ASHGABAT -- Dozens of graduating students who came to school for their final exams this week in Turkmenistan have been hauled off by military recruiters hunting for mandatory conscripts, according to parents and eyewitnesses.
One witness described several plainclothes officers waiting at the gates of School N15 in the capital for departing students.
"The exam started at 8:30 in the morning. At around 10 a.m., four policemen and an officer from the military enlistment office arrived in the school," he told RFE/RL. "They weren't in uniforms, probably because they didn't want to scare away the students."
Many of the male students were immediately bundled into a vehicle to be taken to a local enlistment center to be forcibly enrolled in the army, the witness said.
With few exceptions, up to two years of military service is mandatory in Turkmenistan for men between 18 and 27 years old. But many of them try to avoid the army, which is notorious for bullying and miserable conditions.
During military call-up season, recruiters often patrol streets, airports, and schools for conscription-age men.
Similar raids took place at many other schools in Ashgabat on June 15 and in the eastern Lebap Province on June 16.
Some students managed to leave the school unnoticed after the test, but recruiters turned up to take them from their homes that evening, sources told RFE/RL.
They said the officers were only targeting those who had already turned 18.
But they also made a list of male students who'll be 18 by the end of June, and ordered their parents to bring them to enlistment offices on their 18th birthday.
The young men who were caught up in the sweeps were expected to be sent to join military units after undergoing medical checkups.
Their abrupt recruitment means they won't be able to collect their high-school diplomas in person when they are distributed to graduates all over the country on June 21. The students' families were told to collect the diplomas on their behalf.
Bribes And 'Safe' Army Units
In a country where corruption is rampant, some families pay bribes to exempt their sons from military service. Some parents told RFE/RL of paying about $5,700 for postponements for their children.
Others said they bribed officials to have their sons stationed within what are regarded as "safe" army units. Perceived safe spots include military units in Ashgabat and border guard units on the frontiers with Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.
Among the worst options, the parents cite military service on the Turkmen border with Afghanistan, where there have been reports of Turkmen border guards being killed by militants from the other side.
In one incident in May 2014, a small group of gunmen crossed the border from Faryab Province and killed three Turkmen soldiers. Ashgabat does not comment on such attacks.
Turkmen soldiers who are stationed in the provinces are often sent to work on farms, harvesting crops.
There are widespread complaints of inadequate food, a lack of medicine, and unsanitary conditions on military bases.
Many new recruits face bullying at the hand of officers, some of whom reportedly extort money or demand that soldiers call home to ask their parents to send money. They beat up those who refuse.
Wealthy families routinely use their connections to help their sons avoid conscription.
Some young men try to avoid army service by leaving the country to study or work in other countries, mostly Turkey and Russia.
But that's not an easy option, since Turkmen authorities strictly control people's movements and thoroughly check all passengers boarding international flights.