Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Egypt's ailing regime tightens grip after elections wipe out opposition

• Governing party wins 96% of the vote in early results
• Islamist opposition may be left with no seats

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - November 2010

Egypt’s repressive regime sent out a dramatic warning to the international community tonight over its determination to face down any challenge to its authority, after stage-managing parliamentary elections that virtually wiped out the country’s formal opposition.

Early results from the poll, described by domestic and international observers as ‘breathtaking’ in its levels of fraud, suggest that the ruling NDP party have captured 96% of the seats, whilst the 88-strong parliamentary presence of Egypt’s largest organised opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, could be erased to zero.

“We knew it was going to be bad, but I don’t think anyone realised it was going to be this bad,” said Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Centre and an analyst of Egyptian politics. “Egypt has joined the ranks of the world's most autocratic countries. Now we're talking full-blown, unabashed dictatorship.”

The parliamentary ballot was widely seen as a dry run for next year’s more important presidential elections, when current leader Hosni Mubarak may be forced to step down. Mubarak, 82 years old and believed to be seriously ill, has ruled the Arab World’s most populous nation for almost three decades and has remained a close ally of the west, despite reports of systematic human rights abuses at the hands of his extensive security apparatus and slow progress on political reform.

But with no designated successor to the president, there is intense nervousness at the heart of Egypt’s political elite over the potential consequences of transferring power at a time of growing public anger over declining living standards and pervasive state oppression.

“These election results indicate that the regime is frightened about the impending transition, and they’re not in the mood to take any chances over their own survival as we enter what will be one of the most challenging periods in Egypt’s modern history,” argued Hamid. “Previously Egypt’s level of political repression was never at the level of Syria, Tunisia or Iraq; it was always careful to retain some superficial democratic trappings. But now the government is sending a strong message that opposition will not be tolerated.”

Sunday’s vote took place amidst a backdrop of widespread electoral violations, including incidences of ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, and the exclusion of opposition representatives, civil society monitors and journalists from polling stations around the country. In some towns riot police moved in to block voters from accessing polling booths; election-related clashes claimed at least eight lives across the day and left dozens more wounded.

Officials from the governing party rejected reports of wrongdoing in the poll. “The NDP has done its best to ensure that the voting is clean and free from any irregularities,” insisted NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif. But critics disagreed. “The violence we saw was very much a controlled violence, where the authorities seemed to be in charge of what happened and when” said Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch. A run-off vote in some constituencies will be held later this week.

Such clear evidence of rigging is likely to cause consternation in western capitals, where pressure on Mubarak to embrace at least some outwardly visible signs of democratisation has been strong. It will be viewed as a particular slap in the face for the Obama administration, which only last week had publicly pressed the Egyptian government to ensure these elections were credible. “We are dismayed by reports of election-day interference and intimidation by security forces,” said a spokesman for the US State Department, which provides more aid to Egypt than to any other country bar Israel. Britain’s foreign office announced it was “deeply concerned” by reports of state-sponsored disruption to the electoral process.

“It’s is really a sign that the ruling clique has no interest in appeasing the international community, and has calculated that the west will not provide the sort of vigorous response that you might expect a blatantly stolen election to provoke,” said Hamid.

Attention will now turn to the various regime insiders jockeying for position in the battle to replace Mubarak, chief among which is the president’s son, Gamal. Long groomed for the leadership, the former banker and architect of many of the country’s divisive neoliberal economic reforms has recently run into opposition from the country’s powerful armed forces, who are concerned at the prospect of a non-military figure taking the reins of power and who want to retain a strong influence over the process of selecting Egypt’s next ruler.

But as the latest election has shown, there will be little opportunity for dissident voices to participate in that process. “These elections were rigged and invalid,” warned Essam El-Arian, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are destroying any hope of the people for change by peaceful means.”



Many of the violations which marred Egypt’s parliamentary elections on Sunday were witnessed first-hand by The Guardian, which spent the day monitoring polling stations in the populous Shubra neighbourhood of northern Cairo.

At the entrance to one ballot location in Shubra El-Kheima, a queue of voters were heard arguing with security officials over how much they were being paid for their vote, with one man claiming he had been promised LE 500 (£55), but had received less than half that amount. At another polling station, a school in the nearby constituency of El-Sahel, state security colonels initially attempted to physically block access to the voting booths before eventually killing the power to the classrooms and plunging the whole station into darkness. But by the light of burning torches brandished by opposition candidates, ballot boxes stuffed with neatly-stacked, unfolded votes for the ruling NDP party were clearly visible. The civil servant responsible for the booth claimed they had been placed there ‘by security’ but said he would lose his job if he recorded this breach of electoral law.

Later at the El-Sahel count, lines of riot police held back opposition representatives and journalists whilst a procession of ballot boxes passed into the building, many of them with their seals torn open (video). Outside, a supporter of the liberal Al-Wafd party candidate held aloft bunches of NDP votes which had been stamped by polling station officials and which he claimed were due to be jammed into ballot boxes prior to the count (video). “There has never before been an election rigged to this scale,” he told an angry crowd.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Egypt's discredited elections blighted by police violence

As Egypt goes to the polls today, allegations are multiplying of political torture and killings by a security service beyond the control of the courts

-Taken from the Observer
-Alexandria - November 2010

The Mahmoudia canal wends its way through some of Alexandria's poorest quarters before eventually reaching the middle-class suburb of Somoha, where elegant blocks of flats abut the water's edge and a rickety old footbridge connects one bank to the other.

It was here that 19-year-old Ahmed Shaaban's body was found, battered and bruised and floating amongst the reeds. The police say he drowned himself deliberately, though it is difficult to see how – the channel is so shallow it barely reaches one's knees. A few days later, Shaaban's uncle stood in front of a local journalist's video camera and addressed Egypt's leader, Hosni Mubarak, directly. "You are at war with your own people," he said softly. "Your gang is running loose killing citizens, and all you care about is the presidential chair."

Something is rotten at the heart of Alexandria, one of the great metropolises of the ancient world and Egypt's modern gateway to the Mediterranean. The country goes to the polls today to elect a new parliament in a ballot widely condemned by human rights groups as being blatantly rigged in favour of Mubarak's ruling NDP party, and which has been marred by violent clashes on the street between government security services and opposition supporters.

With more than 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested in recent weeks and prominent dissidents, including former UN nuclear inspectorate chief Mohamed ElBaradei, calling for a boycott of the vote, international analysts are watching this election closely – not for the final results, but to pick up clues about Egypt's political direction as it enters the final days of Mubarak's reign. The three-decade-long leadership of the 82-year-old president, who is believed to be seriously ill, could come to an end next year when a presidential poll is scheduled. Possible successors, including his son Gamal, are jockeying for position.

