Life in Kyrgyzstan’s Army Really Sucks
Terrible pay, horrible medical care and constant bullying drive soldiers insane
Military life can be incredibly demanding in any country. The food is usually bland, the pay typically isn’t great and the barracks almost inevitably reeks of body odor. Then there’s the heightened chance of going to war and dying.
But some militaries are worse than others. In Kyrgyzstan, the barracks are crumbling relics of the Cold War. Food is scarce and the commanders are crazy. Bullying, poverty and hunger make life miserable.
Despite the fact these soldiers aren’t even engaged in a war, violent death is distressingly common. Suicide and murder run rampant in the ranks.
Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, and its military traces its origins’ to the Soviet Turkestan Military District. Almost all of its equipment and leaders trace back to the Soviet army.
In recent years, the United States rented a section of Manas International Airport as a staging point for operations in nearby Afghanistan. The base cost the Pentagon $60 million per year in rent, and additional billions for fuel contracts and operating costs.
Shady deals over fuel were a constant source of controversy both in Washington and the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. By June 2014, the U.S. military officially packed up and left after Kyrgyz officials opted not to renew their agreement.
Pressure from Moscow — which maintains its own air base in the country — played a key role in that decision.
Sketchy deals and corruption plagues business of all kinds in the country. In February, it came to light that a Kyrgyz group misused Pentagon charity funds. Specifically, $748,000 earmarked for a public women’s shelter went instead to a private for-profit kindergarten that rakes in $47,000 a year.
Kyrgyzstan is hardly one of the world’s most stable countries, and the government has been overthrown more than once since 2000. That time has been especially rough on the military.
Poor living conditions, bad pay and terrible leadership make life Hell for soldiers.
“Military experts often evaluate Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces as being ineffective, which a number of them trace back to living conditions and morale for service members,” OE Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, recently noted.
In February, the Kyrgyz human rights organization Kylym Shamy and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe released a joint report exploring the terrible living conditions and violence Kyrgyz troops endure on a daily basis. The findings are alarming.
Their pay is dismal — a sergeant makes less than $200 a month. Their Soviet-era barracks are crumbling and sometimes lack even light bulbs, leaving them pitch black at night. The food is terrible … when troops are lucky enough to get it. Soldiers and their families regularly go hungry.
Kylym Shamy and OSCE discovered that the military healthcare system is awful. The facilities are falling apart. Sanitation is horrifying. Medicine is hard to get for even the most basic and treatable illnesses — often leading to easily preventable but serious health problems.
They also found that the army carefully hid rampant corruption from the public, and burglaries against civilians by enlisted soldiers.
Some of the ethnic Uzbek respondents — a minority in the 95 percent Kyrgyz military — told the investigators that the military forced them into service after nabbing them in raids. Some were teenagers and students who should have been exempt from conscription.
Fifty service members died between 2010 and October 2013. The report listed the causes of death as 26 suicides, eight murders, six drownings, one “border incident,” four illness deaths and several other “accidents.”
The report went on to recount a series of tragic episodes during the last few years. On Aug. 20, 2012, a border guard from the Karakol detachment shot and killed five people. Authorities tracked down and killed the rogue soldier and after he refused to surrender.
On Feb. 4, 2013, 39 conscripts responsible for guarding the residence of Pres. Almazbek Atambayev suddenly deserted. Later, relatives of the soldiers reported that the reason was abuse by officers.
“The ministry of defense, of course, denied this information, calling the escape of the soldiers childish behavior,” Gulshayyr Abdyrasulova — one of the report’s authors — noted.
On Jan. 17, 2015, a soldier launched an armed attack on the Aykol border detachment on the border with Tajikistan, during which he killed its commander and wounded two soldiers.
The report asserted that bullying is at the heart of many of the deaths — and noted the availability of Internet videos depicting brutal hazing rituals and violence within the ranks.
In particular, the report noted the role of Kyrgyz officers. Military leaders use physical violence and instill a vicious culture of bullying in their subordinates.
Such as the case of Nurlanbek Chyngyz, a soldier who joined the Kyrgyz army in March 2012. He served in the frontier troops and died at a base in Ak Jol.
“I sent my son to the army, two months later he began to tell me that there he was beaten,” his mother Dinara Kydyralieva told Kylym Shamy and OSCE investigators. “When I raised this issue, his superiors told [me] that all is well, and this will not happen again.”
But on Oct. 5, 2012, the army delivered her son’s body — beaten and shot — back to her. “For a year I’m looking for justice, fighting with the courts,” Kydyralieva said. “The guys who shot him, now detained, but they deny their guilt … their parents give money to judges and prosecutors.”
Senior soldiers have a habit of extorting food and money from younger soldiers. The mother of one soldier told investigators a gang of “old timers” regularly forced her son to buy cigarettes, food and vodka for them on his own dime.
She claimed that her son eventually went to the territory store and hanged himself.
The Kyrgyz military recorded 13 cases of military suicides in 2014. The report asserted that though callous officers are typically responsible, only 30 percent of cases go to court.
Overall, the study group interviewed 1,115 conscripts based at 70 installations around the country. They interviewed personnel with the border service, national guard, state penitentiary service and other members of the security forces.
It was a wide sample. But sometimes, what they didn’t find was as telling as what they did. Intimidation still kept troops silent in many places — so there’s a good chance that these problems may be worse than the data suggests.
“There were places where we received blank questionnaires — the soldiers did not even respond,” Abdyrasulova told Russian language outlet Ferghana News.
A little more than a year ago, Kyrgyzstan instituted a major shakeup of its military leadership.
One of the biggest changes was the creation of a new position — the chief of the general staff — to oversee the ministries of defense, interior, emergency situations, the national security committee and the border guards.
Gen. Asanbek Alymkozhoyev, a respected combat veteran, took on the new position.
“There was optimism that additional reforms would soon follow,” OE Watch noted. “[But] while some of the cases of violence and desertion happened well before this restructuring, the report suggests that any reforms have not had much of an effect.”
In particular, the numbers show that suicide is on the rise.
If there’s any room for optimism, it’s because Alymkozhoyev voluntarily cooperated with the study. Though intimidation may have kept conscripts quiet, the Kyrgyz brass did allow a remarkable level of access to the investigators.
“This might seem trivial, but Kylym Shamy has produced reports in the past that could be perceived as critical of the government,” OE Watch observed.
“[That includes] detailed reports on the number of people killed during the June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and the list of weapons and ammunition lost during the violence and during the April 2010 revolution.”
But Abdyrasulova added that this report has only scratched the surface and that continued investigations — and reform — are vital if things are ever going to get better.