Change attitudes: police-community meetings in Isfara, Tajikistan

Communities in the Isfara district of Tajikistan, bordering Kyrgyzstan, are gaining confidence to raise sensitive issues at police-community meetings, following work by Saferworld and local partner the Association of Scientific and Technical Intelligentsia of Tajikistan (ASTI) to improve relations and build trust.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were left with undetermined borders, a fact which continues to cause tension and provide potential for violence between communities. Kyrgyz and Tajik households are located side-by-side in what is described locally as a 'checkerboard' pattern, but are often drawn into conflicts over access to resources, such as irrigation, drinking water, pastures, and forests located in disputed areas. Meanwhile, government policy has been primarily aimed at developing urban areas rather than rural cross-border regions, and the limited financial resources of the municipalities has created distrust of government structures, including local police responsible for ensuring public security. Communities along the border feel vulnerable and insecure because of the potential for disputes and perceived threats from the other side of the border, and feel unprotected and unsure of the security provision they can rely on.

To try and address this problem, a presidential initiative was introduced, providing for quarterly police 'reporting days'. These were to be police-community meetings aimed at developing police-community collaboration and increasing the role of local police in providing community security. However, despite this initiative, community-police meetings did not actually start happening in the cross-border communities – police officers were not comfortable in holding and organising the meetings, and residents were distrustful of the police and not interested in attending, believing that police officers would not address their concerns anyway.

As part of its community security project in Central Asia, Saferworld and its local partner ASTI worked on building relations between the police and communities, and were able to increase both police confidence and communities' interest and trust to make these meetings a success. ASTI has worked closely with lsfara district police to arrange a series of local and regional police reporting days in the communities of Khoja Alo and Somonien in the cross-border area – contacting local government officials and mobilising the community. ASTI invited heads of regional law enforcement agency departments to participate in the meetings, facilitated meetings, and shared meeting notes with local government and police.

At the meetings police answered questions from community members, informed them about the general security situation, reported the results and achievements of their work, shared their contact information, and introduced new police staff members. Communities also received information about new laws and legal procedures (like border crossing and foreign land pasture usage).

Over time both police and communities have seen the value of these meetings. Communities have gained confidence to ask about more sensitive issues, such as violence between Kyrgyz and Tajik youth, conflict between local community members and border guards, and domestic violence. With time, the police have also gained more experience on presentation and communication skills and have started holding the meetings regularly on their own.

For example, during the harvest season last year they decided to organise the quarterly community-police meeting in a field. This may seem a strange place, but the police realised that it would be difficult for local people to leave their work and travel to administrative buildings to participate in these meetings, and so proposed this unusual location to ensure these important meetings went ahead. This demonstrated a significant shift in behaviour – having worked with Saferworld and ASTI to improve the quality of these quarterly meetings, and build trust with local communities, the police were keen to ensure the meeting went ahead.

"Undoubtedly, Saferworld's programming helped to establish initial contacts between communities and police representatives in the cross-border regions." ASTI project coordinator, Tajikistan

The majority of community members attending reporting days said that these kinds of meetings were very important for their communities, because they helped to fill in communication gaps between communities and police, and dispelled existing rumours. Saferworld has now expanded the project to five new border communities and has developed a handbook for the police to help them organise successful, community-focused meetings.

"In case of future conflict situation or tension we will contact local police immediately, instead of engaging directly with incident actors." - Community member, Khoja Alo

Find out more about Saferworld's work in Tajikistan.

Header image: Karen Wykurz