But as more than 50,000 polling stations open today, allegations of police torture are disrupting the government's carefully constructed narrative of a nation on the brink of democratic reform. "These are the stories our regime does not want you to hear," says Ahmed Nassar, a lawyer who has represented victims of police abuse and tried unsuccessfully to get his name on this year's parliamentary ballot paper. "On the streets of Alexandria these days, brutality counts for more than the law."

Nassar's professional attentions in recent months have been focused in one particular direction: Sidi Gabr police station in Alexandria's most populous neighbourhood. It was from this squat, yellow, two-storey building that two officers headed out in June to pay a visit to Khaled Said, a reclusive young Egyptian who had just posted a secret video online seemingly showing local police officers dividing up the spoils of a drugs bust. They found the 28-year-old in an internet cafe by his house, just off the harbour. Twenty minutes later he was dead, his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of the building next door.

The killing ignited a storm of protest in Egypt, bringing thousands on to the streets. Amid mounting pressure, the government – which initially insisted that Said had died of a self-inflicted drugs overdose – eventually agreed to prosecute the two officers involved, although not on a charge of murder, as Said's family had demanded. As the trial got under way, many believed that the officers of Sidi Gabr police station would lie low and attempt to avoid controversy for a while. They were wrong.

The Observer has collected testimony from several people in Alexandria alleging that they have been tortured by officers from Sidi Gabr over the past five months. Some, such as 30-year-old science lecturer Mohamed Tarek, are active dissidents. Others, such as Mohamed Ibrahim, have nothing to do with politics and were seemingly plucked off the street at random.

In the cramped apartment he shares with his elderly mother, Ibrahim, a 29-year-old electrician, tells how a group of officers bundled him into a Toyota van last month while he was talking on his mobile in the street. He says he was taken to the upper floor of Sidi Gabr police station, where they stretched out his leg on the landing and then stamped on it, breaking it in two places. "I immediately felt numb and let out a scream, but it was like shouting into the desert," claims Ibrahim. "Nothing I could say had any impact; they just kept yelling the most terrible insults, kept on proving their power over me."

Stories such as Ibrahim's, who says he was never accused of any crime and was released with no explanation the following day, are all too familiar in Alexandria. "We have no sense of security on the streets and most of my friends are scared to even walk past the police building – they refer to it as the Sidi Gabr butchery," says Mohamed Abdelfattah, a journalist and film-maker who has closely followed incidents of police abuse in the city.

Victims who have attempted to hold their tormentors accountable through the courts have found themselves the subject of intense harassment from security services; Ibrahim says he was told by police that "we know how to silence people like you", while Said's family have been accused in state-run newspapers of being drug-dealers and Zionist sympathisers. The trial of his alleged killers is still going on.

According to campaigners, the atrocities of Sidi Gabr are not anomalous, nor do they stem from the deeds of renegade officers acting in defiance of orders. "We are beyond the stage of talking about police abuse and murder as isolated human rights abuses; all the evidence points to this being a systematic state policy," says Aida Seif El Dawla, a founder of the El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. "The Mubarak regime relies on its security apparatus absolutely for its survival, because they have nothing else to fall back on; the government's popular legitimacy is non-existent."

Tarek, who says he was beaten repeatedly by police and threatened with rape and electrocution after being picked up at an anti-torture demonstration, thinks the authorities believe they can only sustain power by keeping the population in a state of terror. "Sidi Gabr is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "At the Khaled Said protests, people were singing 'down with Hosni Mubarak' and their only weapon against this sentiment is fear.”

Nassar says Alexandria's dark record of police corruption is a product of the regime's long-held contempt for the rule of law – the same malaise that lies behind today’s exercise in extensively-documented electoral fraud. In 1981 the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and consequent rise to power of Hosni Mubarak triggered the activation of Egypt’s Emergency Law, which suspends a wide range of civil liberties and largely immunises the security services from judicial oversight; the ‘temporary’ legislation has been kept in place ever since.

"This entire political elite is founded on the violation of the rule of law," says Nassar, who had his candidacy for parliament rejected by the local authorities with no official justification. Ignoring calls from some leading dissidents to boycott the poll, Nassar had planned to base his campaign around raising voter awareness of an individual's legal rights in the face of police abuse; each of his leaflets featured the line "you are an eyewitness" emblazoned across the page. "State violence defiles not just the law but people's minds too; they see themselves and society as detached from the state and its processes. That's why so few people will vote in these elections; they know the results are fixed, but also they feel that the whole system is something to stay away from."

In Khaled Said’s home his sister Zahraa showed me the intricate sound system that her brother had hooked up from old radios and car batteries, and on which he would practice rapping into the early hours. He was a shy and quiet man, devoted to his pet cats and preferring to fly kites on the corniche than spend time with friends. “He never seemed interested in politics at all,” she said. It was only after his death that the family found several videos depicting Said performing self-penned anti-government songs.

“It wasn’t just a beating gone wrong, it was a public execution,” claims his mother. “The officer was heard by witnesses phoning his superior and saying ‘it’s done, the issue is over’. They killed him in broad daylight, and now they are going after young people everywhere. The youth have declared ‘We are all Khaled Said’, that’s their slogan, and the police are responding by saying ‘yes you are – we will deal with you like we dealt with him’.”

Ahmed Shaaban was held at Sidi Gabr police station for five days before his corpse was, according to police, fished out from the Mahmoudia canal. Three weeks ago the 19 year old was on his way to a wedding when he was stopped at a police checkpoint; his family never saw him alive again. Unlike Khaled Said’s relatives, the family are not middle-class and are hence more vulnerable to police intimidation; since Shaaban’s uncle first criticised the president on tape, he has stopped publicly questioning the official account of his nephew’s death. “We have nothing to do with all this, and we accuse no one,” he told me over the phone this week. “The family are broken,” says Mohamed Abdelfattah, who has met them on several occasions. “Ahmed has been taken from them, and they’re terrified.”

Tonight Egypt’s High Elections Commission will announce the results of the parliamentary poll, heralding the start of a year of political volatility in the Arab World’s biggest nation. But for many Alexandrians, the list of winners and losers printed in tomorrow’s papers will have little relevance to the struggles they face in their daily lives. “Change will not come from this government’s version of democracy, it will come in the shape of a tidal wave from below,” said Zahraa Said as she stood on her brother’s balcony. “Maybe the torture and murders carried out by our policemen will set that tidal wave in motion.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Trouble ahead for Egypt's Islamist opposition

-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - November 2010

Times are tough for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s leading organised opposition movement and progenitor of several powerful Islamist groups across the Arab World.

With Egyptians heading to the polls tomorrow to theoretically elect a new parliament, the Brotherhood have faced a brutal crackdown on their activities by the state that has seen over a thousand activists arrested, scores of candidates being denied a place on the ballot paper, and violent clashes on the streets of major cities like Alexandria where police have fired tear gas and live ammunition at the group’s supporters.

