DARGANATA, Turkmenistan -- It's not exactly the summer vacation the kids had in mind.
Instead of fun activities, going to the zoo, and playing games, many children in Turkmenistan are spending their summer break in scorching heat gathering potatoes at state-owned farms.
And the parents who paid for their kids to go to school-organized, recreational summer camps say they had no idea the children would be ordered to work in the fields.
In the northeastern province of Lebap, several parents told RFE/RL they paid $85 each for their children to enjoy their summer vacation at the camps, where programs were supposed to include visits to theaters, exhibitions, and the zoo in addition to playing sports and other activities.
That is a significant amount of money in Turkmenistan, where the average monthly salary is about $400. Unemployment is rampant, especially in rural provinces, as the country's economy has been in a three-year downspin that has led to many food shortages and skyrocketing inflation. "We paid that fee for a 20-day package, which also was supposed to include two meals per day," one parent said on June 11, speaking on condition of anonymity.
School officials have offered no explanation as to why the children are being forced to work, while the parents feel as if they were tricked into paying for nonexistent summer-camp programs. "The school administration told us they spent our money to buy construction materials to refurbish the school," some parents who live in Lebap's Darganata district said.
The parents are too afraid to file an official complaint or even to criticize what has happened to their children, as the authoritarian government in the Central Asian country doesn't tolerate dissent and brutally clamps down on its critics.
According to some of the parents who spoke to our correspondent in Lebap, school officials pick up the children every morning at 8:30 a.m. to take them to the farms. The students -- aged between 9 and 17 -- work on the farms until 3 p.m., the parents said. The school officials who offered the fake summer camps don't even provide meals or drinking water for the kids, parents said.
"The children complain that they are being forced to work and that they are not getting anything to eat," parents explained. "They take bottles of water and snacks from home with them. But as the temperatures are rising above 40 degrees Celsius, the bottled water gets so hot it is almost impossible to drink."
"Some farmers -- feeling sorry for the children -- are providing them with fresh drinking water," the correspondent said.
The students are working on agriculture lands that are owned by the government, with some parts leased to private farmers.
RFE/RL was unable to get any comment from the Lebap authorities. Officials in Turkmenistan refrain from speaking with journalists from nonstate media outlets. It's unclear how many children are involved in the agriculture work or how widespread the practice is outside of Lebap Province.
Citing local residents in the town of Darganata, our correspondent said that all of the schools in that district had sent many of the students from the third to ninth grades to work on the farms instead of enjoying summer-camp activities. School officials have told the parents that the children will have to work until July 1, when the potato-picking season ends in Lebap.
Turkmen law bans children from forced labor, but rights activists say that the authorities often cancel classes during the harvest season and order minors to pick cotton.
Turkmen authorities also demand that public-sector workers and even soldiers take part in the cotton-picking campaign, a practice that international rights organizations have consistently criticized and urged the government to end. A country of some 6 million people, Turkmenistan was the ninth-largest producer of cotton in the world in 2019.