Turkmenistan: Soldiers Die of Hunger

Turkmen army food rations are so poor that some young conscripts are literally starving to death.

Turkmenistan: Soldiers Die of Hunger

Turkmen army food rations are so poor that some young conscripts are literally starving to death.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Turkmen conscripts are dying of hunger because of woefully inadequate defence ministry food rations.

Exact figures on the number of deaths due to starvation in the Turkmen military are impossible to obtain, but evidence provided to IWPR by soldiers' relatives suggests that the problem of malnutrition and starvation is widespread.

An artist from Ashgabat, the capital, related a typical story concerning his relative. "My nephew was stationed in a military unit at Yangaja - he died of starvation a month ago," he said. "He could have been saved, but the unit did not contact us until it was too late. He was a perfectly healthy guy before he was drafted. Army service destroyed him."

During the communist period, a number of Soviet army units were based in Turkmenistan. On independence, the country inherited much of the military apparatus but could not afford to support it. President Saparmurat Niazov, aka Turkmenbashi, recognised this and ordered the defence ministry to achieve self-sufficiency in food provision.

The authorities take pride in their military food programme. The official Turkmen TV recently reported, "routine cattle-breeding or farming make our servicemen more diligent in defence of the country. The servicemen have understood that the defence of the motherland may be combined with self-sufficiency in food. "

A farm in Gyaur, 20 km from the capital, is one example of how the defence ministry is implementing Tukrmenbashi's food project.

Soldiers ploughed the land, planted grain crops and vegetables and bought chickens and a hatchery in neighbouring Iran. For military units stationed in and around Ashgabat, every usable piece of land is devoted to growing food. Local residents marvel at the fat green cabbages that have replaced roses in flowerbeds around army compounds.

None of this is possible, however, for units stationed in remote frontier areas. Due to the unfertile land and drinking water shortages at these border posts, soldiers, many of whom were unfit to begin with owing to the country's terrible poverty, are succumbing to starvation.

Despite government admission of the problem public complaints are not welcome. In fact, it can be quite dangerous. Plain clothes police attended the funeral of the soldier from Yangaja and warned his father not to breathe a word about how his son had died.

Like the families of the victims, military officials are kept silent. Three years ago, a group of army officers, from the Belkanabat Velayat, 200 km west of the capital, sought to draw the plight of hungry conscripts to the attention of the president.

After they realised that their superiors were not prepared to take any action to deal with the acute food shortages, they took off for the presidential palace on motorcycles.

When traffic police started chasing them, the protesters barricaded themselves inside a private home and took its inhabitants hostage. Instead of negotiating, Niazov ordered security forces to blow up the house together with the officers, the family that lived there and their guests. Only a deep crater remained where the house had once stood.

Conscripts don't just suffer from government neglect, they all suffer at the hands of their superiors. At a military unit in Mary region, several officers were caught trying to steal precious food reserves. The court fined them the equivalent of 3000 dollars. But the officers forced the parents of the conscripts in their charge to pay, threatening to put their children in jail if they failed to do so. Some families had to sell all their belongings to comply with the request.

At the military parade held on the 10th anniversary of Turkmenistan's independence on October 27, soldiers shuffled listlessly past the fat, rosy-cheeked father of the nation, ensconced in his throne. They clearly couldn't keep in step. Designed to showcase Turkmenistan's military might, the parade simply exposed the poverty and misery of the nation's military.

Polina Mikhailova is a pseudonym of a Turkmenistan-based journalist

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