It’s little wonder that independent NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are queuing up to condemn the poll as a stage-managed farce, in which the chances of citizens being able to exercise a free and fair vote stand at virtually zero. “Through their brutal attacks on us, the [ruling] NDP party have revealed their utter contempt for the rule of law,” says Medhat El Haddad, a Brotherhood parliamentarian in Egypt’s Upper House. “What’s happening on Sunday is not an election. It’s a mockery.”

But the Brotherhood’s problems go far deeper than tomorrow’s blatantly-rigged ballot. Long misrepresented in the western press as a monolithic and fundamentalist force, the Ikhwan – as the Brothers are called in Arabic – are actually a Janus-faced beast, blending together a series of ideological strands and devoting as much of their time to social welfare programmes as they do to campaigning in the political arena.

As pressure on the group is ratcheted up by the regime of ailing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, internal divisions are now bubbling up to the surface – especially over the decision to participate in these elections at all. The Brotherhood ignored calls by prominent secular dissidents to boycott the poll, but an ‘opposition front’ within the movement is now challenging the leadership over that move and urging Ikhwan candidates – who have to technically stand as independents to circumvent a ban on religious parties – to withdraw from the race.

Part of the problem lies in the Brotherhood’s uncertainty over what it actually stands for. Battle-lines are drawn between ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformers’ over issues like female circumcision, tolerance of Egypt’s Christian minority, and the thorny matter of how strongly the group should be challenging the government. Mubarak’s international legitimacy rests largely on his symbiotic relationship with the Muslim Brothers; without the Ikhwan as an ever-present ‘threat’ to the region’s stability which only he can contain, the 82 year old dictator – born in the same year the Brotherhood was founded – would lose much of his western support.

Ultimately, the Brotherhood is torn between political participation and religious evangelism; some members believe that spreading the message of Islam should be merely a tool for gaining power, whilst others insist that political power is merely a steppingstone to the ultimate goal of spiritually transforming the country.

As one Ikhwan election campaign manager told me last week, “When people ask me whether the Brotherhood is going through a crisis, my answer is that I don’t really know what the Brotherhood is. Is it us, here, shouting slogans in the street? Or is it a group of students quietly reading their Qurans in a mosque? To be honest, I think none of us are sure.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Egypt's elections: 'fixed ballot' offers drama in everything but the outcome

Muslim Brotherhood and rivals raise profiles for Sunday's vote, but without hope of unseating ruling NDP

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - November 2010

The cramped alleys of Kirdasa don’t lend themselves to easy vehicular passage; with a carpet of broken and dusty rocks below and a tangle of casually-strung electricity cables above, even donkey carts find it tricky to negotiate the town’s narrow twists and turns. But that hasn’t stopped Abdel Salaam Bashandi’s campaign bus – a bright-red pickup truck adorned with giant posters and a creaking sound system – from plunging precariously into the warren.

‘Islam is the solution – wake up and vote on November 28!’ blares the loudspeaker as hundreds of well-wishers crowd at their doorways to shake hands with Bashandi, a bespectacled book publisher in his early 50s. “We have great, great hopes of this poll,” grins the Muslim Brotherhood candidate amidst the commotion. “Of course this isn’t about winning the seat. The regime won’t allow such a thing, that’s to be expected.”

Welcome to the bizarre world of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, where thousands of candidates from dozens of parties are competing for hundreds of parliamentary seats – all safe in the knowledge that their campaigning will have virtually no impact on the final result. “No one thinks parliamentary elections in Egypt are democratic or even semi-democratic,” says Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist specialising in Egyptian affairs. “The elections do not determine who governs. They are not free and fair. They install a parliament with no power to check the president … And citizens know that elections are rigged, with polling places often blocked off by baton-wielding police, so few of them vote.”

Yet despite the blatant fraud accompanying what is theoretically one of the largest democratic exercises in the Middle East, these elections still matter deeply to a plethora of political forces – from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), who are guaranteed to emerge from the ballot with a landslide majority in parliament, to a wide range of opposition movements exploiting the poll to mobilise local support bases and raise their party’s profile.

For political observers within Egypt and beyond, Sunday’s vote promises something else too – a rare and valuable insight into the drama over who will succeed the country’s ill and ageing president, himself up for re-election next year.

Kirdasa, a palm-fringed suburb to the west of Cairo, offers a unique window onto the surreal dynamics of this poll. Once a rural village far-flung from the chaos of the capital, Cairo’s unstoppable urban sprawl has now enveloped the town completely; in recent years migration from the countryside has sent population levels soaring, making this electoral district one of the biggest – and most hotly-contested – in the country.

Every major party is running a candidate here, but few of Kirdasa’s residents have been enthused by the campaign. Although the area laps up to the edge of the 4,500-year-old Giza pyramids, it is this constituency's more modern neighbourhoods, and the contrast between them, that best explains why so many voters feel excluded from political life. Kirdasa's vast electoral district encompasses gated compounds for the rich alongside redbrick settlements for the poor, the type of neighbourhood where six in ten Cairenes now reside and a stark illustration of the yawning social chasm that has come to epitomise Mubarak's Egypt.

“Our circumstances don’t allow for politics; we’re living on the breadline,” claims Alaa Khalil, a 37 year-old welder and Kirdasa native. “The sons of Egypt are in crisis right now: food prices are spiralling, our incomes are going down, and we have almost no means with which to feed our kids. Elections may have some value for the ‘big sharks’, but not for us.”

Khalil’s cynicism is understandable. Kirdasa – the site of a deadly showdown between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military police and Islamist protestors back in 1965 – has long been marginalised from Egypt’s civil and political centre; viewed by the government as a potential opposition stronghold, no local has ever been allowed to become a security officer or hold any senior position within the state bureaucracy.

At the last parliamentary elections in 2005 Bashandi – who in common with other Muslim Brotherhood candidates is forced to run as an independent to circumvent a legal ban on religious parties – claims to have won a majority of 12,000 votes, a figure backed up by a number of independent sources; the authorities refused to accept the ballot count and instead declared his rival NDP candidate the winner. Later that evening riot police stormed the town, tear-gassing hundreds of angry youths protesting in the streets.

This time around few of Bashandi’s supporters believe he will get the chance to represent them in parliament, regardless of the final vote tally – five of them have already been detained by the security services, adding to the 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood activists arrested nationally in the run-up to these elections. In a damning 37-page report detailing a wide range of oppressive measures executed by the Egyptian government in recent weeks, Amnesty International concluded that “the pattern being established is one that is already familiar from previous elections, which were carried out amid, and marred by, serious human rights violations.”

It is this sort of political repression that led a host of prominent dissidents, including former UN nuclear weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei, to call for a boycott of these elections – a call the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a number of legally-sanctioned secular opposition parties who offer no real challenge to the political status quo, have chosen to ignore.

