A monitor working with the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights sent an account of his recent drive across Uzbekistan through the provinces, risking arrest to take pictures of school-children working in the cotton fields. He describes the empty marketplaces, with everyone sent off to the cotton fields, the dusty, bumpy roads, the children laboring in the harvest, and the drought this year, making the pickings scant. This account is translated from Russian.
Uzbek Cotton Harvest Monitor's Route, September 2011. Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights
I spent a few days rolling through the fields of Tashkent province, thanks to my mother wit, I was able to snap a few shots... We asked around where the colleges and schools were, where kids were picking cotton in the region. And I would then go to the field next to the one where I had heard a certain school was working (but not that exact one), and then, as if I had lost my way, depending on the situation, I would shoot some pictures of cotton fields -- and catch the children alongside them.
I bought myself some local clothes and shoes so I would not stand out too much from the local population (and how do they manage to go about only in these clothes?). In Tashkent, people often mistake me for a foreigner. Whenever I go to the Chor-su bazaar, I can't take a step without the black marketeers offering to change my currency, they think I'm a foreigner.
"Mister, change dollars."
On the other hand, looking like a foreigner can be a plus, as the police don't stop you -- there was some law passed a few years ago about encouraging tourism. That's my usual style of clothing and I don't plan to change it.
We set off from the train station for Bukhara on Friday evening about 8:00 pm, riding in a Nexia, preferring to avoid trains and planes so that our trail would not be so easy to follow. It was also faster to go by car and we could leave any time we wanted.
The driver who delivered the Nexia to us had brought some passengers with him to justify the gasoline expense. About 3:00 am, we were dropped off in Bukahra, and took a taxi to the rail station. The station was locked and inside two policemen were asleep. We spent the rest of the night in the station, leaving our things at the baggage storage, and headed off to the central bazaar, where we were going to catch a marshrutka, or jitney, to the nearest field. We looked around and saw a large number of school children going to pick cotton.
I noticed that in Bukhara, even the youngest school children were being taken off to the cotton fields. I took a few photographs, but didn't want to risk more, and after looking around, headed back to the city of Bukhara.
I kept to this tactic: relying on my intuition, if I saw a lot of teachers in the field, I didn't risk going to take photos. "Two heads are better than one." I wouldn't stay in a field more than 3 to 5 minutes, otherwise the teachers would start asking what I was doing. I had a cell phone in my pocket, turned to photo or video mode. Inside my knapsack was also a large reflective camera. I would select the equipment depending on the situation. Usually one of us would distract people, while the other took pictures.
We pretended to be tourists from Tashkent who were visiting relatives, or more rarely, sometimes we'd pretend to be tourists from Russia.
The bazaar in Bukhara had been swept out thoroughly. The police were chasing out street vendors, and everything was being spruced up -- Prime Minister Mirziyoyev was expected.
Deserted bazaar, Uzbekistan. Photo by Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights.
We had breakfast at a little coffee stand near the bazaar, shishkebobs of stale meat and fried oversalted fish, and watched as a cop next to us sold some rubber flip-flops he had confiscated. Apparently he was selling them at a good price, as they quickly disappeared. : ) )
Policemen selling shoes, Uzbekistan. Photo by Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights.
We picked up our stuff from the luggage room and headed to the bus station. We decided to drive the Nexia to Urgench. The price of the bus tickets was 50,000 soums (the equivalent of about US $22). Although the distance was not great, the road was very bumpy -- hence the price.
To be sure, the Japanese and the Germans are building a new and better road. Our driver raced along the broken pavement, flying over all the bumps and potholes until the motor gave out -- and it was still another 170 kilometers of trackless wilderness to the next town. We caught another jitney travelling on the road and reached the Urgench Hotel late at night, taking a double room for 20,000 soums per person.
Nothing had changed in this hotel in the last year: there was no water in the toilet and it had to be flushed with a bucket, the plumbing stank, the electrical outlets were dangling, and the television was broken. The water was of one kind -- barely tepid. And this was the central hotel - what were the more remote ones like?
