ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Aighanym Elshibaeva joined the Kazakh Army as a contractor in December 2019 to realize her childhood dream of serving in the military.
But her military career ended prematurely in May 2022 under disputed circumstances. According to the Defense Ministry, the 25-year-old soldier was dismissed after failing a combat training test.
But Elshibaeva insists she was forced out of the army after she rejected the sexual advances of her commander and reported the incident to authorities.
Elshibaeva accuses Major Ertai Qoshanov of sexual harassment that she claims began soon after she joined his battalion at a military base in Almaty Province town of Shengeldi.
"He would always call me and text me, saying 'Let's meet' or 'I want to spend a night with you,'" Elshibaeva told RFE/RL. "And he would call me to his office."
The former soldier said she always rejected the commander's unwanted overtures for sexual favors but, despite her protests, the commander continued to pursue her.
"Once he touched me inappropriately in front of other soldiers. I hit him and then I began talking openly about it. I told him it's not acceptable," she says. "He took the rejection very badly and subjected me to insults and humiliation."
She says such harassment would take place in front of the entire battalion.
But Elshibaeva says the subordinates of the commander pretended they didn't see anything, while those in the higher ranks just looked the other way.
Other contractors -- including about 30 other female soldiers and contractors at the same battalion -- didn't want to risk their careers and wages to take her side, Elshibaeva said.
"They told me, 'We need to feed our families, our children,'" she added. "Some of them said, 'This is the army, what do you expect? Nobody forced you to join the army.'"
According to the women's rights group NeMolchiKz, a former lawyer at the army base confirmed that Elshibaeva had formally complained about the harassment to the authorities but that no serious steps were taken to address the situation.
Major Qoshanov was eventually transferred to another job. But the new commander, whom Elshibaeva described as a "friend of Qoshanov," made her situation even more difficult and "virtually unbearable."
The former soldier recalls being forced to undergo an intrusive medical checkup with a doctor touching her private parts "in front of men inside a corridor." Elshibaeva believes the humiliating incident was deliberately ordered by her new commander to punish her for speaking out.
Elshibaeva claims she developed medical conditions, including an autoimmune disease, that were induced by anxiety.
RFE/RL called the military base where Elshibaeva served, but no one responded.
The Defense Ministry press office didn't reply to RFE/RL's request for the commanders' phone numbers.
Elshibaeva was dismissed from the army on May 3, nearly eight months before her three-year contract would have ended.
She submitted official complaints to military prosecutors and police. But in a statement on August 12, the Defense Ministry said a probe concluded that the former soldier's accusations "did not correspond to reality."
"After a thorough investigation, the [special commission set up by the ministry] found no evidence to support the claims brought forward by Elshibaeva," the statement said.
Elshibaeva is now working as a taxi driver to support her mother and younger siblings. After the death of her father, Elshibaeva is the only breadwinner in the family.
Elshibaeva has no plans to try to return to the armed forces. But by telling her story to the media she wants to "let the people know what's going on" at the military base where she used to serve.