Deserted Streets, Anxious Parents: The Tajik Town That Spawned The Cyclists Attack

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As dusk falls, when most of the townsfolk are deserting the streets and heading home for dinner, Olimshoh Khudoynazarov is preparing for watch duty.

He slips on a red armband and affixes a badge identifying him as a member of Norak's "Volunteer Patrol," a makeshift line of defense against extremism for the south-central Tajik town of just over 50,000.

"Each night, a group of eight men watch Norak's streets to help the police keep law and order," the 52-year-old says of the 250-strong band of state-backed vigilantes.

Many have backgrounds as police or other security bodies, and initially helped authorities maintain the peace until 10 p.m. But their roles and numbers expanded after four foreign cyclists were killed and two others injured when they were mowed down in a vehicular attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group in July.

"Now we stay until midnight and beyond, sometimes till 2 a.m.," Khudoynazarov says. "Many things have changed since summer."

Dim Prospects In The 'City Of Lights'

Norak once enjoyed a reputation as an idyllic Soviet city. Its namesake hydropower plant, constructed in the 1960s on the Vakhsh River, earned it the moniker "City Of Lights," and powered an image of progressiveness that attracted thousands of young workers to build their future.

Neighboring villages dotted with mud-brick homes and dirt roads gave way to a growing multicultural city that at one point was home to residents of more than 40 different ethnic backgrounds. Tourists flocked to the area to see what until just a few years ago was the world's largest dam -- a concrete wonder surrounded by picturesque mountaintops that provides electricity to 70 percent of Tajikistan.

But Norak's aging statue of Vladimir Lenin, which still stands in the central square, has seen the town fall on hard times. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Tajikistan's five-year civil war led many residents to leave in the 1990s. Jobs became harder to find. Opportunities vanished.

Official statistics don't support the idea that Norak is worse off than other areas of Tajikistan, suggesting that unemployment is more or less in line with the national average of 2.3 percent.

And like many other Tajik towns and cities, Norak has undergone a facelift in recent years, with authorities renovating main streets and government buildings, repairing highways, and creating new parks and culture centers.

But considering that more than 30 percent of Tajikistan's population lives below the poverty line, and its agriculture-dependent labor force is well-known for migrating to Russia and other countries for seasonal jobs, actual unemployment is widely believed to be much higher than 2.3 percent. And the situation is widely believed to be much worse in Norak.

The local employment agency provides numbers that indicate that more than 45 percent of Norak's potential workforce has no permanent employment, and a recent report indicates the town is situated in one of the poorest areas of the country.

"Our young people don't have the opportunities we had," says Qurbon Qosimov, a former firefighter who moved to Norak some four decades ago from the northern Tajik town of Konibodom.

Retired driver Ismatullo Ashurov, who arrived in 1971 and witnessed the heyday, says simply that the older generation "had it better."

"Everybody would come to Norak to work," the 73-year-old says. "It's different now."

Hometown Connections To A Brutal Attack

The July 29 attack involved ramming a vehicle into a group of foreign cyclists, and multiple attackers then exiting the car and stabbing survivors. Two Americans, one Dutch, and a Swiss cyclist were killed and three others were injured before the assailants fled.

The attack led to the arrest of 15 people, whose trial began in October.

The details of the case do not paint Norak in a good light. In August, five men were arrested in Norak, which was determined to be the hometown of two of those suspected of carrying out the attack. The five are alleged to have been recruited by way of WhatsApp by Asliddin and Jafar Yusupov, two brothers from Norak who were killed in a police operation that immediately followed the killings.

The authorities allege that members of a terrorist cell gathered at a house in Norak to identify potential targets and plot an attack, adding to the town's notoriety for harboring Islamic militants.

Norak was already on Tajik authorities' radar: government officials had previously estimated that at least 30 residents had traveled abroad to join the ranks of the extremist Islamic State group, and another 20 suspected Islamic State militants had been detained in the town itself.

Among those who left to fight in Iraq and Syria were two infamous IS recruiters: a 26-year-old native of Norak's Tutqavul district. One, Anushervon Azimov, was believed to have recruited some 100 people to join IS before he was killed in Syria in 2016. The other is Abu Usama Noraki, aka Tojiddin Nazarov, who according to Tajik authorities has launched a campaign to brainwash young Tajiks to join IS in Afghanistan.

Embarrassed by the additional and unwanted spotlight being shown on the town in the wake of the attack on the Western bicyclists, Norak authorities and residents alike are left wondering what went wrong.

Opportunity Is Where You Find It

Unemployment and lost opportunities may be factors, but they don't tell the whole story. Just because times are tough doesn't mean every youth turns to militancy.

This summer, 17-year-old Idimoh Sultonzoda received good news: she had earned a space at a university in the capital, Dushanbe, and will earn a teaching degree once she completes five years of distance-learning courses.

It also requires that she travel to the university at least twice a year to attend intensive courses and to take exams.

To make ends meet she sells homemade snacks and drinks at a stall in the shadow of the Lenin monument.

"I started this business to cover expenses, because my parents can't afford to pay" for school, she says, noting that her business does well on hot days when people stop by to purchase samosas or sunflower seeds.

"You can find work if you really want to," she says. "I made [an opportunity] for myself."

Across the road, 27-year-old Firuz Qosimzoda is taking a stroll in the fresh air with his wife and their one-month-old baby daughter.

Qosimzoda works as an engineer at the Roghun hydropower plant, set to take the mantle as Tajikistan's most prestigious power generator, some 125 kilometers away.

Qosimzoda says his salary is "adequate" to cover expenses for his young family, which shares a home with his parents.

"I still hold a junior position but hope to move up in the career ladder," he says. "Then my salary will increase, too."

Qosimzoda is excited about his own career prospects, but admits that "not all young people have jobs" in his hometown.

No Place To Dream, Nowhere To Turn

At a nearby bazaar, many young men can be seen selling goods, pushing carts, or offering taxi services.

"I do all kinds of odd jobs, whatever I find," says a man in his 20s. "I work in people's houses painting walls, or repairing barns. I also work in farms in the harvest season. What I earn is barely enough for food and other basics."

He declines to give his name, not an uncommon occurrence in Tajikistan, where authorities don't tolerate dissent, and people are reluctant to openly voice criticism.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.