For Jews in Tajikistan, the end of history is looming

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Michael Bar, first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Tashkent, the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan, does not relish periodic visits here.

In Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, he stays at the Hotel October, formerly reserved for top Communist Party officials.

Presumably it was once worthy of the officials, but the hotel, like much of Tajikistan, has since fallen on hard times.

"The food, if you can call it that, is terrible. And there's no hot water," he says. "But it's my job."

His job is to stamp Israeli visas for the remaining Jews in Tajikistan, the poorest and most remote of the ex-Soviet republics.

Torn by civil war since 1992, the country is witnessing the departure of many of its remaining Jews.

The room reserved for Bar's visits here is on the first floor, down the hall from rooms occupied by members of the Islamic fundamentalist opposition to the Tajik government. They have been living in the hotel since last year, conducting peace talks with the government of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov, an ex-Communist supported by Moscow.

The hotel houses the U.S. Embassy on the fourth floor, the Russian Embassy on the third and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on the second.

One finds it hard to say who among the gun-toting, fatigue-clad men lounging in the hotel lobby is working for whom.

"Security is a problem here, so we don't stay for more than a few days," says Bar, 26.

Things are quieter these days than they were in 1992-1993, when the civil war was at its height.

For more than a year, a fragile cease-fire has held. But neat rows of bullet holes remain in the hotel's facade, a reminder of the war in which 50,000 to 100,000 people died, according to a Tajik foreign ministry official.

The casualties rival those of Moscow's war in Chechnya, but little is known in the West about the Tajik civil war because the Moscow-based foreign press corps did not cover it.

When the war broke out in February 1992, the Jewish Agency mounted an airlift that brought thousands of Jews to Israel. But several thousand stayed behind, according to Bar.

Somehow, word of his visits always gets around.

During one recent visit, some 100 people were gathered by 9 a.m. in the lobby, mingling with the armed guards, awaiting Bar's arrival from the airport.

"My mother was ill, so I couldn't leave when the war started," one local Jew, Avram Ibraghimov, 28, said in explaining why he stayed.

"Now she is dead, so my wife and I are going," he added. "I hope someday I can come back and bring my mother's body to Israel."

Some in the lobby also spoke of sick relatives — or uncertainty about going to a new place — as their reason for remaining here; others said they stayed because they were hopeful that things would get better in Tajikistan.

But conditions here have not improved, despite the cease-fire.

The economy has collapsed. Wages, averaging $20 per month, are lower here than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Not that there is much to buy. Food deliveries from the countryside are erratic.

There is also little heat or hot water because Uzbekistan cuts the supply of natural gas that runs the turbines when Tajikistan falls behind on payments, which is often.

A curfew no longer exists, but the streets are deserted by dusk. People are used to staying home.

There is no nightlife, because the cinemas, theaters and restaurants are closed.

The government's armored car patrols begin at about 10 p.m. Gunfire after dusk is not uncommon. Last September, two Russian officers who were part of a peacekeeping force were shot to death while walking home on a Dushanbe street.

Before the war, some 8,000 Jews lived in Tajikistan, mostly Farsi-speaking Bukharan Jews, with a minority of Ashkenazis who came as engineers or other specialists after World War II.

The Farsi-speaking Jews can trace their history here — as well as in the great ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan — back 2,000 years.

That history is ending.

"We never had any problems with the Tajiks until now," said Ibraghimov, a refrigerator serviceman. "The Soviet Union fell apart, and these fundamentalists came out of nowhere."

Eleanora Sidorova, an Ashkenazi Jew in her early 30s whose retired father was a senior Communist Party official in Dushanbe, could have remained in Moscow after attending university there.

"But I came home after graduation because my parents and all my friends were here. This was a beautiful place to live before all this," she said.

But she will remain, caring for her elderly parents.

"This,"she says, " is our home."