Tajiks have a tradition of biting a piece of bread before starting a long journey, claiming the carefully saved remaining loaf will bring the traveller back home quicker. Leaving his family to join the army seven years ago, Bisabokhat Makhmudova's son Abdurashid jokingly took two bites of bread in a bid to return sooner. Recruited during the last days of Tajikistan's five year civil war, there has been no word from him since. Bisabokhat has searched the whole country, though the soldier's father could not stand the grief and passed away.
"I have been everywhere," she told IRIN in the northern Tajik city of Khujand, mentioning all the areas, including Tavildara, Sagirdasht and Djirgatal, where military operations between government forces and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) took place. But seven years after the end of the war, hundreds of families whose sons have yet to return from battle are still seeking closure.
Bisabokhat is one of 75 mothers from the northern Soghd (former Leninabad) province, who united their efforts to track down their missing sons. They collect every bit of information, helping each other in their quest for the truth.
During the bloody civil war of 1992 to 1997, which claimed 100,000 lives, government forces fought units of the UTO operating from Afghanistan and Tajikistan's mountainous east. To do so, the poorly armed and badly organised government forces replenished their units with recruits from those areas of the country which they controlled - from northern Soghd and southern Khatlon provinces, and from Dushanbe and nearby districts.
But few in Soghd province supported the war, and most were against recruiting young people into the army. However, the documents filed in one of the sections of the provincial military registration and enlistment office, which lists all the 75 missing soldiers as well as the disappearance notifications, can still be found, as parents refuse to withdraw them until the truth is known.
Colonel Safar Jamolov, head of the 4th section of the provincial military registration and enlistment office, said: "How can we prove that their sons are not going to come back? An official governmental decree is needed for that, otherwise parents will never be at rest. There are no wars without losses and personally I consider these boys killed."
"It is easy [for them] to say 'they are killed'. They deprive the parents of their last hope," one of the 75 mothers, who didn't want to be identified, explained.
And in this part of the country, nearly all the families of the missing boys are in need since they have lost their breadwinners. Some families lost their only son or the only child, a devastating blow in this impoverished and traditional society.
And while parents of the boys are granted the same monthly payment - some US $3.5 - by the government for their loss, many reject it outright, feeling that by doing so they have conceded that their sons are in fact gone.
The province's state administration has also granted the mothers special identity cards, allowing them free access to visit various state officials and use public transportation free of charge. "We were tempted by these identity cards like little children are tempted by sweets. Nevertheless, organisations are not always open for us," Makhmudova complained.
But the story of Gavkhar Olimova has proved that sometimes soldiers lost in the chaos of war can indeed be found. "My son Alisher left for the army in 1994 and disappeared completely without trace. He was reportedly killed before he finished his term in the army," she said.
Gavkhar was in mourning for her son for six years and raised her grandson on her own after her daughter-in-law abandoned him. But then in 2001 she saw her son on a Russian TV station. He appeared to have been in captivity in Afghanistan. "I was so happy," she exclaimed.
Now Olimova is trying to find her son through various channels, including the Red Cross and other international organisations as she lacks the money to go to Afghanistan to search for him.
Many soldiers like Alisher were taken onto Afghan territory during cruel battles mostly at the end of the war, when the opposition forces pressed the regular army on all the fronts. Some soldiers of the government went over to the other side, while others were captured and sent to opposition camps in Afghanistan.
Safar, a former UTO guerrilla, said they often exchanged soldiers for ransoms. "We used to send strong and healthy prisoners to our training camps in Afghanistan and persuaded them to fight on our side," he explained.
After the signing of the truce in 1997, the sides exchanged prisoners of war, but some soldiers of the government forces "got lost" inside Afghan territory. The opposition camps had been disbanded, and those Tajik soldiers who remained in Afghanistan were now either prisoners of local armed groups or fought for Afghan mujahidin.
Mamlakat Yusupova, another mother seeking for her missing son, accidentally found out from her son's co-fighters that he was alive in Afghanistan, where guerrillas of the UTO took him by force. Recently she received a letter from him via the Tashkent office of the Red Cross, which said that he was in a prison in the Afghan capital Kabul.
"If the government helps me to obtain a passport, I am ready to go to Afghanistan and deliver my son from imprisonment on my own," she told IRIN.
And in another instance, fortune smiled upon the parents of enlisted soldier Juma Azamhojaev. In 1994, a coffin was brought to the centre of Kanibadam district in Soghd province with the supposed remains of Juma. His parents were told that their son had been killed during military operations in the southeast. The coffin, not being opened, was buried, but Juma's father refused to accept that he had died.
In 2000, after long searches, he managed to find his son on the outskirts of the southwestern town of Kurgan-Tyube, and bring him home. During the civil war, Juma was badly injured and lost his memory. While the government granted him a disability pension - $2 a month - barely enough to buy bread, his parents don't have the money for his medical treatment. At the same time, they demand that the authorities exhume the remains of the soldier who was mistakenly buried as their son, something officials are reluctant to do.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this.