“What is happening right now is the actual rigging of the vote,” Saad el-Katatni, a prominent Brotherhood lawmaker, announced in a press conference this morning. “The regime is sending a message that there will be no election … [but] this is a political and constitutional struggle and the street is with the Brotherhood and we will not let them down.”

“In normal circumstances we are not allowed to give lectures or hold conferences; we’re deprived of all opportunities to promote our beliefs and connect with the community,” explains Bashandi, whose father was a Brotherhood founder in this area. “During election time, those opportunities sometimes arise, so to remove ourselves from that process altogether would be illogical.” Judging by the adulation he receives on the streets, Bashandi’s anti-corruption and pro-local services message is clearly finding an audience, despite widespread frustration at the inequities of the voting process.

But Sunday’s vote isn’t only a litmus test for Egypt’s opposition movements, as they seek to refine their divergent tactics in advance of the presidential ballot in 2011. It’s also a critical moment for the NDP, who in light of Mubarak’s waning health are beginning a search for his successor – the future leader of the biggest nation in the Arab World. Long considered to be the heir-apparent to his father, Mubarak’s son Gamal has recently been forced to publicly row back from suggestions that he might inherit power, as competing factions within the NDP clash over Egypt’s post-Mubarak future.

Those internecine struggles have put the ruling party into the strange position of running several official candidates for the same seat in some districts, including Kirdasa where two formal NDP candidates and one other NDP member are both lining up against Bashandi. Some disaffected elements of the local NDP are even throwing their weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood man, according to local sources.

“It’s impossible to separate the coming parliamentary elections from the 2011 presidential race,” says Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “The NDP’s latest decision to have multiple candidates compete over single seats means the internal party battle has moved from ‘behind the scenes’ to the front lines of elections.”

And so Egypt will elect its parliament this week with a collective shrug from the majority of its population, whilst below the surface a series of developments help reshape the political trajectory of one of the west’s closest allies in the Middle East. For at least one voter in Kirdasa though, polling day cannot come too soon.

“This is my first election and I believe it could be free, it has to be free – the government tells us we live in a democracy so let them prove it,” says Sara Moustafa, a 19 year old student. “We have lived our entire lives under Mubarak and the NDP but Egypt is on the brink of something big over the next year. Times are changing; those at the top may think we are too young to have an opinion, but here we are. They’ll see.”

[The National Democratic Party were invited to comment on this article, but declined to respond.]



Egypt’s vibrant independent media sector has been dealt a series of blows in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections, with TV stations shut down, critical chatshows hauled off air, outspoken columnists and newspaper editors forced out of their jobs, and new regulations bringing mass SMS messaging and live broadcasts firmly under state control. Despite government assurances the freedom of expression will not be restricted as the country enters a year of intense political uncertainty, rights groups have lashed out at a ‘climate of terror’ created by the state, in which dissident voices are excluded from public debate. “At a time when the free flow of political information takes on heightened significance, the government is intent on controlling all sources of alternative knowledge,” warned prominent Egyptian blogger Baheyya last month.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exodus: A Sea and its People Evaporate

In Karakalpakstan, an obscure corner of central Asia where the waters of the Aral Sea have turned to desert, Jack Shenker finds a nation fleeing ecological disaster and authoritarian rule

-Published in Prospect, The National, E Magazine and Internazionale
-Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan - 2009-2010

-Original photography by Jason Larkin

Ziyo hunts by day and flies by night, with a polished Winchester shotgun tucked under one arm and a cigarette between his lips. The van he drives can fit eight to ten people, sometimes twelve at a push, and for the past 15 years it’s nearly always been full for the border run. Under the cover of darkness Ziyo wends his human cargo out past empty houses; they are isolated at first but then tumble together into hamlets, all weather-cowed and crumbling-stone. No one talks. The desert watchtowers which mark the beginning of Kazakhstan are still thirteen hours away, and until they are reached there is little to do but stare out of the window as the salty landscape rolls on by in the gloom, coarse and jagged as if it had been ripped through with an old razor. Ziyo will return here; most of his passengers will not. Tonight, as on so many other nights in this obscure corner of the world, a homeland is being emptied of its people.

No one knows exactly how many have left Karakalpakstan, a former Soviet Republic nestled deep within the bizarre confluence of ruler-straight lines and flamboyant squiggles that make up the map of Central Asia. Official figures put it at over 50,000 in the last ten years alone – roughly 10% of the population – though this figure doesn’t include the passengers in Ziyo’s van, or the vans of dozens of other people smugglers like him, who pay around $500 each to obtain falsified passports from corrupt government officials and then slip out under the radar of the authorities, voyaging north to a new life. But although the numbers behind this exodus are disputed, the reasons for it are clearer. Within a couple of hours of setting off from their departure point – a nondescript village in one of the southern frontier provinces near Turkmenistan – Ziyo and his companions will pass within a hundred miles of what scientists have called the largest anthropogenic ecological disaster of the 20th century, a man-made climate catastrophe so severe that it has devastated the economy, health and community fabric of an entire society for generations to come. Locals simply know it as the Aral Ten’iz – a sea which fled its shores.

On their way out to the Kazakh border Ziyo’s van will pass something else too: a prim neatly-trimmed square in the Karakalpak capital of Nukus. There two flags flutter in the wind; one is that of Karakalpakstan, and the other is the flag of Uzbekistan, de facto custodians of this semi-autonomous republic since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The writing above the doorway of Karakalpakstan’s nearby parliament building is in Uzbek first and Karakalpak second, telling passers-by everything they need to know about the balance of power within this uneasy coupling of nations. This story is not unique; the personal identity crises, communal resentments and violent backlashes that have flowed from Uzbekistan’s iron-fisted control of its neighbour form a familiar echo of countless other nationalist conflicts around the globe. Nor is climactic environmental disaster particular to this region, though few other places have suffered from it quite so relentlessly. Yet it’s only here, in this overlooked slice of distant, desiccated farmland, where two of the biggest challenges looming over 21st century humankind – ecological change and fragmented, exclusionary nationalism – have become irrevocably enmeshed.

Deep within the delta of the ancient Oxus river, the largely bone-dry path of which Ziyo is now shepherding his midnight flock down, Karakalpakstan – a nation which few have heard of and which was declared by one writer to be ‘the worst place in the world’ – may just be offering the rest of the planet a foretaste of its future.


Nukus is a stark, space-flooded city that magnifies the smallness of its occupants. Its central squares are splotched with trees and criss-crossed with paths wide enough to accommodate a military parade; they stretch off into infinity, only occasionally interrupted by signs of activity – a cluster of schoolgirls, the empty faded-neon aqua-park, a clutch of corrugated iron garages where a lone man is sorting through empty vodka bottles. “Love is dead”, reads the graffiti on one makeshift metal wall. “Long live Linkin’ Park”.