In the morning, we bargained with a Russian-speaking taxi driver to pay him by the hour to drive us out to the fields and show us where the school children were working, and stop the car where we asked. The more he could show us, the more he would earn. The driver didn't ask any unnecessary questions, and I think he guessed what we were up to. In the end, he was happy with the amount he earned.
The taxi driver helped us quite a bit, that day was successful. I had never seen so many school children in the fields myself. But there was a teacher and a farmer nearby, and after 15 minutes, they asked us not to take any photos and to leave.
We stopped at a hotel in the city of Turtkul, photographing signs at the local bazaar and khokimyat (administration) and in the evening, took a local bus to the city of Nukus.
The bus driver was a policeman who was picking up his son from the cotton field for a few days at home. It turned out that even a policeman who had a decent rank was unable to get his son out of the harvest work. 'EVERYONE PICK COTTON," as the slogan goes.
In the cities we visited, no policemen were in view, rarely we would see a few.
In Tashkent, state organizations are obliged to send their employees for 10 days of work in the cotton harvest. Teachers who take the place of colleages working in the fields are working extra, and their time is not compensated.
They say a frost is expected soon, and therefore everybody is being sent immediately to the fields.
In Tashkent, people are taken in the morning in convoys of buses accompanied by a police car.
We spent the night at the Nikus Hotel, which was better than the Urgench Hotel (and how do they put up foreigners in these places?) The price of the rooms was higher, but then the plumbing didn't smell and the TV worked. The water flowed on schedule although in a fitful, thin stream (you could wash up if you were willing to stand for five minutes). The TV had both local and Russian channels, with awful shows.
On Karakalpakstan TV, there was a broadcast showing a local Karakalpakstan official who was handing out certificates and gifts to students and workers. Evidently, they had picked a lot of cotton. : ) Then they all sang and danced.
In the morning, we set off for Hojeyli, and in 20 minutes we had arrived. The city was paralyzed -- there wasn't a single coffee stand open at the bazaar, and the marketplace itself was empty, all the stores were closed. A lone peasant was selling some milk and tomatoes. Everybody had gone to pick cotton. The cotton-pickers gathered about 8:00 in the morning near the bazaar, and were taken in buses to the fields.
Local people later told us that merchants, teachers, and day care workers had all gone to the cotton fields. The parents of pre-schoolers would chip in 3,000 soums a month, so that the day care worker could hire somebody to take her place in the fields, and the day care center wouldn't have to close.
There was unemployment and poverty here -- the farther you get from Tashkent, the more poor the cities and towns. Large cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, Urgench and Nikus are undergoing an ostentatious renovation. Old homes are being torn down along the road, and new buildings are being constructed, but behind them there are still the same ruins. There is a big problem in getting water. Because of the shortage of water, the cotton harvest is poor in Karakalpakstan.
The people of Karakalpakstan outwardly appear similar to Kazakhs, and they go to find work in neighboring Kazakhstan. For a bribe of $200 at the passport agency, they could change their ethnicity from Karakalpak to Kazakh. As an ethnic Kazakh, they can obtain a residence permit and have certain privileges.
We also learned about children in 7th grade working in the fields. They would work for two days, then take one day off. They had to bring their own food, and pay 200 soums for the bus.
They were able to earn 100 soums per kilogram of cotton picked (in our province, the rate is 125 soums). In the first few days, they were paid 120 soums per kilo -- the difference of 25 soums is probably going into the bureaucrats' pockets.
The taxi driver was able to find a field where children were working. We didn't attract any particular suspicions and we were able to take some photos and videos. Although people know that there have been stories written on the Internet about the exploitation of children in the cotton industry in Karakalpakstan, no one had ever seen any of the correspondents in person, and didn't know what they looked like or how they would appear.
As we left the field, we saw a van going along the dustry roads toward the school-children laboring in the fields. The taxi driver explained to us that this was the local TV crew. I didn't know what they were able to shoot, and how it would pass the censor, but we were able to get away without incident and reached Nikus and our car, and then in the morning, returned to Tashkent.