Two Dead in Dushanbe

I had planned to tell you about my day hiking in the mountains outside Dushanbe. Or, perhaps, providing some wrap-up to my week as I pack to head home. Maybe, even, a series of photos to show some of the other images I’ve captured over the last week. But those will have to wait. A few minutes ago I came upon a scene so tragic and senseless that I decided I had to write about it.

As I and my fellow hikers returned in our taxi van to Dushanbe, we approached a sight familiar to many drivers: a traffic jam. It quickly became clear that this traffic jam was the result of an accident — certainly no great surprise here in Dushanbe. But as we passed the scene, we saw it was no ordinary accident. A bicycle lay in pieces, scattered across the road. Two pairs of small flip-flops rested just beyond an enormous puddle of blood pooled on a crosswalk.

Police and bystanders stood around, making minimal efforts to contain the scene or direct traffic.

Although I don’t know the specifics of the accident, the gist was clear: two boys riding a bike were crossing the street when a vehicle struck — and almost certainly killed — them. It’s the sort of scene that generally prompts one to reflect on the fleeting nature of life and the need to put things into perspective. Well, in me, anyway. Our driver, once clear of the accident, resumed his reckless ways, crossing into oncoming traffic to steer around a slower-moving vehicle, honking and pedestrians who dared cross the street in front of him. I was dumbfounded.

But, I shouldn’t have been. If there’s one thing that’s stood out on this trip, it’s that there appears to be little or no regard for others or for life in general. Perhaps that’s understandable, given the poor conditions — economic and otherwise. But it’s still shocking. And the way this manifests itself in driving is downright frightening.

For example, drivers will go as fast as their cars will allow, even on rotten city streets. I’ve seen vehicles speeding along at nearly 80 miles an hour on a crowded road.

Meanwhile, pedestrians prefer to walk on the street itself, rather than on sidewalks. They take over entire lanes and encroach on speeding traffic. Small children are left to wander on their own.

Drivers will honk at other vehicles/pedestrians for any/all of the following:

  • Stopping
  • Going to slow
  • Going to fast
  • Passing
  • Being passed
  • Waiting at a red light
  • Letting someone out of the car
  • Letting someone into the car
  • Pulling over
  • Turning
  • Avoiding an accident
  • Causing an accident
  • Existing

And if that isn’t bad enough, here are some other truths about driving in Dushanbe:

  • Lane lines (including the center dividing line) are meaningless.
  • Wherever possible, drive into oncoming traffic, just to teach others a lesson.
  • Pass people/cars/obstructions with as little margin for error as possible.
  • Don’t show any patience for anything.
Not only is it reckless, it’s antisocial. It suggests that people have no sense of common interest or common good. It suggests that others’ lives have no meaning, no value.

Even on the hike, I saw this sort of behavior. Two boys — couldn’t have been older than 9 or 10 — were escorting three donkeys loaded with wood from the mountainside. The boys were clearly poor and the loads of firewood, each of which might be able to be sold for $2 or $3 dollars, would sustain their family for several days. What shocked me, though, was their treatment of the donkeys. They continually whipped their backsides with long, thin sticks to prompt them forward. But they seemed to do it less out of need than out of cruelty. Or perhaps it was their way of working out their anger at the world. I don’t know. And maybe I’m inappropriately casting their behaviors in a rich, Western perspective. Regardless, it struck me that such behavior was consistent with a casual disregard of any/all life.

During the hike itself, I was stunned by the amount of trash people left on the trails and in the otherwise pristine streams. Plastic, paper, cans, bottles. Is it that only rich countries can afford to take care of the environment? Is that a luxury? Or is it symptomatic of a culture that devalues life itself? Not surprisingly, there was no wildlife to be found on the hike — not even birds or fish.

It’s sad, and it doesn’t have to be. I suspect there is a cycle here — an life that is harsh and cruel and difficult makes for a harsh, cruel and difficult people, which negatively impacts all facets of life. How can such a cycle be broken? Or does such a question simply belie my own first world bias and lack of understanding?

Obviously, I don’t have the answer. But I hope the people of Dushanbe find a way to show more respect for each other. Those two boys on the bicycle deserved better.

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