Forces from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan committed apparent war crimes in attacks on civilians during their brief but intense armed border conflict in September 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a report released on May 2.

The 69-page report, “‘When We Moved, They Shot’: Laws of War Violations in the September 2022 Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan Border Conflict,” which is the most detailed human rights account to date of the 4 days of fighting in 2022, from September 14 to 17, in particular, notes that Kyrgyz forces shot at ambulances and cars carrying civilians and, in 1 incident, killed at least 10 civilians in a laser-guided bomb attack on a town square.  Tajik forces shot at cars carrying civilians, unlawfully killed at least eight civilians in various circumstances, and allowed the large-scale looting and burning of private property in Kyrgyz villages.

Human Rights Watch reportedly also submitted a series of questions to the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in December 2022 and March 2023. The government of Kyrgyzstan replied with information about attacks against its citizens but gave no information on attacks involving its own forces. The Tajik government did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s letters.

In total, Human Rights Watch documented the death of 37 civilians, including 5 children, and injuries to 36 others on both sides. Media reports and official victim lists indicate that the total number may reach 51 civilians killed and 121 injured. An estimated 130,000 people were reportedly displaced in Kyrgyzstan alone, and as of January 2023, at least 4,000 had yet to return to their homes.

According to the report, in September 2022, the countries deployed their forces who fought with artillery, tanks, and other armored vehicles, and on Kyrgyzstan’s side, armed drones.  Since September, the governments have engaged in renewed talks to delineate disputed areas of the border but have yet to reach an agreement.

Most violations reportedly occurred on the third day of the armed conflict, September 16.  In one of the deadliest incidents, Kyrgyz forces dropped a laser-guided bomb with blast fragmentation effects on the central square in Ovchi Qal’acha, a Tajik border town, killing at least 10 people, mostly men who had gathered outside a mosque after a funeral.  At least 13 other civilians were wounded in this disproportionate and apparently indiscriminate attack.

On several roads along the border, Tajik forces that day reportedly attacked cars carrying fleeing Kyrgyz civilians, killing two civilian men, and injuring at least four other people. 

Earlier that day, two Tajik ambulances, clearly marked as such, and a civilian car came under heavy gunfire on a bridge near the border in Chorbogh (Tajikistan), killing 10 civilians.  Ambulances used for medical transport receive particular protection under international humanitarian law.

As the day progressed, Tajik forces overran Kyrgyz forces, killing at least six civilian men, according to the report.  

International humanitarian law, which applies to all parties to an international armed conflict, requires parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times. It prohibits attacks that target civilians or attacks that are indiscriminate or expected to cause harm to civilians and civilian objects that are disproportionate to the direct and concrete military advantage anticipated.  Warring parties must take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm.

The report says the governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan should investigate potential violations or abuses by their forces and civilians in the areas they controlled and hold those responsible to account. The two governments should ensure that any border demarcation agreements and interim border arrangements respect the rights of local populations, including property rights, and access to education, adequate housing, and water.  

It is to be noted that many border areas in Central Asia have been disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The situation is particularly complicated near the numerous exclaves in the Fergana Valley, where the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet.

The border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has been the scene of unrest repeatedly since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.  The September 14-17, 2022 violence marked the worst hostilities between the two countries, which have had more than 140 border-related conflicts in the past decade.