Shahbol Mirzoev voluntarily answered the call in Tajikistan, appearing for his military service last fall shortly after graduating university. By spring, the 22-year-old was paralyzed from the neck down, a victim of a brutal tradition in the Tajik military that officials seem unable to stop or even admit – hazing.
In mid-June, 28-year-old medic Usmon Gairatov, received a nine-year sentence for the violent March 6 attack and for denying Mirzoev medical treatment, Asia-Plus reported. The widely reported incident has raised awareness of the deadly practice of “dedovshchina” – ritual hazing by older conscripts – in Tajikistan’s armed forces, and prompted others to come forward with stories and disturbing videos. Although authorities have prosecuted some serious cases, activists say the culture of violence and denial in Tajikistan’s military is not changing.
Mirzoev was a conscript in Tajikistan’s Border Service, which is managed by the State Committee for National Security, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. For the first 50 days after his injury, as Mirzoev struggled to survive, Border Service officials insisted his injuries were incurred from horsing around in the barracks and refused to contribute any funds for his medical care. “The Border Service hospital assured us that my son did not need an operation and that he could go home,” said Shahbol’s father, Numon Mirzoev.
The elder Mirzoev sold his home for $35,000 and sent his son to Russia for an operation.
Having spent all their money, the family brought Mirzoev home on May 18. He remains in a hospital in Khujand. “His condition is very bad. He has pneumonia and it is difficult for him to speak. The family hopes for his survival, but expects him to remain paralyzed,” said Abdurahmon Sharipov, the family’s lawyer. The government, including the Border Service, has since paid about $1,000 toward medical bills.
The Ministry of Defense denies the case was part of a broader trend: ministry spokesman Faridun Mahmadaliev characterized Mirzoev’s March beating as “shameful,” but insisted no cases of hazing have been reported this year.
Conscripts who have faced violence, however, paint a different picture.
“It is like a tradition,” one former conscript who recently completed his service told EurasiaNet.org. The young man was grabbed from his bed by a group of 11 people who had illegally entered his home early one morning in November 2011. The first night, he said, older service members beat him with the butt of a rifle as they stole his clothes and money. Later he was transferred to a platoon of border troops on the frontier with Uzbekistan and faced more violence.
“Nearly every day each conscript faces bullying; each day and night of my service was a nightmare. The old-timers beat you up as much as they want, no one can help you,” the former conscript said on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety. He attributed the problem to negligence among commanders.
Such reports are widespread, and prompt parents of means to bribe their sons’ way out of service.
It is worth noting that Tajikistan is far from the only formerly Soviet republic in which dedovshchina is a problem.
Narzullo Rafiev, the deputy chief of staff at the Border Service central hospital in Dushanbe said he has never heard of routine hazing. “When I work, I see the brotherhood between all soldiers. Thus I can’t believe the existence of bullying in military platoons. If there were such bullying, I would be able to see the signs in my daily work,” Rafiev told EurasiaNet.org.
Military service is compulsory for men aged 18-27, and under Tajik legislation young men should receive an official invitation explaining where and when to report. Yet in 2012, the rights NGO Amparo published a shocking survey of hazing and forced conscription. Amparo found that 76 percent of conscripts had not received the proper call up papers and that 26 percent had been press-ganged into military service, a process known as “oblava,” or “ambush.” Shortly after publication of the report, a court order forced the closure of Amparo.
Mahmadaliev, the Defense Ministry spokesman, blamed conscripts for not reporting voluntarily. “In case of disobedience, law enforcement agencies are obliged to bring the conscript to the military commissariat on time and prevent citizens from breaking the law,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Dilrabo Samadova, the head of Amparo until it was shut in late 2012, said authorities have prosecuted some murders, but refuse to place such incidents within the context of dedovshchina.
“A culture of impunity contributes to the rising violence in the military,” said Samadova, who now heads the Dushanbe-based Office of Civil Freedoms, an NGO focusing on rights violations in the military. “The Tajik army wants its citizens to serve, but does not provide proper living conditions and there is no guarantee that a young, healthy man will return home as healthy as he was when he left.”
Tamiris Esfandiar is the pseudonym for a Dushanbe-based journalist.