ZUUNBAYAN, DORNOGOVI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Bayartsogt Jargalsaikhan had been guarding the weapons store since midnight in the freezing January and was cold. Five minutes before he was due to end his shift, he went inside to warm up.
That fateful decision in 2017 would see Bayartsogt and his fellow soldiers tortured by their commanding officer, leaving him permanently disabled and making him yet another statistic in the long history of human rights violations within the military in Mongolia.
Seeing Bayartsogt finish his duty early, the deputy captain gathered the eight junior guards. He ordered them to undress. He poured cold water on their heads and chests. He ordered them to lie down on the cold concrete floor and run around the distant watchtower. When they returned, he hit them on the back with a metal rod. He then stepped on Bayartsogt’s toes with his military boots. Bayartsogt lost consciousness from excruciating pain.
Most of his toes had to be amputated, leaving him off balance and mentally unable to hold a steady job. Six years later, Bayartsogt, 27, says his feet still haven’t healed.
“In winter, my feet get cold very quickly,” he says. “In the summer, my feet get hot and watery. I still haven’t fully recovered.”
Illegal punishment is common in the Mongolian military, where 44 soldiers have been killed and 468 rapes reported in the past decade, according to a 2022 report by the Mongolian National Human Rights Commission. He claims that 45% of former soldiers say they were physically mistreated and harassed. After hearing reports of torture like Bayartsogt’s, the commission has conducted surprise inspections and is training mental health professionals to serve in the military.
The reforms are urgently needed, say former soldiers and families interviewed by Global Press Journal. They say military inspections are poorly conducted, there is no clear internal process for filing complaints, and whistleblowers face the risk of reprisals from commanding officers. Human rights violations affect a large population, as all men between the ages of 18 and 27 must serve one year in the army, which consists of border guards, armed forces and national troops.
Neither the defense ministry nor the military responded to multiple requests for comment. But Defense Minister Saikhanbayar Gursed acknowledged the violations at a 2021 conference.
“A great sensation has been created in the society due to a few officers, managers and soldiers who are not educated, mature and cultured,” he said at the time. “Thousands of mothers are upset. How can the reputation of the 100-year-old military be tarnished?
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
Erdenebat Batbold’s younger brother joined the army in 2019. Three months later, he was dead.
Heartbroken and overwhelmed by memories, Erdenebat traveled to the military unit in Dornogovi province to claim his brother’s body. As he changed the cloth covering his brother during the initial funeral rites, “I discovered that my brother’s back was completely black and brown. He shocked me to see the wounds, ”he recalls.
Erdenebat posted a photo on Facebook with a note that his brother was tortured. Her post went viral, and two lawyers who saw it helped him get the police to do an autopsy.
“I was there for the forensic analysis to find out the truth,” says Erdenebat. “Do you know how they slaughter animals in the market? The autopsy was exactly like that. I couldn’t take it.”
The autopsy revealed that her brother had died due to blood clots in his lungs. His brother’s fellow soldiers told Erdenebat that his supervisor had tortured them. They were forced to run with mattress rolls on their backs and then to waddle. When they collapsed from exhaustion, the officer savagely beat them, resulting in the death of his brother. And yet, none of the soldiers filed an official complaint.
The Human Rights Commission first recorded torture in the military in 2006, and has regularly inspected military units ever since. Inspections have not always worked. The killing of a border guard in 2021 by its commander sparked a public outcry and the commission investigated once more.
The 2022 report catalogs a variety of crimes. Some soldiers were beaten, deprived of sleep, not allowed to use the bathroom. They were psychologically traumatized. “They made us soldiers do things like kiss and dance on a wooden tent pole,” recalls Bayartsogt.
Twenty-five soldiers said they were sexually harassed.
Torture can cast a psychological shadow. According to the report, three in five suicide cases among recruits and former soldiers between 2009 and 2021 were related to service-related depression.
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
Despite the prevalence of rapes in the military, no soldier filed an official complaint against their supervisors or officers in higher positions in the three years ending in 2021, according to the commission’s report. But almost 1 in 3 ex-servicemen said they had wanted to do it at some point.
Military rules state that soldiers need their commander’s permission to file a complaint, which increases the risk of retaliation.
“Recruits have very few opportunities to complain,” Colonel Myagmarjav Gerel, a consultant professor at the National Defense University, said at the 2021 conference on improving working conditions in the army. “It is time to pay attention to adding provisions and clauses to the military regulations that allow the communication of complaints, suggestions and requests.”
Bayartsogt says that soldiers who complain are nicknamed “fugues” and they don’t like them. A certain amount of physical abuse is tolerated due to the stereotype that soldiers must be disciplined. “People can bear suffering,” says Bayartsogt.
Bayartsogt left the military system in search of justice. He posted his experience on Facebook, which went viral, and the government appointed a lawyer for him to file a criminal complaint. The judge found the deputy captain guilty.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
Otgontsetseg Renchin, a mother of five, says she is worried about sending her sons to serve the country. She has heard many stories of torture; Thirty years ago, her older brother was beaten by her officer and came home near death, she says. In 2019, she attended a candlelight vigil for Erdenebat’s brother in the city of Erdenet.
When her oldest son enlisted during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, she feared for his safety. “Because she had psychological trauma and deep fears, she would drive me crazy,” she recalls. Her son was hospitalized twice during her service, for toothache and high blood pressure, she says. When she returned home, she was silent for three months before describing her experience.
“My son was not allowed to sleep or rest, which caused him constant headaches and chest pains,” he says.
The Defense Ministry has to update training protocols and develop rules that respect human rights, says Enkhbold Batzeveg, commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission. The army will develop plans for implementation and the commission will inspect the process every six months, he says.
“We have planned human rights promotion and training activities and will implement them so that soldiers do not experience torture and can file complaints if such situations occur,” says Enkhbold.
The government has set up “military psychology” courses at the National Defense University, the Mongolian National University of Education and the General Department of Border Protection in Ulaanbaatar to train psychologists and social workers. The first batch will graduate this year and deploy to the military.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
Seeing Bayartsogt’s Facebook post, a famous singer started a donation drive on his behalf and raised 47 million Mongolian togrogs (US$13,511), enough for Bayartsogt to buy a two-bedroom apartment in Ulaanbaatar.
His wife, Otgonchimeg Dashravdan, says their lives are still defined by torture. Her husband always wears socks, even in bed. Sometimes her little daughter asks, “Mommy has 10 toes, but why doesn’t Daddy have toes? It is painful?”
“My husband and I have nothing to say in response,” she says.
Bayartsogt has not been able to hold down a stable job. He has been a hairdresser, a security guard, a salesman and now he pumps gas.
“If I was healthier, I could have had a better job to support my family and have a better life,” he says. “They wouldn’t call me ‘crippled.'”