Sulton has lived in Nukus his whole life and knows its secrets; after sitting me down in his plain, white-walled living room, where a display case shows off the best family china and a single, dusty globe, he instinctively unplugged the telephone from the wall before talking. “Everywhere is bugged,” he explained, jerking his thumb vaguely in the direction of Jaslyk, a small town two hundred miles away where a ‘severe regime’ prison houses hundreds of Uzbek President Karimov’s political enemies, some of whom have reportedly been boiled to death. Jaslyk is referred to locally as a gulag, the place from which no one ever returns. It’s only one cog in a much larger Uzbek security apparatus that ruthlessly suppresses domestic opposition to Karimov’s ruling clique and has established, according to Human Rights Watch, a ‘culture of impunity for torture’. “If they catch me talking, I go there and don’t come back,” said Sulton simply.

Like most of the Karakalpaks I meet, Sulton is friendly in a detached, somewhat apprehensive way. At 44, he’s old enough to have served under the Red Army and proudly recounts his experiences of guarding missile bases as far north as Siberia. But contact with the outside world has come to Sulton in scattered fragments: a pirate Hollywood movie here, a Russian TV news snippet there, a fencing tournament he competed in last year. By and large the universe beyond Karakalpakstan’s borders remains shrouded in fog for its citizens, penetrated only by a few very specific torch-beams. The opposite is true as well; outsiders can be afforded rare and enchanting insights into Karakalpak society, but mostly Karakalpakstan feels closed and private, dominated by a Soviet-era distrust of the other.

As I followed Sulton out of his house and into a sunset-drenched Nukus, the city threw up a tantalising glimpse of its organs, the heft and muddle of daily life: a bout of shoving at the marketplace; the chaotic unloading of a truckful of squashes in the dusty shadow of a apartment block; the eerie weave of the town’s strange central heating pipes, which snake their way silently and unapologetically through the streets at head height, clad in glistening silver insulation and appearing curiously like a single inverted vein, plucked from beneath the pavement’s concrete skin and sewn back on top of it with neat, surgical precision. But for the most part this looked like a world sealed shut: buildings faceless and anonymous, faces expressionless, streets tight-lipped and solemn as they radiated out in autumnal gold from Independence Square.

We headed out south to the cotton fields. On the way we passed numerous checkpoints; international journalists are effectively barred from the country, particularly sensitive areas like Karakalpakstan, and each time soldiers flagged down our creaking Volga, Sulton gulped nervously. “It’s like we’re at war,” he grimaced, “and they’re winning.” Karakalpaks are not the only recipients of Karimov’s widely-documented and liberally-dispensed brand of political terror; Uzbeks themselves were mowed down in their hundreds by government forces after an anti-Karimov uprising in the eastern district of Andijan back in 2005. But here in Karakalpakstan there is a different current of fear, stemming primarily from the timeless insecurity of exclusion. Karakalpaks, a people who trace their roots back three millennia to ancient Aral Sea marsh-dwellers, are culturally and linguistically closer to their Kazakh neighbours than they are to Uzbekistan. They have their own language, customs and dress – ‘Karakalpak’ literally means ‘black hat’, a reference to the distinctive traditional headwear which marked this ethnic group out from other surrounding peoples – and they were considered an autonomous socialist republic under the USSR for many years, as well as being briefly part of the Kazakh SSR.

Although today the modern republic of Karakalpakstan is populated by many more Kazakhs and Uzbeks than it is by Karakalpaks themselves, the nation has an identity entirely separate to that of Uzbekistan, the country it is now engulfed by, which helps explain the overwhelming presence of soldiers and policeman on the streets and the undercover intelligence agents in every village. The Uzbek government in Tashkent is desperately twitchy about any hint of independent Karakalpak nationalism.

Just such a movement, known as the Khalk Mapi, broke out in the 1990s and was brutally crushed by Karimov’s troops; many experts think the potential for instability in Karakalpakstan remains high, and that any conflict there would have huge repercussions across the region. A Radio Free Europe dispatch last year claimed a new Karakalpak separatist group was whipping up nationalist sentiment and accusing the Uzbek government of genocide against the Karakalpak people. No one has been able to corroborate the report though, and the story’s main source has since been arrested.

“Karakalpaks see themselves as physically and politically marginalised,” says Reuel Hanks, a professor from Oklahoma University who has studied Karakalpakstan closely. “In a region already beset by civil war, ethnic rivalries and enormous economic and environmental challenges ... the political geography is likely to remain mutable and fragile for some time.” For now Karakalpakstan, which lies to the far west of Uzbekistan, retains the outward shell of an autonomous state and boasts its own flag, parliament and constitution which theoretically allows for a referendum on secession from Uzbekistan at any time.

Like so many gaudy baubles on a plastic tree though, these accessories are nothing but political gimmicks; Karakalpak leaders are hand-picked by Karimov, the Uzbek army is everywhere and no one in Tashkent is in any mood to contemplate independence for their troublesome little brother. Since Stalin divided up the old region of Turkestan into republics based on ‘nationality’, each territory has worked tirelessly to construct a narrative of cultural and political unity in an effort to legitimise their claims to a ‘separate space’ from their neighbours, a process which accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of independent nation states in the region.

Breakaway enclaves pose a mortal threat to that fragile legitimacy; one doesn’t have to look far in the shadows of the former USSR – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya – to find populations who have rejected the nation-state borders imposed upon them from above. Karimov, a 71 year old dictator who ruled Uzbekistan under the Soviets before improbably restyling himself as an anti-Russian freedom fighter as the USSR cracked apart, doesn’t want a repeat performance in his own backyard. As the city’s low-rise suburbs gave way to fields, I asked Sulton about opposition activists. “There aren’t any,” he replied flatly, staring out the window. “No demonstrations, no protests, no critical songs or books. Nothing.”

The story of Karakalpakstan starts and ends in cotton, with greed, forced labour and disaster stitched in between. We sped past mountains of ‘white gold’ piling up in the district collection points, where farmers drop off cotton by the tonne in accordance with government directives. Chances are that most of the cotton in your wardrobe originated here; Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest cotton exporter and unlike its neighbours, the industry remains almost entirely in the hands of the state. The price paid to growers is fixed each year by ministers – 80 Uzbek som per kilo in 2009, far below what the flossy thread fetches in the open market across the border in Kazakhstan – and in Karakalpakstan the annual increases have failed to keep pace with the spiralling cost of living. Unemployment is rampant, and poverty – often delicately shrouded behind the paper employment offered by collective farms, many of which lie dormant for much of the year – is increasingly pervasive.

The fields were bleached-brown and dull, except when sprinkled with a riot of moving colour – the bright clothing of schoolchildren who, like their peers across Uzbekistan, spend every day of every Autumn picking the cotton harvest. NGOs estimate that 50% of Uzbek’s cotton exports are the fruit of child labour, and there is nothing voluntary about the work; for two or three months a year the education system – from schools to universities – shuts down en masse as teachers lead their young charges out into the crops. Everyone from doctors to civil servants also follows suit; on one occasion when I went to interview the director of a prestigious Karakalpak medical institute, I was informed by the secretary that she was out supervising the cotton harvest.

