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Troubled Kazakh youth find purpose to life in ancient burial site
Environmental group combines hard work with archeology and cultural awareness
by Jamila Sujud
ALTYN-EMEL - Preserving and restoring the ancient burial kurgans on Kazakhstan’s steppes is a hard job, requiring many hands and strong backs. It’s the kind of work usually done by university archaeology students, but their numbers are limited, and their time is constrained by classroom studies.
Looking around for suitable labor, preservationists hit upon a solution to their manpower shortage: so-called “difficult” teenagers who have had trouble fitting into society.
“What’s important is that rebuilding of the demolished kurgans will be done by young people”, said Mels Eleusizov, chairman of Tabigat. “In this way we can cultivate patriotic feelings and respect toward their culture in young people”. (“Главное это то, что в востановление разрушенных курганов будет производиться молодыми людьми”,- сказал председатель Экологического Союза “Табигат” Мэлс Елеусизов. “Этой акцией мы сможем воспитать у молодежи чувство патриотизма и уважения к своей культуре”.)
In November, the Tabigat Ecological Union, an environmental group in Kazakhstan, organized three 10-day expeditions to help rebuild the Besshatyr kurgan complex in the Altyn-Emel National Park in the Almaty oblast. Of the 300 young people who participated, about 100 of them are youths who have had problems in school, at home and sometimes with the law.
According to camp director Nurjan Oshanbekov, during the daytime the young people braved frigid temperatures to clear the tops of kurgans, pick up rocks, and try to recreate the kurgans original appearance and restore the landscape. In the evenings they attended courses in Kazakh language and vocational skills. They also watched movies, played football, and had a chance to explore Altyn Emel.
Altyn Emel Park is one of the largest protected preserves in Kazakhstan, with some 460,000 hectares of territory. It has some 18 early-iron age Saka culture kurgans dating from the 4th and 5th centuries BC and more than 200 archeological sites.
The kurgans vary from 2 to 20 metres high and 8 to 70 metres in diameter. The largest kurgans are 25 metres high, 70 metres in diameter, with circumferences of 250 metres.
According to scientists, Altyn-Emel was a political center of the Scythian state during the reign of Queen Tomyris, about 530 BC.
In the 1950s, Soviet archeologists destroyed many of the kurgans, including three large royal kurgans, when they excavated them with bulldozers.
Today, Kazakhstan’s administration, along with the ministries of education and science, internal affairs, tourism and sports, and the Almaty mayor’s office, are funding a program to rebuild the kurgans and preserve whatever archeological artifacts remain.
While many of the young people who participated in the three November expeditions came from technical and vocational schools in the area, simply recruiting low cost manpower is not Tabigat’s only reason for turning to young people to do the rebuilding and restoration work.
Sergey Korgin, 16, a resident of the SOS – Detskaya Derevnya orphanage has participated in two of Tabigat’s Beshatyr November expeditions and helped restore four kurgans .
“I will participate in this expedition again, if possible”, Korgin said, who said he had experienced a “sea of emotions” while working on the project. “I developed a sense of manhood and confidence in myself”.
Lubov Esimenko, a teacher at Detskaya Derevnya sent her two teenage foster sons to take part in the expedition. “Such actions help them better learn the history of their native country,” she said. “They have come home in a very positive mood”.
To add to what the boys, Ruslan and Kayrat, have seen and learned in the field, Esimenko has had them read articles about the Scythian state and the era of Queen Tomyris.
“Perhaps, my children will become historians or archeologists”, Esimenko said. “After the expedition they became interested in the kurgans and began to read books about Kazakhstan’s history”.
Difficult teenagers need more attention and patience than others, Esimenko said, adding, “We must take control of difficult boys’ behavior before it is too late”.
The problem of difficult teenagers is a very real for Kazakhstan. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, more than 20.000 teenagers in the country, and some 4,000 in Almaty, are registered with juvenile authorities for things ranging from simple misbehavior to serious crimes.
“These teenagers are completely neglected by society”, said Eleusizov. “Schools try to get rid of difficult teenagers, and they are a burden to negligent parents”.
Law-enforcement and social agencies, already burdened with more serious problems, are unable to cope with the teenagers. Many go on to join criminal groups.
Eleusizov said he hopes Tagibat’s efforts will give them a direction in life and help them become good citizens. To serve the population of troubled youth, and to continue the work to restore and rebuild the kurgans, Tagibat plans to organize similar 10-day expeditions in the future, as well as a longer summer camp.