Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Central Asians Driven to Despair

In Central Asia's harsh economic climate, suicide has become the third most common cause of death
By Gaziza Baituova

Orozobekova in Kyrgyzstan (RCA No. 14, 02-August-2000)

Pensioner Svetlana worked for forty years at the Khimprom enterprise in Taraz, southern Kazakstan, but when she reached her well-earned retirement, a miserly pension left her in poverty.

Struggling to survive, she took to selling off her various knick-knacks at the side of the road. When she had nothing left to sell, she went home and hung herself.

In Central Asia's harsh economic climate, suicide has become the third most common cause of death, after heart disease and respiratory illness. Unable to find work and provide for themselves or their families, many people come to consider their lives worthless.

Where alcoholics, drug addicts and victims of domestic violence used to be the most vulnerable, now men of working age and young people have joined the suicide statistics.

The increase in suicides coincides with a higher incidence of schizophrenia, according to eminent doctor and Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Professor Tashbolot Baltabaev.

"Many schizophrenics are at high risk of ending their own lives. Unable to deal with everyday situations, nor evaluate or control their own actions - but still have the power to bring their lives to an end, to call it quits."

In the southern Kazak town of Taraz, where over 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, official statistics record 56 suicides in the first six months of

last year. Of those, 45 were men who were either unemployed or seriously ill and unable to afford medicines.

The millennium saw a new wave of suicides in the town. In the first days of the New Year, a man hung himself in an apartment on Abai Street. He had just been made redundant.

In the second week of January, a 65-year-old man slashed his wrists and died from loss of blood. The next day a 47-year-old unemployed disabled person hung himself in his kitchen. During the Soviet era, all of these people belonged to the comfortable middle classes.

Taraz resident, Vasily Kurnikov, also unemployed, comments, "I am now of no use to my town or my country. There are thousands more like me. Some try to survive, but some can't cope and they find suicide the most reliable solution to their problems."

Djurat Umargaliev, Director of Psychiatry at the Uzbek Ministry of Health, says that the young are particularly vulnerable to "economic suicide", their inexperience making them ill-equipped to deal with financial difficulties.

In Djizak, 200 kilometers outside Tashkent, 15-year-old Umid hung himself from a tree in his parents' garden, after they told him they could not afford to pay for repairs to a window he had broken at school.

In his suicide note, Umid wrote that his headmaster had threatened to expel him if he did not replace the window, which had been smashed during a football match. Unable to face the consequences, Umid chose suicide, leaving his parents with no one to provide for them in old age.

This year there have been 40 registered suicides in the Djizak region, whose entire population is under one million. According to municipal prosecutor's office, 70 per cent of the suicides are male.

"That's not just a lot - it's a hell of a lot," says Sharofat Batyrov, chairman of the

Djizak Union of Writers. "The rise in youth suicides shows that their problems have not been resolved, that we face an epidemic."

The authorities are trying to address the problem with special projects and centres. In Kyrgyzstan, a centre for the psychological well-being of the population has been established, which will include a department to treat those with depression or suicidal tendencies.

The Uzbek parliament wants to create a task force to target schools, colleges and military establishments.

However, these projects do not stem the root cause of the problem, which is growing unemployment.

In Uzbekistan, youngsters also face another problem - almost total lack of places for them to go. After bombings in Tashkent last year, special security measures even prevent people strolling around the town at night. Lack of freedom and scant prospects of earning are

taking a heavy toll on Uzbek youth.

Djizak has only three discos, which are often closed. There is nowhere else for the youth to go. "During the academic year we are sent out to do agricultural work," says Aibek, a student. "Then in the holidays we are forced to donate money to pay for the repair of our institute building."

In Kyrgyzstan, the present mufti (Muslim leader) Kimsanbai-adji, has decreed that Muslims who take their own lives may now receive religious rites at their burials.

This was previously forbidden, as Muslim Shariah law condemns suicide.

A humane and compassionate gesture on the part of the mufti, who recognises the spiritual sickness gripping his people, but also a very sad sign of the times.

Shavkat Alimov, Gaziza Baituova and Cholpon Orozobekova are IWPR contributors.