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A mountainous area, Gorno-Badakhshan is a very specific region which, for a number of reasons, lacks industry although it is inhabited by a hard-working and well-educated people. Farming is still in its infancy, and oxen-driven plough is the primary tool used to cultivate potatoes and millet.
In the good old Soviet days, essential goods supplies were controlled by Moscow -- a situation which well suited the central government although it cost the budget tidy sums. Decades of such practices have inured people to living like that and the Badakhshan residents admit they just couldn't live otherwise.
An end to their seeming prosperity came overnight with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In no time store shelves in Khorogue, the provincial capital, grew empty, and opium becoming the sole means of payment. On the other hand, Afghanistan was a stone's throw away -- just across the River Pianj, and the border in practice didn't exist at all.
So the Pamirians rushed into drug business which grew into a thriving frontier market where any Afghanistani could sell you a kilo of opium for a pair of boots or a steel cauldron in the period between 1992 and 1995. The bartered drug then headed for Kyrgyzstan along the Khorogue-Osh mountaintop highway, the only road linking the province to the outside world. In Kyrgyzstan, it was cheaply sold on or exchanged for flour, coal or warm clothes. It was precisely between 1995 and 1996 that the statistics registered a peak of drug seizures in the south of Kyrgyzstan.
The mass-scale drug business gradually went into decline as Tajikistan's enforcement authorities stepped up their efforts and the Badakhshaners themselves began to see that their own survival was at stake. But what perhaps really mattered was the all-out war on the scourge of narcotics declared by Prince Aga Khan, the spiritual leader and the only mainstay of the Pamirians. He announced that withdrawal from drug trafficking was the essential condition for the resumption of the food supplies he had provided for the locals for years regardless of their nationality or religion. Anyone found guilty of taking drugs, let alone those caught smuggling, was mercilessly cancelled from waiting lists to become an outcast doomed to starvation.
In parallel, resolute efforts were taken to furnish drug addicts with treatment and rehabilitation facilities. A number of narcotics dispensaries were opened in that impoverished province. Newspapers, television, and non- government organizations teamed up to launch a sweeping anti-drug campaign.
But to all intents and purposes, even the billionaire has proved incapable of providing food for the 280,000-strong population of Badakhshan for more than six years, considering the fact that the prince is also sponsoring a wide range of educational, social and health projects. Besides, in exchange for a refusal to produce opium poppies, the Aga Khan has started the Focus program aimed at providing aid for the depressed Badakhshan province in Afghanistan.
In fact, the prince's contributions have increasingly shrunk. Transshipment points in the city of Osh have become deserted. The roar of motor vehicles nowadays is not heard as often as it once used to be. Meanwhile, Badakhshani leaders and law enforcement authorities are raising the alarm in fear of the situation of the mid-90s repeating itself, and with some justice. Opium plantations have visibly grown in size ever since, mainly controlled by the Taliban who, according to Russian analysts, are likely to receive further support from the military clique that has recently came to power in Pakistan.