Adolescent Crime Blights Kyrgyz Schools
The opening of a trial in which six adolescent boys are accused of bullying which led to the death of a classmate has focused attention on widespread violence in Kyrgyzstan’s schools.
The initial hearing in a case involving the death of 15-year-old Sadabay Uulu Nurak took place at the Bakay-Ata district court in Talas region on December 2, the AKIpress news agency reported. The six defendants are charged with bullying, extortion and the offence of “deliberately causing grave damage to health resulting in death through negligence”.
Experts say bullying to extort money is endemic in schools across the country, and a broad change in social attitudes as well as reforms within the education system is needed to bring the problem to an end.
In a recent survey by pollsters from the El Pikir organisation, 34 per cent of school-age children agreed that there was systematic extortion in their schools.
The situation is deemed so serious that parliament has set up a special commission to look into the problem.
Analysts say the increase in violence and crime in schools is a direct consequence of the social upheavals which Kyrgyzstan has undergone since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and mirrors the kind of behaviour they see in the society around them.
Earlier this year, IWPR radio reporter Janar Akaev spoke to schoolchildren in Osh who described how gangs extorted money which they called “taxes”, beat up classmates who refused to pay, and in return provided protection from rival gangs. Gang Culture Rife in Southern Schools, RCA No. 528, 25-Jan-08.)
In the current manslaughter trial, AKIpress reported that the victim was targeted by a group of senior grade pupils styling themselves the “Muzhsovet”, or “Lads’ Council”, who assaulted younger schoolchildren to force them to hand over money.
The case has parallels with the death of a boy in the Panfilov district of Chui region last year. The boy died following an assault prompted by his failure to pay money to senior pupils.
Police say crime in schools has become more violent in recent years.
Marat Munduzbaev, chief inspector at the interior ministry’s department for public safety, says what is alarming is “not the rising incidence of crime among children and adolescents, but the cruelty involved”.
“Anyone recognised as or claiming to be leader, top dog or gang boss in his environment generally carries a weapon,” he said. “Usually it’s small clasp knives, which are not classed as weapons and are therefore not subject to confiscation. Adolescents are very well aware of this, and they also know that a knife of this kind can easily be used to wound or even kill.”
As well as extortion and robbery, rival gangs engage in set-piece battles with each other. Munduzbaev said that even a decade ago, such fights generally ended with cuts and bruises. “Now they result in knife wounds, permanent injury and even death,” he said.
Munduzbaev added that girls, too, were increasingly involved in violence, so much so that Kyrgyzstan needed to build a separate detention centre for female juvenile offenders, who are held in the same facilities as women at the moment.
Experts on teenage crime say gangs have always existed, but the aggression they now display is a recent phenomenon, a product of the society they live in.
“Among boys, there’s always a leader who gathers others around him, although it isn’t a given that the group will behave illegally,” explained Nurdin Omurbekov, chief inspector with the police department for juvenile affairs in Bishkek’s Leninsky district. “If there is more crime among teenagers, and the crimes themselves have become more violent and aggressive, we need to realise that the behaviour of children and adolescents is a reflection of our society.”
Guljamal Sultanalieva, a member of parliament representing the minority Communist Party, believes youth gangs mimic the organised crime they see around them.
“Children imitate the behaviour of adults. Where did they get such a clearly thought-out system of extortion? They didn’t invent it themselves; they simply copied it from the adult criminal world”.
Munduzbaev, the police inspector, agreed, setting the problem in its historical context.
“The transition to capitalism [of the early Nineties] was accompanied by the shock of economic decline, and an about-turn in the popular mindset,” he said. “The authorities lost control, and untrammeled crime became widespread. Powerful criminal groups controlling entire businesses as well as small markets, cafes and restaurants began appearing across the country.”
That generation now have their own children, who Munduzbaev says have “taken in a basic rule from their parents – might is right”.
IWPR spoke to a 39 -year-old businessman who admitted to making “quick, big money” in the Nineties – running open-air markets, extorting money from traders in exchange for protections, and carrying out robberies.
Now no longer part of that murky world, the businessman has had to cope with his own son being bullied at school.
When the boy began coming home with bruises inflicted by the school protection racket, he made him take boxing lessons so he could defend himself. When his son was injured during training, the businessman realised fighting back was not going to be the solution, and got him transferred to another school.
“I would probably have kept on trying to make a real man out of my son if I hadn’t read about the death of a schoolboy in the newspapers,” he said.
Adolescents in Kyrgyzstan are also exposed to images of violence that would have been unheard of when their parents were growing up in the late Soviet period.
Referring to popular Russian-made TV series that glorify gangsters, Munduzbaev said “the young lads of today take films like this as a guide for action”.
Svetlana Derbeneva, a child psychologist at the Putnik children rehabilitation centre, says, “There is too much information around that advocates violence and aggression. Children can easily download real images of fights, murders and other forms of violence to their mobile phones. What’s even worse is that they imitate this by filming their own material.”
Emilbek Alymbaev, who heads a special school for juvenile delinquents, observes from his own wards that child abuse is another factor that breeds violence.
“Children who have previously experienced cruelty themselves will generally behave in the same way to others,” he said. “They have their own values and attitudes to life…. They can be either helpless or dangerous.”
IWPR’s interviews with experts and representatives from the various government agencies involved suggest there is no quick fix to end violence among children, and solution will begin to be found when not just the authorities, but society as a whole recognises there is a real problem.
“To achieve visible results in curbing racketeering in schools, we need to engage teachers, juvenile affairs police officers, parents and schoolchildren, as well as … increasing oversight over attendance and strengthening moral education in the schools,” said police inspector Omurbekov.
A mother with a 13-year-old son in school said teaching staff were not actively stopping the organised bullying.
“I think the teachers are aware of extortion cases, but they prefer to turn a blind eye to it. They probably feel helpless and fear losing their authority over the other pupils,” said the woman, who did not want to be named.
Munduzbaev called for an increase in the number of police officers attached to schools, while his colleague Omurbekov insisted that parents needed to spend more time on their children. Many of them, he said, were “more concerned about earning money than bringing up their children”.
Member of parliament Sultanalieva said everyone must be involved in tackling the problem, not just the ministries of education and internal affairs.
She added that now at least there was a recognition that the problem existed.
“Now they’re taking some measures to eradicate [bullying and extortion] instead of denying it, as was the case before,” she said. “When society acknowledges there’s a problem, we are halfway to victory.”