We stopped at one field and struck up a conversation with the students. They had been working eight hour days for fifty days now, but were happy; the harvest was a great opportunity to escape the classroom and play and flirt in the countryside. It took a while for the chinks to appear. I asked Sabina, a 16 year old girl, about her plans for the future and a stream of excited, broken English bubbled out as she detailed her dream of being a transport dispatcher. Her teacher, standing behind her, shook his head sadly. “There’ll be no job available when she graduates,” he told me when she was out of earshot. “Not for her, not for anyone.” I ask the pickers whether they know of anyone leaving Karakalpakstan because of the lack of work and the dire state of the economy. Every single one of them nodded, including Sabina – her father had emigrated to Kazakhstan earlier this year. The group broke up as someone spotted a security officer from the local government ‘hokkim’ swing down the dirt track towards us. Sulton and I beat a hasty retreat.

Cotton lies at the heart of the only thing ever to have thrust a reluctant Karakalpakstan on to the global map – the awesome and terrible sight of one of the world’s biggest inland bodies of water quite literally disappearing into thin air. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Aral Sea was Central Asia’s baby blue pride; 42,000 square miles of saline waves, abundant fish and island resorts which attracted Russia’s rich and beautiful for their summer holidaying. There were also cotton fields fanning out from its shoreline, and these rolling acres of profit were to be the sea’s downfall. In the 1940s work begun on irrigation canals that diverted water from the sea’s two main tributaries – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers – into the fields, boosting the harvest and leaving less and less water every year arriving in the Aral basin.

By the 1960s the Aral was losing up to 60 cubic kilometres of water annually; by the 1980s, the level of the sea was dropping almost 10cm a month. Geologists and environmentalists flocked to witness and condemn the decay, but the architects of this grotesque transformation were unmoved. “Nature’s error” was how one Soviet engineer dismissed the sea; the hubris of those who thought they could rewire an ecosystem would come back to haunt the dead sea’s victims later. Today the sea has shrunk to a mere 10% of its original size, leaving in its wake the world’s most recently-formed desert, from which 200,000 tonnes of salt and sand are whipped up by the wind each day and dumped over Karakalpakstan and other nearby regions. Lung-related diseases in the republic are three times higher than the Uzbek average; the fishing industry, Karakalpakstan’s financial lifeblood, has collapsed.

The Aral Sea disaster didn’t just plunge Karakalpakstan into turmoil. It also reshaped how Karakalpaks view themselves in a series of subtle ways. The republic’s Kazakh population has returned to their ethnic homeland in droves, attracted by a Kazakh government-sponsored ‘oralman’ programme encouraging the immigration of its diaspora. In some villages I visited, entire Kazakh-language schools had simply shut down because every pupil had left. The Aral also stretches across the border up into Kazakhstan, and in its northern stretches a series of new dam projects are salvaging the sea there, fuelling further optimism in what is already a relatively vibrant economy. It is no coincidence that the wholesale movement of a population from one side of this once-mighty lake to the other mirrors nature’s contrasting fortunes; almost any Kazakhs who can leave are doing so, however wrenching the transition may be. “At my age, it’s hard to adapt to a new climate,” I was told by one Karakalpak-born Kazakh farmer whose two younger brothers had already left for Kazakhstan and who was close to following in their footsteps. “I’m proud to be a Karakalpak; this is my land, and who wants to change their motherland? But there are no jobs. It’s inevitable.”

Karakalpak Kazakhs who touch down one morning in the Kazakh capital of Almaty with their suitcases in tow are expected to rapidly discard one identity like an old jumper and pull on a new one. The oralman programme’s narrative is that these new arrivals are reconnecting with a long-severed historical attachment with the Kazakh nation, even though many of them, just like their forefathers, will have never seen Kazakhstan before in their lives. Karakalpakstan’s environmental mutation hasn’t just remodelled the ground; it’s remoulded people’s minds and recalibrated their histories. In this region, said travel writers Matthew and Macleod, “only the past is as unpredictable as the future.”

For ethnic Karakalpaks, the choices are even harder. Many have moved to Uzbekistan and stayed there; others use fixers like Ziyo, the people smuggler, to alter the ethnicity printed on their passports so that they too can appear Kazakh and escape across the border. When they make it to Almaty they often find that communal resentments are rife between the Kazakh-born Kazakhs and the first-generation immigrants; as ‘fake’ immigrants the ethnic Karakalpaks go straight to the bottom of the social pile, suddenly looked down upon by those who, back in Karakalpakstan, they used to call neighbours. Those left behind in Karakalpakstan are struggling to come to terms with this transformation in Karakalpak society; are those that have fled traitors or trailblazers, and should they be condemned or emulated? Some claim the route to economic empowerment lies with closer integration with Uzbekistan; others believe that this will lead to the death of Karakalpakstan as a nation and instead advocate a fight for more autonomy.

No matter what their stance though, everyone, everywhere feels a sense of communal identity being whittled away. It’s being spirited across borders, and it’s being spirited behind closed doors. Sulton tells me of his brother, the former manager of a successful aviation dealership until the government confiscated it from him in the mid-90s. He now scrapes together a living in his back garden putting together go-karts from old motorbike parts and selling them on to the thrill-seeking Kazakh nouveau riche; being hidden from view is a prized asset in a place where the sinewy tendons of authority tend to bring more harm than good to those they touch. And it’s being spirited into graves, the fate of those who lose the long struggle against lung cancer and tuberculosis.

For many, all these tensions simply resolve themselves in a vaguely articulated sense of bitterness at the status quo, where life carries on as best it can and anger shines through only in the odd nervous joke and a rare flash of emotion. That night I slept in a local village at the home of a Karakalpak man in his mid 60s, named Farhod. As we delved into his old black and white photo albums stuffed with stiffly formal poses of marriage and war, the television flickered in the background. “You know what the Russians say,” whispered Farhod to me conspiratorially as he poured out another cup of green tea. “‘If you want to see heaven, watch Uzbek TV; if you want to see hell, go to Tashkent.’” The words were met by everyone in the room with uproarious laughter that soon gave way to quiet nodding.

“Did you hear the one about the Russian, the Kazakh and the Kyrgyz man all arguing over who would cry the most if a plane crashed whilst all three of their presidents were on board?” grinned Ziyo, who’d joined us for dinner. “’I’d shed the most tears,’ insisted the Russian. ‘No, no, I’d be far sadder than you,’ countered the Kazakh. ‘Rubbish, such a loss would make me inconsolable,’ replied the Kyrgyz. In the end they turned to a Karakalpak friend who had been sitting quietly in the corner. ‘You’re all wrong,’ he said. ‘I’d cry the most, because President Karimov wasn’t on board.’”

