Hunger, unheated barracks, beatings and regular outbreaks of disease: it could be life in a penal colony. But in this case, it describes the existence of a fresh military conscript in Tajikistan.
The brutal conditions are the reason many young Tajik men go to great lengths to evade their country’s biannual military drafts. “Many draftees emigrate, while those that have the means enter university because students are exempt until the end of their studies,” said Khursheda Rahimova, a lawyer for Amparo, a legal-support non-governmental organization based in Khujand that monitors the draft.
Consistent shortages of draftees willing to serve prompt some recruitment officers in Tajikistan to resort to impressment, or the quasi-legal kidnapping of military-age men. It is a practice with a long historical tradition. Most famously, Britain relied on impressment during the 18th and early 19th centuries to fill out the crews of naval vessels. It was a major cause of the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States.
In Tajikistan, the practice is known as “oblava” and it involves military press gangs making sweeps of city streets, bazaars and bus stations, rounding up young men who meet the desired criteria. According to a survey conducted by Amparo, around a quarter of all drafted men in 2011 were subjected to impressment tactics.
“I received notification of my call up several times. I ignored it. Then early one morning a team of recruitment officers turned up at my house and threw me into the back of a van. Had I known better I would have left the country like most of my friends did,” said Nasrallah Saidov, a taxi driver in Khujand who recently completed his service.
The reasons for staying out of the military are abundant. Conditions are rudimentary at many facilities, especially in the more isolated rural areas of the country, where conscripts face the prospect of cold buildings and erratic supplies of food. Pay is also an issue, with conscripts complaining they often earn less than $2 a month.
“We were fed very little. My uniform didn’t keep me warm in the winter months. There were 120 of us sleeping in cramped conditions in an unheated dorm. I couldn’t sleep at night from all the [other conscripts] coughing,” said Saidov.
Last summer, several incidents in Sughd Province highlighted the problem of corruption and malnutrition in the armed forces. According to press reports, a unit of border guards had been helping local farmers harvest in return for food. Somehow the agreement broke down and the farmers complained the hungry border guards simply took 50 percent of his crop.
On top of the material hardships endured by the conscripts, the Soviet-era practice of dedovshchina, or ritualized hazing, remains prevalent in the Tajik military. Dedovshchina involves senior soldiers subjecting fresh recruits to physical and psychological bullying. As the new recruits gain seniority, they themselves take on the role of the victimizer, creating a cycle of implication and shame that ensures the perpetuation of the practice.
“Dedovshchina in the army is, of course, a problem. It is one of the main reasons why young people do not want to serve in the armed forces,” said Rahimova, the Amparo lawyer.
Labor migration would appear, on the surface, to be a significant factor in the shortfall of draftees. Hundreds of thousands of Tajiks go abroad each year in search of work. The Ministry of Defense, however, claims that from an available pool of 600,000 18-27-year olds, only 100,000 are working abroad. A further 150,000 have temporary deferments. This leaves 350,000 men to fill 16,000 slots every year. Nevertheless, the armed forces still reportedly struggle to fill their quotas.
A lack of fairness in the system helps explain the problem. The children of the elite easily evade service. “I went to university, took classes in the Military Department. I didn’t serve in barracks. … In the event of a general mobilization, I’ll be a lieutenant,” a young manager at a state economic institution in Sughd, told EurasiaNet.org.
Others are reportedly able to buy their way out of service. One researcher in Dushanbe estimates the bribes prospective conscripts pay to Defense Ministry officials to evade service add up to millions of dollars per year. “Temporary deferments” are rarely free, the researcher said.
Those that are left to serve are mostly from rural villages, kids who come from the country’s poorest and most vulnerable families. “During the Soviet period it was an honor to serve. You could only find a good bride if you had. Now you can only find a good bride if you haven’t,” the young manager added.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the hardships, military suicides feature regularly in the Tajik press. In May 2011, Khurshedjon Normatov, a private, shot himself with his AK-47 while on duty near Isfara. Investigators said the conscript had been stripped naked, beaten and then photographed by his captain the previous day. According to TajMigrant.com, the captain, a religious man, had decided to punish Normatov for not adhering to the stringent religious code of conduct that he had imposed on the regiment.
With stories like that, it seems the Defense Ministry is compelled to rely on press gangs to find conscripts.
One former conscript said he was forcibly seized from the street near his home in Khujand four years ago when he was still a high school student. After serving for two years, he entered university in Khujand and is now in his second year.
Having endured military service, the student now feels he has an advantage over his classmates. “They [the authorities] say that they’ve stopped abducting people on the streets, and that everyone goes to serve voluntarily, but dedovshchina is just as bad as it used to be. Today I stand proud in front of my classmates, having lived through what they are all terrified of. I’m a real man, ready to tolerate cold and hunger,” the former conscript said.