping the vital market functioning in Ruzvat, Tajik authorities periodically offer humanitarian aid to prevent any starvation from disruption of food supplies in Afghanistan.
For example, the Tajik consulate in Faizabad, Afghanistan, in October provided a truckload of emergency food to 35 Kunduz refugee families who had fled temporarily to Badakhshan, Afghanistan.
Trouble on the horizon
Tajik and Afghan authorities, though, are prepared for Afghan militants to attempt more violence in the border provinces, which would endanger the commerce and family connections that the border markets have made possible.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) plans to send about 7,000 militants to northern Afghanistan, which borders Tajikistan, Afghanistan.ru reported in October, quoting Afghan First Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Another terrorist group, the Taliban, are doomed to failure in Badakhshan, Afghanistan, which is heavily ethnic Tajik, Dushanbe-based security analyst Iskandar Sultonnazarov told Caravanserai.
"Tajik-Afghans have been fighting the Taliban since day one," he said.
The real threat is foreign fighters, he said. "They travel to war zones for training and return home to continue fighting and destabilising the situation."
In a recent example of the threat posed by foreign fighters in northern Afghanistan, eight Central Asian militants were killed in Badakhshan Province in September, according to Afghanistan.ru.
The dead included three Tajik and five Uzbekistani nationals, provincial police chief Ghulam Sahi Ghafuri said.