The following afternoon Farhod and Ziyo took me out hunting. Biblically-proportioned swarms of mosquitoes tracked us through the strange and fluffy landscape, the stillness of which was broken every few minutes by a volley of shotgun cartridges and the dull thud of a pheasant hitting the ground. Both men looked jovial in their army fatigues; they shared a final cigarette together on the bonnet of Farhod’s car as bloodstains seeped out of Ziyo’s canvas bag and the sun began to drop achingly slowly across a shimmering-wheat horizon. On our way back we passed mile upon mile of desert scrubland, formerly fertile ground now pockmarked with salty encrustations, a by-product of the Aral’s disappearing act.

Then out of nowhere a small shock of golden yellow appeared; trees so vivid by the roadside that each leaf seemed to have its own source of evening twilight. Apart from us, the road was completely deserted. Farhod pulled over the car and got out to admire the scene, tucking his red shirt carefully into his trousers and pulling on his deerstalker hat. After a few minutes fingering the leaves silently he suddenly exploded into gleeful shouts. “Svobda, svobda!” he yelled in Russian, dancing across the tarmac. “This is beauty! This is freedom!”


Eldor was late. I’d been standing at a level crossing on the outskirts of Nukus for an hour in the mid-morning heat when he finally showed, just as I was staring up at one of President Karimov’s ubiquitous propaganda signs tacked onto the signal post. ‘Uzbekistan has a wonderful future’ it read in big stencilled letters. It was partly obscured by a montage of Western Union money transfer adverts, all aimed at those receiving money from relatives long-departed from the country.“What’s up my niggers?” boomed an American accent behind me, delivering the first of many ‘Bachelor Party 2’ quotes that would clatter discordantly over my ears for the rest of the day.

Eldor was part of a small but conspicuous breed of Karakalpaks who spoke English, were well connected and who generally landed plumb government contracts which cushioned them from the rest of the republic’s economic woes. They hung out in places like Merlion, the city’s plushest eatery. It had dark red walls and fake marble tabletops and a Sinatra lookalike in the corner who crooned listlessly along to an Uzbek pop track. It’s where I first met Eldor and his friends. They all got their jobs through their fathers – a position in one of the Karakalpak ministries, a management role at a local asphalt company, a distributor for an Uzbek brewery – and they all issued blandly formulaic responses to my questions about Karakalpakstan’s predicament. The Aral Sea issue is bad, but the water might come back. Political problems exist, but Uzbekistan’s democracy is young and progressing steadily.

Some of this optimism was genuine – one suit-clad 22 year old mentioned the return of several Karakalpak Kazakh émigrés who couldn’t find jobs across the border, and also highlighted the opening of a new canning factory in Qazaqdarya, suggesting an industry that had been defunct for decades might now be struggling back to life. But for the most part these answers floated straight out of a bubble of elite contentment, mouthed by those who elected only to see the positives. With no free media in Karakalpakstan or Uzbekistan, ignorance and apathy is an easy choice for the rich. Mid-conversation the restaurant lights suddenly disappeared and without warning lasers fired out from all sides of the room. Everyone abandoned their meals wordlessly and hit the dance-floor for a surreal half hour of pulsing, heaving energy. Then the lights came back up, the Sinatra lookalike resumed his station, and each reveller returned to their seat as if nothing had happened. “Why are they complaining?” asked a panting Eldor, in response to my pre-dance question about critics of the government. “If they worked a bit harder they would move upwards.”

Now Eldor and I were speeding weightlessly across Karakalpakstan’s more northerly countryside on the way to pay a visit to one of these critics, his pasha-disco throbbing car a little balloon of modernity in this endlessly antiquated landscape. Our destination was one of the villages in the Qazaqdarya region, which bordered on to the old shores of the Aral Sea. The route took us across the dilapidated Amu Darya, where a bridge had fallen in. We joined the queue for a tiny floating pontoon, already laden with a jeep, a microbus and 25 chatty revellers on their way to a wedding; the men in dark suits, the women all kitted out in the bright red and gold of traditional Karakalpak marriage-wear. This river was once the legendary Oxus, a passage so vast and fearsome that it took Alexander the Great’s army five days to cross it. The pontoon, pulled along by a grizzled man clutching a rope, made the same trip in about ten minutes; today the river snakes through a channel half the size of the valley carved out for it.

Nazar was waiting for us in his village, which lay on the banks of a green canal in the middle of nowhere. It was a simple, graceful little place, full of reed and stick fences, grazing lambs and goats, and home-made barges floating softly back and forth across the water. It was also in the grip of gangsters, according to Nazar; he pointed some of them out to us as he led us to his family home. They were young, well-built men with caps drawn low over their faces, and were busy chatting to a couple of local government security agents who were known for extorting money from villagers. Later one of these agents drunkenly staggered by as I took a stroll through the fields, paying me no heed but bellowing into a mobile phone: “I’ll kill you mother-fucker, I’ll find you and kill you.” A girlfriend tottered along behind, giggling. Further on by the canal, an old man in a farmer’s cap stormed past. “Where are you, bitch?” he yelled, reeking of booze.

Nazar is 38 and works as a public schoolteacher. When we met he was already engaged in numerous battles with his superiors over the non-payment of wages; he theoretically earns $120 a month, on which it’s a challenge to support his wife and their four children, but the money often doesn’t come through at all. His latest bone of contention was the method by which teachers like him are paid. “They want to give us plastic cards and have us withdraw our salaries from ATMs,” he snorted as he laid out a plastic table cloth and served us bread and cheese. “How will that work? There’s only one ATM in the whole of Karakalpakstan, and it’s broken!” Nazar’s parents, both ethnic Karakalpaks, left long ago for Kazakhstan, and Nazar is worried his children will one day do the same. “I’ll never leave, I’m a patriot – those that abandon their motherland are just second-class citizens,” he said, his face suddenly brewing into a storm. He sighed, and his features mellowed: “But then again I can understand it. The kids in my school; their parents aren’t paid on time, if it all, and they can’t afford vitamins. I mean, we’ve had an ecological catastrophe here, the vegetables are bad and the water’s bad and people need vitamins. But the kids don’t get them. They get anaemia and kidney failure instead.”

For the past few years, Nazar has been quietly agitating at work for better rights for teachers; others at the school are usually aghast at his effrontery. I’m not surprised – Nazar was one of the very few people I ever met in Karakalpakstan who seemed willing to risk a degree of open hostility to the authorities. “They’re just dead, like robots,” he said of his colleagues. “People are too afraid to talk about politics.” His experiences in the classroom have convinced Nazar that Karakalpakstan must break free of Uzbekistan to develop and prosper, and he unfolded a huge map of Central Asia to draw a finger down the old borders of the republic, which reach as far as the towns of Zarafshon and Nurota in the east. “These places belong to us and have been stolen. Our country is Karakalpakstan and our enemy is Tashkent.” He spoke slowly and deliberately in Karakalpak, refusing to use Uzbek words and keeping his eyes locked on mine throughout. “I saw Ossetia rise up from nowhere and demand independence, now we must do the same. Many, many people here share these thoughts, yet nobody can say anything. But I’m saying something. I tell my pupils every day, ‘our time is coming’. I’m not scared because I’m speaking the truth. We’re fighting for our freedom.”

