Last winter, Aida Kasymalieva, a Moscow-based correspondent for Radio Azattyk
, scrolled through her Twitter feed and came across something chilling.
An internet video had surfaced in February of a Kyrgyz woman, Sapargul
, standing naked among a group of Kyrgyz men in the middle of a dark street in Yekaterinburg, Russia. In this shoddy footage, a quivering Sapargul is the target in a maelstrom of insults, beatings and threats. Sapargul is being punished by “Kyrgyz patriots” for speaking to a Tajik migrant man in a Moscow café.
Kasymalieva alerted her editors and TV team to the video, and in doing so, turned a spotlight on the mistreatment of Kyrgyz women by Kyrgyz men
in these migrant-heavy pockets of Russian cities
. By March, Radio Azattyk pulled together an investigative documentary
and Kasymalieva began her search for Sapargul.
While the search was underway, at least five more online videos emerged. In every scene it was the same scenario: a Kyrgyz migrant woman in Russia, cornered, outnumbered and afraid, is beaten and harassed by the self-proclaimed “patriots” for mingling with non-Kyrgyz men.
With no word from Sapargul after inquiring with Kyrgyz residents and local officials in Moscow, Radio Azattyk went public with these haunting stories, first by posting articles about the abuse of Kyrgyz women
on their website, and then by airing the documentary
on May 29 on Kyrgyz National TV.
Once the abusers and their horrid actions were outed by Radio Azattyk, victims began filing police complaints and telling their stories.
Different Women, the Same Humiliation
Of the 600,000 migrant workers in Russia, about 40 percent are women. Most left their families behind to search for work and are highly vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation.
The aggressors kick, punch, and pull the women’s hair. In some cases, the victim’s eyebrows are shaved off or the men threaten to kill her.
, who filed a police complaint after seeing the documentary, was beaten, strangled, and raped by her Kyrgyz boyfriend and his friends after it was discovered that she texted a non-Kyrgyz male. She told RFE/RL that thanks to her testimony, Kyrgyz police have identified seven members of the gang and have asked Russian authorities to launch a criminal case.
Sapargul’s Story is a Part of My Life
Several days after the documentary was broadcast, a letter came to Radio Azattyk from 34-year-old Sapargul with a simple message: Help.
Kasymalieva wasted no time. Within a month, she was at Sapargul’s side, steering her though the legal procedures and helping her heal emotionally. In June, Yekaterinburg law enforcements opened a criminal investigation of the case and one of the perpetrators has been identified and detained.
Kasymalieva has partnered with Urgent Action Fund
, a women’s rights organization which allocated $4,500 for psychological and legal assistance fees, and Civic Assistance
, a Russian human rights organization that procured a psychologist and lawyer, to alleviate some of the humiliation and injustice burdening Sapargul.
“Sapargul is not just a journalistic investigation. She is a huge part of my life,” Kasymalieva said. “I saw that no one was actually helping her, and I felt the responsibility because I was the one who raised this is issue in my reporting. I felt I had to take it to the end.”
Patriots Protect a Woman’s Honor
The horrific videos sparked an outcry among Kyrgyzstan nationals and Russian human rights activist and the Kyrgyz parliament sent a delegation to Russia to look into the cases.
“They call themselves patriots of the Kyrgyz people, but just look at what they do,” said Kyrgyzstan’s Ambassador to Russia, Bolot Zhunusov. “This is neither patriotic nor heroic.”
“Patriots do not do that,” adds Sapargul. “Patriots are educated, smart, and they protect a woman’s honor.”
Kasymalieva hopes that these investigations will help women be courageous in their fight against abuse and teach a lesson to the abusers.
-- Kate Leisner with reporting by Radio Azattyk