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Over the past several years I have been conducting research with Cambridge university essay competition 2013 traders of Afghan background. Between July and September I was able to pursue this research Cambridge university essay competition 2013 a year long-period of intensive ethnographic fieldwork.
Photo by Sergeant Steve Blake RLC After the collapse of the Najibullah regime inAfghans who had worked and studied in the Soviet Union during the preceding decades quickly spotted the business opportunities available to them in the wake of the collapse of the command economy. The rise to power of a divided array of mujahidin groups in Kabul also made life in Afghanistan dangerous, especially for individuals and their families who were associated with the pro-Soviet regime.
As a result, many officials from that era left Afghanistan and established themselves as commodity traders dealing in a wide range of good across the former Soviet Union. In Tajikistan for example Afghans dealt in the wholesale of Iranian and Pakistani foodstuffs and Turkish cosmetics.
Today, Afghan trading communities are to be found across the whole region in capital cities and economic centres such as Kiev, Moscow, St Petersburg, and Dushanbe, as well as in smaller commercial centres like the Black Sea port of Odessa, the southern Russian cities of Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, and Stavropol, and the historic Central Asian trade node, Khujand.
During my most recent visit to Ukraine in April I even met traders who had moved their commercial operations from Odessa to the Crimean city of Simferopol, now under Russian administration. Importantly, these communities are no longer made-up only of one-time Soviet era official-exiles.
Communities of Afghan traders continue to be replenished by new migrants and merchants fleeing war in Afghanistan, and looking for locales in which to invest the capital they have earned over the past decade of foreign intervention.
It is usual for example to encounter the recently-arrived cousins of Afghan residents who have been resident in Russia. Such individuals and their families say they have chosen to move out of Afghanistan in recent years because of growing levels of insecurity.
Additionally, I have met several men in Russia and Ukraine who earned money working alongside ISAF forces in Afghanistan and then left the country with a portion of the money they had earned with the hope of establishing a profitable trading venture.
Not all recent Afghan migrants in the former Soviet Union come directly from Afghanistan. I have also met Afghans who now work in settings across the former Soviet Union who have travelled there from the Americas and Europe, including Canada, Holland, and the United Kingdom.
They say that the former Soviet Union furnishes the possibility of earning a living through trade, and also of passing a well-lived life.
It is tempting to think of such merchants as being war profiteers, or, alternatively, of trade as being a form of economic activity that acts as a survival strategy for refugees and migrants at times of economic and political insecurity.
Yet I have been struck during my fieldwork by the extent to which my informants attach positive moral value to their way of earning a living.
The traders, like those across space and time, live far more complex and precarious lives than such representations suggest. Photo by Peter Krantz Afghan traders across the settings to which I have travelled also say that their work is being harmed both by the growing influence of multi-national companies and of national monopolies, cartels and mafias.
Afghans in Tajikistan, for instance, were once major actors in the export of asafoetida from the country — today this lucrative trade has been placed in the hands of state monopoly.
Such difficulties are leading many of my informants to question how far they will be able to continue to earn an independent living as commodity trades: Inthe year the foreign military intervention in Afghanistan officials draws to an end, few, however, talk of return to Afghanistan as being either a safe or economically viable option.
During the years over which I have conducted research on Afghan trading networks, both the traders themselves and the communities amongst whom they live have experienced ongoing political and economic upheaval.
My initial fieldwork in Central Asia between and took place at a period of time during which many Tajikistan-based Afghans were optimistic about the future prospects for Afghanistan; indeed, Tajikistan-based Afghan traders often spoke about Afghanistan as a base to raise capital, frequently travelling to the country for example both to visit their families and to gather funds earned through renting their properties.
This contrasted markedly with my experiences during three months of fieldwork in Tajikistan between October and January The changing conditions in Afghanistan had important implications for the activities of traders in Tajikistan: The financial crisis of had significant ramifications for many if not all of the traders introduced across its pages: Likewise, several of the shopkeepers I came to know in London found it impossible to maintain their own businesses in the years followingand thus turned to other forms of work instead, especially taxi driving.
Even more recently, the ongoing political unrest and upheaval in Ukraine anti-government protests started in Kiev in November and the concurrent decline in the value of the Hryvnia has placed even greater pressures on Afghan importers of Chinese goods.
Color There are a range of issues — both ethical and analytic — that inevitably come with blurring the boundary between refugee and trader in the manner that I am suggesting here.
It also better represents the range of forces important in understanding their mobile life trajectories. In his study of historic Armenian merchant networks Aslanian holds for example that in the case of that network it is impossible to disentangle commercial motives for mobility from the experience of being uprooted or displaced.
But at the same time commercial motives are an important element of the explanations that these men themselves give for having travelled to the shurawi-i sabiq.
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