Professor Hanks believes it to be highly significant that anybody in Karakalpakstan is prepared to speak like this to foreigners, even under a veil of anonymity. “With the security structure in place there, for one active dissident to be able to express these sentiments you need a much wider passive group around him who sympathise with what he’s saying to the extent that they won’t inform on him to the police,” he argues. “It means people are losing their fear, and that’s remarkable.”

Perversely, the very poverty that could help motivate a rebellion against Uzbek rule is also a limiting factor against it; people are too interested in basic sustenance to consider clashing with their political masters. Nazar took us out to visit the grave of Alako’z, a 19th century Karakalpak tribal leader who united his people and defied the nearby Khan of Khiva (a town which lies within modern-day Uzbekistan) by establishing an independent khanate on the banks of the Amu Darya. He was eventually betrayed by some of his compatriots and retreated to a coastal fort on the Aral Sea, which held out against the besieging Uzbeks for three months before falling. Alako’z was buried where he was killed, and where the waves could lap at his grave. A hundred and fifty years later, the tomb is surrounded by 70 miles of dry earth. An elderly shepherd decked out in the flamboyantly striped gown of a traditional Uzbek peasant wandered over to us as we stood over the grave, and said that he too wanted to be buried under the old seabed. “One day maybe the sea will come back and wash over me,” he smiled.

His wish is unlikely to be realised. The sea will not return to these parts; in fact globally the trend is heading in the opposite direction, with regions as diverse as California, north-western India and the Nile Delta all facing the prospect of severe water shortages over the next half-century. In some places water tables are falling due to over-extraction; elsewhere upstream agricultural demands have caused domestic water deficits. The result is that one third of the arable land on the planet is being destroyed, and the problem is only set to deepen; currently the growth in the use of water stands at double that of world population growth. In the Middle East, water is cited by some analysts as the next trigger for geopolitical conflict; globally, the United Nations has identified 300 potential flashpoints over water insecurity. “Water,” claimed Mikhail Gorbachev, “like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people.” It is the competitive resource of our generation.

If Karakalpakstan is anything to go by, the insecurity unleashed by environmental catastrophes like the Aral Sea produce centrifugal reactions capable of recalibrating the identities and loyalties of entire populations. “Water security is the elephant in the room in Central Asia”, says Professor Hanks. Around Karakalpakstan the Aral Sea is only one of a series of environmental crises for which increasingly brazen solutions are being found; in nearby Turkmenistan the government has started work on a $20 billion ‘golden lake’ that scientists believe is completely unworkable. “All the countries know that water is a festering issue which at some point or another is going to come to a head, but as a region none of them have come together and formulated a unified policy,” adds Hanks. “Water has been used in the past as a political weapon, and it will be used so again.”


On my last day in Karakalpakstan I drove out to the shores of what’s left of the Aral Sea. My guide, Viktor, was from Moynaq, a once bustling port town that now resembles a ghost strip; empty tower blocks bordered by clouds of dust and rusting tractors, an unused stadium, a single child on a bicycle freewheeling in the dawn mist. Viktor, an ethnically Russian Karakalpak, lived in a disorientating time warp on what was formerly the Aral coastline; his garden was scattered with relics of a lost era – a bust of Lenin the size of a satellite dish, a stagnant swimming pool dreadlocked with vines and a rusting anchor, the tailfin of an aeroplane currently pressed into service as a weather vane. Behind a garage blaring loud Russian rock was a scrap-yard guarded by gnashing dogs and a corroding bathtub; a jumble of tank parts and armoured personnel carriers was just visible through the doorway. Nailed to the adjacent wall into was a 1988 calendar of topless Japanese girls, along with several dead birds of prey.

Viktor himself was age-lined and quiet; his gnarled hands clutched a ten-inch machete which he was employing to make some delicate alterations to the 4x4 which would carry us across the former seabed. “The government was just throwing all this stuff away after independence,” he said gruffly in response to my inquiring glances. “I thought I’d collect it.” We stole out of town as the sun began peeking up through the sand, and Viktor told me about his late father, a fisherman who wanted his son to follow in the family trade. By the time Viktor grew up there was no water left to fish in, so he became a pilot instead. He talked of this with no nostalgia; indeed the only time he looked mildly wistful is when he pointed across to the many gas and oil installations craning across the landscape before us. Mineral wealth has been discovered under the Aral’s old belly; where the sea has retreated, Russian and Chinese companies have advanced, drilling into the ground and piping its riches straight out of Karakalpakstan and towards Tashkent. “We should be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia,” I remembered Nazar telling me with clenched fists, back in Qazaqdarya. “The Uzbek government doesn’t give us a cent.”

As we approached the cliffs overlooking the Aral’s modern shoreline, the landscape changed; the machinery was far behind us now, leaving just dead wood which vaporised underfoot and crunchy soil that split into cakes around it. Then, suddenly, the sea itself appeared below, abutted by a hypnagogic moonscape of grey dunes and smashed rock. It looked like a half-filled basin, with the water –as baby-blue as ever – curving slenderly round the bowl. The wind was bitterly cold and there were no gulls, ice-cream trills or funfair jingles; in fact, there were no other humans or signs of life for what seemed like hundreds of miles. But the surf still lapped gently at the sand, a coy and crippled reminder of what once had been. In the distance I could almost make out the former island of Vozrozhdeniya, or ‘Resurrection’, the site of an abandoned Soviet bio-weapons facility. Down on the seashore itself specks of honeycomb foam tore off the waves in bunches before rolling and fluttering and chasing each other towards the cliffs. They looked like polystyrene balls tipped from packing box. Beneath them lay the strangest terrain I have ever stepped over; neither sand, mud nor salt-crystals, but some chemically-mutated mashup of all three. This was nature gone wrong.

On the way back we passed one of the Aral’s ship graveyards, a cemetery for old fishing boats unwittingly liberated from their ocean. Some contractors from Uzbekistan had been hauling the maritime corpses onto the back of trucks and were just finishing up for the day; the metal will eventually be sent to the Tashkent ironworks by rail. I asked one of the men what all this scrap would be used for, and he shrugged. “New ships, I guess, for a new Uzbekistan.” Behind us the world’s youngest desert stretched to the horizon. “The sea is coming back, you know,” he added. “It has to. If it doesn’t, there’ll be trouble.”


To protect anonymity, some names and details have been changed.