Young Tajik men 'abducted' into military service
In Tajikistan, young men who haven’t responded to the summons to fulfil their military service had better watch their back. Army recruiters regularly resort to driving around and snatching men off the street that look to be of age. Because these men’s families are often poor, few dare to protest.
The young man on the left was taken by force by military recruiters. Screen capture from the video below.
In Tajikistan, young men who haven’t responded to the summons to fulfil their military service had better watch their back. Army recruiters regularly resort to driving around and snatching off the street men that look to be of age. Because these men’s families are often poor, few dare to protest.
This phenomenon, called “oblava”, is not new, but amateur videos that have recently surfaced show just how traumatising it can be for young men and their families. According a 2012 monitoring report by the Tajik human rights group Amparo (the organisation was shut down later that year by the authorities), 74 percent of more than 3,000 conscripts they interviewed had undergone “oblava”.
This video shows a young man protesting his abduction by military recruiters.
This video shows another young man’s family trying to physically stop military recruiters from taking him away. One of the women ends up in a physical altercation with an officer. According to human rights defenders who spoke with the family, the young man is currently in service.
According to human rights activists, the reason recruiters resort to such tactics – which are illegal under Tajik law – is that the Tajik army wants to ensure it will have enough trained men to call up in case of conflict, but has trouble getting conscripts to serve. Because theTajik military service is renowned for its poor living conditions and violent hazing, many young men go to great lengths to try to get out of it.
Service is mandatory for all young men between the ages of 18 and 27, and lasts one year for those who have graduated from university, two for those who have not.
“Military recruiters will drive around in vans and snatch up dozens of men who look to be of age, right off the street”
Farangis Zikriyaeva worked as a staff attorney for Amparo in Tajikistan before it was shut down. She has continued her research on the Tajikistan army from Berlin, where she is the programme director for Human Rights Matter.
Young men know that life will be very tough during their military service. The living conditions are terrible, and they face hazing. New conscripts get routinely beaten, humiliated, and extorted for money by older conscripts, and later, they often feel pressure to do the same thing, creating a vicious cycle. [Editor’s Note: Conscripts can also get beaten by higher-ups. Recently, a young conscript died following a severe beating at the hands of a lance sergeant.] At the end of their service, they don’t get any sort of benefits at all. So there’s little incentive to join…
Many families who have the means to do so pay bribes to get certificates saying their sons have completed their service. Other young men go study or work abroad, where they can’t receive their summons, and only come back when they’re too old to serve. In fact, since unemployment is very high in Tajikistan, many young people go to find work in Russia or, lately, Kazakhstan – it’s not necessarily to evade military service, but it’s often a combination of both motivations.
Those who do end up in the army, either by responding to their call-up or after being captured during “oblava” raids, are often from poor backgrounds. Oblava, simply put, is abduction. Sometimes, officers from military recruitment target specific young men who they’ve been informed did not reply to their summons, but more often, they drive in vans around public places like bazaars, and snatch up dozens of men that they think look like they’d be between 18 and 27. They sort them later: those who are their family’s only son don’t have to serve, so they let them go. They also let go men who are enrolled in university, since they are allowed to defer their enrollment. The rest are sent straight into service.
“Their parents are often poor, uneducated people who don’t know their rights”
Their families are not notified. Some conscripts manage to sneak a call home on somebody’s mobile phone, but often, parents don’t hear from their sons for days, and have no idea what has happened to them. I’ve met parents who were severely disturbed after going through the shock of their sons’ disappearance. These are usually poor, uneducated people who don’t know their rights, and are afraid to fight back against representatives of power like the army.
This, of course, is not how it’s supposed to happen. According to the law, men who ignore a call-up should be given a fine by the police, and if they don’t reply to a second summons, the police can arrest them and take them to court, where they’ll face criminal charges. But not once have I ever spoken to a man who went through this process. The military seem to have no interest in long procedures.
As soon as Amparo started to bring “oblava” to the attention of the international community, we were shut down on a pretext. But many activists are continuing this work, even though it’s incredibly difficult – civil courts say that this matter is out of their jurisdiction, and military courts are impenetrable. Sadly, there is not a lot of interest from the public, either, since most people in Tajikistan are too busy trying to make a living to worry about those even more vulnerable than them.
“As I was waiting for my bus, a car pulled up, and three military guys ordered me to come with them”
Rustam Gulov did his military service from October 2010 to October 2011. He was 23 when he started; he had recently graduated from university and was working for Amparo at the time. (Today, he works for a youth organisation).
I had received my call-up during the summer, and was trying to contest it legally because the conscription period hadn’t started yet. Since I was working with Amparo, I knew all about the laws regulating this. My plan was to try to go to graduate school instead of the army. But one day, as I was waiting for the bus, a car pulled up, and three military guys forced me to come with them. In my case, it was clear that it was not a random ‘oblava’ – they said they had been watching me for days. I believe I was targeted due to my work.
When I got to the military recruitment centre, I managed to borrow the phone of the mother of another guy who’d been brought in, and called my colleagues, who in turn notified my family. My father came to the centre, and tried to negotiate with the recruiters. Because he worked in the military department of a local university, he was able to keep them from sending me away for four days, but in the end he couldn’t convince them to let me go. I was sent to the south, far from my home in the north; it is an unwritten rule in the army to send conscripts as far away as possible from their families.
"Conscripts who had been there longer beat newer ones with belts"
It was a miserable year. The main food we ate was pearl barley, day after day. We got hand-me-down uniforms, which did not keep us warm enough in the winter, and our boots were old and kept falling apart. Thankfully, we were never sent out to fight.
The level of violence depends on which military unit you’re in. In mine, after six months of service, conscripts who had been there longer beat newer ones with belts. They also forced us to do all sorts of exercises. Only a small group of conscripts perpetrated this violence, but they were encouraged by officers because this helped them enforce discipline.
I was very angry in the weeks after my ‘oblava’, but after that, boredom was the hardest part. Time went by so very slowly. Still, I tried to make the best of it, and reported what I learned to my friends in civil society once I was back out.