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Tajikistan: Temptation Is Strong For Young Men To Ignore Military Call-Up

A soldier's best friend? (RFE/RL) October 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Tajik army kicked off its new conscription drive this week, with military officials insisting that long-maligned conditions for soldiers have radically improved.

As the new season of military call-ups is under way in Tajikistan, young men between 18 and 27 years old are required to report to their local army-recruitment offices.

But many young Tajiks are skeptical, and admit they will go to great lengths to avoid army service.

Komil Rajabov, a 22-year-old Dushanbe resident, has ignored several letters from the local military office, or "voenkomat," and is instead going to Moscow to continue his education.

Rajabov distrusts the state-run media campaign that claims there have been improvements in the conditions for army conscripts.

"I would not mind serving in the national army, but I would only join the army if there were a guarantee that I was not going to endanger my health there," Rajabov says.

Fighting Mad?

Rajabov claims his view of army conditions is shared by a majority of young Tajik men.

Many Tajiks are aware of the appalling conditions that Tajik National Army soldiers must endure -- a lack of proper food, clothes and equipment, as well as freezing and poorly outfitted military barracks.

The days are long gone of Tajik soldiers turning up on doorsteps in tattered military uniforms to dine on the charitable contributions of locals.

The country's Defense Ministry has been trying hard to improve the armed forces' tarnished image.

But young men who served recently in the army and who spoke with RFE/RL suggest the military has a long way to go to change public impressions.

'You Could Freeze To Death'

Rahmatullo Safarov is a 25-year-old resident of Hisor region, on the outskirts of Dushanbe, who completed his 24 months of compulsory military service two years ago.

"There was no proper food or clothing," Safarov says. "I don't know how conditions are now in the army, but it was awful before. We mostly ate porridge, but even that was in small portions. We had old uniforms. They would barely give us another set of uniforms in six months. The uniform wasn't warm enough -- you could freeze to death in those clothes during the night patrols."

Young Tajik soldiers in a 2005 photo by RFE/RL's Tajik Service

Rahmatullo told RFE/RL that he fell ill during nighttime duty and was sent to a Dushanbe military hospital, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Rahmatullo said that -- like many of other young men -- he was forcibly seized by "voentkomat" representatives and sent to the army.

Captive Soldiers

Seizing young men in streets and markets and sending them into military service was a common practice for years in Tajikistan. The practice was known as "oblava."

During the military call-up in the spring, the Defense Ministry announced that "oblava" had been outlawed and vowed to try to conscript soldiers on a less confrontational basis.

The ministry has also launched a campaign to convince young people to fulfill their military service. State-run television airs a weekly program that shows soldiers wearing new uniforms and polished shoes in brand new military barracks. Often, they are singing patriotic songs and happily discussing the "wonderful conditions" in the army, compete with claims of "superb food."

Viewers who spoke to RFE/RL said they haven't seen any criticism on the show of anything remotely connected with military service or army conditions.

Military officers, officials, and former soldiers frequently appear on youth-oriented programs to praise army service, including its "physical and moral benefits for the young."

Faridun Mahmadaliev, who heads the Defense Ministry's press and communication department, says the Tajik army is much improved and thoroughly different from its former self.

"There are clean and airy dormitories, and new blankets, and beds are in place for new soldiers who join the military units this year," Mahmadaliev says. "From the very first day of joining the force, every new soldier would feel like the leadership of the country and the government are taking care of him."

Open-Door Policy

Firuz Saidov, a sociologist in Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that after many years of rumors and complaints about dreadful conditions in the army, young people still find it difficult to trust television reports and the military officials citing major improvements.

"There should be a program of 'Open-Door Day,'" Saidov says. "I mean, during such days, young people and parents should be able to personally go and see up-close the living conditions of the soldiers."

It is not clear, however, that open-door days would persuade young Tajik men to join the army.

In his interview with RFE/RL, 22-year-old Rajabov vows that he won't return from Russia until he's 28 -- too old to be conscripted into the Tajik army.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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