Central Asia's densely populated Ferghana Valley, shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has long been considered a potential hotbed of religious extremism. The fact that the majority of the impoverished region's 10 million inhabitants are young with little to do and no job prospects, only fuels existing radicalism and criminality.
A recent court trial in Kyrgyzstan found a group of young people guilty of staging an armed attack on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border posts in May 2006. The group killed about a dozen Kyrgyz and Tajik servicemen and civilians. The court said that they were members of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), formerly known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an organisation on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations.
“I was deceived, I did not know about their plans,” Mukhammednur Joroev, a 20-year-old defendant, kept saying at the trial in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, on the eastern edge of the Ferghana Valley.
According to the court proceedings, local leaders of the IMT had been meeting in Joroev’s house in southern Kyrgyzstan. And while Mukhammednur had not personally taken part in the attack, the investigation did show that he was involved in prior activities.
“He did not do anything bad. All he did was have contact with God-fearing people, so what?” his sister and his aged mother asked. “The police took him directly from the field. He is our only provider. How will we survive without him?”
The women came to the court in Osh from a remote village. “We live in extreme poverty and we have borrowed money from our neighbours to make this trip to the city,” they told IRIN. Mukhammednur’s family used to grow corn on their land, with their monthly income less than US $5.
But their journey was in vain. Three of the six accused were sentenced to death, while Mukhammednur and his teacher Talantbek, who shares the same family name, were convicted for supporting the terrorists, as well as of inciting ethnic and religious hatred. Both of them were condemned to ten years imprisonment.
Sadykjan Makhmudov of the local rights group Luch Solomona based in Osh, who acted as Mukhammednur’s lawyer, maintains that all of the accused had come from needy families, blaming poverty and ignorance for the misadventures of his client.
“Those ‘soul hunters’ - missionaries from radical religious organisations, drug barons and various criminal groups – are preying on such people,” Makhmudov claimed.
“Chronic unemployment and galloping poverty, along with sharp income disparities, are paving the way to radicalism,” Adyljan Abidov, deputy head of the Osh’s Civil Initiatives Support Centre, a local NGO, agreed.
According to a study by the Kyrgyz State Migration and Employment Committee made available in June 2006, close to half a million people in the former Soviet republic did not have jobs, which meant that 22 percent of the economically active population were unemployed. Moreover, some estimates suggest that upwards of 300,000 Kyrgyz nationals leave for Russia or neighbouring Kazakhstan in search of jobs annually.
Until recently the minimum monthly salary in the country was just US $2.50. Now it is $8 – in a country where one kilo of beef costs around $3.
Radical religious organisations
Meanwhile, Kyrgyz law enforcement bodies have noted the growth in the number of radical religious organisations in the region as well as their followers, with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir religious party, IMT and Akromiya religious movement among them. Recent reports from security bodies mention the Baiat (Oath) radical religious party, which, according to some reports, has expanded its activities from neighbouring Tajikistan.
Asked to explore the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a young member told IRIN: “Communism failed and our current democracy does not deliver any good, it sows only greed and degradation. As for the government and the society, they don’t care about me, a common man.”
“All of them [government officials] are busy stealing and enriching themselves. And only a unified caliphate, for which we, Hizb ut-Tahrir members, struggle, promises common prosperity,” Nurillo, a 22-year-old man from the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalalabad, said.
In an effort to tackle such angry sentiment, the government has developed a variety of programmes targeting youth, but experts say these programmes are not enough and lack proper implementation.
“Only recently the government has begun paying special attention to the issues of youth,” Mokhira Abdukarimova, the deputy head of Osh Regional Education and Youth Policy Department, said.
“Youth of the Kyrgyzstan National Programme and the Development of Youth State Concept have been adopted this year. They will address educational, economic and organisational issues. They will also include job creation and measures to increase public activity of the youth,” Abdukarimova added.
Abdukarimova regretted that the vocational training system network for young people developed during the Soviet times was ruined. “If the network could have been restored, it would provide hundreds of thousands of young people with skills and trades sought in the labour market,” she said, expressing the view shared by many local observers, that tackling unemployment and eradicating poverty among the youth was paramount in fighting radicalisation in the region.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]