DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — Khalida Mansurova, a petite college secretary, had to step over the fresh corpses in her entryway recently to get out to buy bread.
When Islamic fighters took over the presidential palace here in September, they blindfolded economic adviser Mirsaid Saidov and threatened to teach him "how to fish"--meaning they would not shoot him as they had his colleagues but simply tie him up and throw him into the river.
Russian border guard Valery Romantsov could only look on in wonder as panicked families, fleeing into Afghanistan, trampled down the frontier fence he was supposed to protect. He knew they were only trying to escape the slaughter in their home villages.
"It's just a madhouse here," he said.
With anarchy sweeping the land and thousands dead, the economy in total collapse and half a million refugees on the loose, Tajikistan is living out the dire predictions that Dark Ages would succeed the Soviet regime in much of the former empire.
More have died in this country's eight months of civil war than in all the other current conflicts on former Soviet territory combined.
Imomali Rakhmonov, the Central Asian nation's new leader, has put the death toll at between 20,000 and 40,000. The government estimates that the fighting has wrought $500 million worth of damage to an economy that was already the poorest in the former Soviet Union.
The International Red Cross, the only Western aid group with a resident mission in the remote, mountainous republic bordering China and Afghanistan, believes that many of Tajikistan's 500,000 refugees are now in danger from exposure and hunger.
The turmoil has brought not only chaos but also hideous cruelty. Tales abound of atrocities on both sides, and fighters supporting the current government show films of the remains of people who had been forced to drink gasoline and then were set on fire.
Russian media have reported widespread torture, with practices ranging from scraping off a victim's skin to drilling a hole in his head and slowly extracting his brains.
Since the current pro-Communist government retook Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, from an opposition composed of Islamic fundamentalists, secular democrats and southern clans in early December, hundreds of revenge killings have been reported as triumphant government fighters carry out what they call "cleanup" operations.
Saidsho Davlatov, the camouflage-clad commander of 600 fighters in the pro-government Tajik People's Front, said ominously that his men "are now looking for the guilty ones, those who took up arms. And we're going to purge them."
Beyond the suffering it has brought the country's 5 million citizens, Tajikistan's conflict poses a regional menace, its violence threatening to spill over into nearby Central Asian nations that have similar ethnic and political makeups.
It has also turned the former Soviet border with Afghanistan--once a solidly defended system of fences--into a mass of holes. Seasoned Afghan resistance fighters, who mainly support the Islamic opposition, send a stream of arms across the frontier, receiving Tajik cars, carpets and jewelry--and reportedly sometimes women and children--in exchange.
Throughout the fall and into late December, tens of thousands of Tajik refugees knocked down barriers there and crossed illegally into Afghanistan.
The weakened border so worried members of the Commonwealth of Independent States that they pledged at their Jan. 22 summit to send at least four battalions to support the overwhelmed Russian guards there.
On Friday, the Tajik government declared a state of emergency along the Afghan border, banning virtually all political activity, the Itar-Tass news agency reported, adding that the decree was imposed to restore order and end smuggling and other border violations.
Russia, worried about the 300,000 Slavs living in Tajikistan and the prospect of a broader war on its southern flank, has been trying to help maintain order in Tajikistan by leaving in place its stringently neutral border guards and an infantry division.
But aside from holding on to the border zone, picking up corpses and trying to protect their own bases and families, there is little the soldiers can do.
In Dushanbe, a formal state of emergency has reigned since Jan. 8. Young men who favor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme action movies stroll the streets with the special strut that a Kalashnikov over the shoulder imparts. Civilians stand in line for bread in daytime and do not dare venture outside after dark descends at 5 o'clock.
Only the tree-lined streets and brightly striped robes on some men hint at the leisurely charm of prewar Dushanbe, a city of long interludes in teahouses and giant welcoming kettles of plov, the national rice dish coated in heavy grease.