For two Russian allies in a region characterized by land disputes due largely to an nondemarcated border, the risk of a bloody new normal emerging at the border seems higher than ever.

In the early morning hours of September 16, Elzada Mannanova, a 15-year-old Kyrgyz citizen, was killed amid shelling by Tajik forces as she fled from her home village of Dostuk.

Her father, Malik Mannanov, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that he buried his daughter in the village of Margun in haste.

“Everyone was running from the projectiles,” recalled Mannanov, one of the some 140,000 Kyrgyz forced during the hostilities from villages in the southwestern region of Batken, some of whom used a corridor opened by neighboring Uzbekistan.

It was a tragic story heard far too often on both sides of the border as civilians suffered dozens of casualties and damage to their property.

Later that day, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov met his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.

The agreement that the pair reached there to halt the fighting broke down almost instantly.

By the evening, it was becoming clear that the violence that engulfed their contested border was even worse than the unprecedented conflict in April last year, when 55 people died.

After the latest fighting slowed and seemed to cease by September 18, official tolls are almost twice as high as following that conflict. Kyrgyzstan has announced a death toll of 59 with more than 150 injured. Tajikistan said at least 41 people were killed and dozens injured.

For two Russian allies in a region characterized by land disputes due largely to an nondemarcated border, the risk of a bloody new normal emerging at the border seems higher than ever.

‘Border Clash’ An ‘Irrelevant Term’

Nearly half of the 970-kilometer frontier between two of the poorest former Soviet states is still not delineated.

Border issues in Central Asia stem to a large extent from the Soviet era, when Moscow tried to divide the region between ethnic groups whose settlements were often located amid those of other ethnicities.

Below is a map of the clashes in 2021, in the same area as last week’s eruption of even deadlier violence:

For the last decade or more, violent scraps between ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik communities in the area close to Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave have become common, with interventions by gun-wielding border troops a notable trend in the last few years.

Water, as well as land, is at stake. At a briefing for diplomatic missions and press on September 19, Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Sodiq Imomi implored international organizations and foreign donors not to engage in water-management programs with Kyrgyzstan without Tajikistan’s permission.

Vorukh, he insisted — indicating on maps beamed onto two large monitors — was not an exclave (a territory surrounded by foreign territory).

He claimed, instead, that the territory surrounding Vorukh was occupied by Kyrgyz residents during Soviet times and in the early years of independence. “In no case should we make the Kyrgyz an enemy in our society. This is completely unacceptable. But our opponent is doing the opposite,” Imomi complained.

Last year’s war significantly expanded the zone of potential conflict beyond that area and ensured that future shoot-outs would be shadowed by the threat of much heavier fire.

The deadliest fighting between the two armies began on September 14, and blame for initiating it was soon traded, as were accusations of heavy military equipment being used to target homes and civilian infrastructure and of incursions into sovereign territory.

The last of those accusations is the most explosive, highlighting that the conflict is no longer about tracts of land that both acknowledge as contested.

In a tweet early on September 19, Kyrgyzstan’s diplomatic mission to the European Union asked international partners “to refrain from using the irrelevant term #borderclash” and accused Tajik authorities of seizing seven of its settlements over the course of the conflict.

Video footage of a Tajik flag being raised over a Kyrgyz school — Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security said Tajik forces had captured a school in the Mannanov family’s village of Dostuk — offered support for that claim.

So did footage of armed men speaking in Tajik and referring to their situation inside a village with a Kyrgyz name.

Authorities in the Batken region said on September 17 that all those settlements had returned to Kyrgyz control. Residents of the province’s capital, Batken, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that the city and airport were hit by shelling the day before — another first.

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