Scars run deep among the warring sides in Tajikistan: Despite the killings and atrocities in the civil war, there may be signs of hope. Hugh Pope reports from Dushanbe

THE WOMAN'S screams carried over the silent boulevards from the park, emptied hours before by an all-night curfew. Sounds of a struggle came from the darkened trees. The woman's cries petered out, followed a minute later by another wrenching scream. Then silence blanketed the empty streets once more.

Across the roadway in a big hotel, few heard her cries and nobody moved. An armoured patrol slunk down the boulevard. Soon afterwards, a gunman in the park let rip a whole magazine of tracer bullets over the hotel roof. Nobody wanted to risk finding out for themselves what happened.

The same feeling of helplessness could be seen on the face of a woman from the 'wrong area of Tajikistan' as she read a message in the paper to the new government from John Major, offering pounds 100,000 of humanitarian aid and giving vague advice to make peace with ethnic and political rivals. 'It's good he remembers us . . . But most of my friends have already left, some have been killed,' she said. 'I am just hanging on in the hope that somehow things are now going to get better.'

Nobody knows how many people have been murdered in the two months since Tajikistan's new government established itself in the capital, Dushanbe. Nobody knows who the killers are, only that motives range from vengeance against the last regional group in power to armed robbery.

The government now controls the most economically important parts of the country, often with the support of clansmen from the southern Kuliab region near the Afghan border.

'The government's biggest problem is the gunmen are not listening to their leaders . . . They have become criminals or just want revenge,' said an officer with the Russian garrison, determined to help end the bloodiest clashes in the former Soviet Union.

At least 20,000 people are thought to have died in 10 months of civil war - there is no official estimate - and foreign aid workers say there have been atrocities on both sides. Male rape of hostages has been reported, as has the use of civilians as human shields and the cutting off of ears, noses and sexual organs.

Almost everyone connected with last autumn's 10 weeks' rule by an Islamic-democrat alliance has fled the capital, often heading east to their clan region in central Garm and the Ismaili Shia Pamir mountain province of Badakhshan. Fighting continues there, despite occasional talks between the two sides.

Perhaps one in ten of Tajikistans' 5 million people have been displaced and 53,000 have fled to Afghanistan. Aid workers say few will dare to return as long as the Kalashnikovs remain mightier than the policemen's batons.

Despite the frequent sound of gunfire during the capital's curfew-bound nights, some people are beginning to see a break in the clouds. Diplomats say violence is declining as the situation 'normalises'. Smoke is again rising from factory chimneys in areas where the fighting has ended, some flights have resumed and southern farms appear to be repairing war damage.

'There is a sense of purpose, there is progress. I am convinced they are trying to redress the situation, trying politically and economically to correct the country,' said Pierre-Francois Pirlot, representing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Dushanbe.

Russia, neighbouring conservative states, Turkey and the US, among others, are trying to help Tajikistan's new acting president, Imamali Rakhmanov, a former collective farm manager from Kuliab. They hope his old-guard style of government can stitch the country back together and keep what they call Islamic fundamentalism out of central Asia.

The new Foreign Minister, Rashid Alimov, vowed that Tajikistan would seize its best chance in 10 months to make a fresh start towards a multi-ethnic, pluralist democracy. But, as he noted, the violence is by no means over yet. 'You have to understand,' he said. 'Please just give us some time out.'