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Kazaks Despair at Childrens' Gambling

Young people turning to theft to feed slot machine addiction.
By Erbol Jumagulov

Aimkul Nakipbaeva lies in hospital in the Kazak capital Almaty with severe internal burns. She drank half a bottle of acid after her son gambled away the family’s life savings, and will now be registered disabled.

Aibek stole 2,500 US dollars from his parents – a huge amount of money for most Kazaks - to play in the slot machine arcades which are springing in towns all over the country. Growing numbers of young people like Aibek are stealing to pay for their addiction.

“Aibek has been playing the machines for two years,” his father Nurlan told IWPR. “It didn’t use to be so serious, but in the last six months his hobby turned into a psychological dependency. Like a drug addict, he began to steal money from home just to play.

“I work as a truck driver, and my wife and I had saved a bit of money for a new apartment. I don’t know how Aibek found the money, but he stole it, and Aimkul drank acetic acid out of desperation.”

Aibek, who refused to talk to IWPR, gambled the money away in Shymkent, a town 500 kilometres from Almaty, because he knew his parents would hunt him down wherever he was in the capital.

Kazakstan’s arcade business is booming, with more than 300 in the city alone so that you are never more than 10 minutes’ walk from the nearest one. They attract young people in their thousands, and the numbers are rising even though it is illegal for under-18s to gamble. The owners turn a blind eye to under-age customers, and the city authorities have not acted to stop them.

Playing the slot machines has become fashionable among young people, partly because there is not much else for them to do with their free time. Many come from low-income families, and have no hope of getting the money unless they steal it.

“Most players are young people who run away from school to go to the arcades. Once they’re hooked they can’t imagine any form of entertainment except slot machines or casinos,” explained Almaty sociologist Anton Glazkov.

“They start stealing money from their own parents, as many of them don’t work or earn money themselves.”

Adults see that there is a problem, but are at a loss to know what to do about it given the lack of concern shown by officialdom.

“Of course, you could say that there are gaming machines all over the world – but it isn’t everywhere that 13- to 15-year-old boys play in the arcades. And it isn’t everywhere that the city authorities are so cool about it,” said Kali Armanov, a builder from near Almaty.

“The family tragedies that take place mean it is impossible to be indifferent to the problem.”

The slot machine craze has traumatised whole families. Young people engage in theft, or extort money from schoolmates. Some have committed suicide after losing large sums. Last year, an Almaty father grew so frustrated at his son’s gambling that he hit the boy’s head against a wall – he died in hospital two days later.

“When my son got into slot machines, I was initially calm about it. But when his gambling turned into a mania, I took it very hard,” said one mother, who asked not to be named. “You can’t imagine how much health and energy my husband and I expended to get him to give up playing on the machines.”

Many parents want to see tougher restrictions imposed on the gambling venues. “It’s really a very significant problem, and it needs to be solved somehow. Children under 18 should not be allowed into the arcades, not even as spectators,” said Almaty housewife Yekaterina Semenova, adding that the young should be shown that there are better ways of using their time.

“Gambling is a matter of personal choice, of course, but these people are still children – and their relatives suffer more than they do,” she said.

Erbol Jumagulov is an independent journalist in Almaty

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