Kyrgyzstan - The Kidnapped Bride

Front Line World

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For centuries, Kyrgyzstan was a remote, mountainous outpost along the Silk Road to China. Under Soviet rule, few Westerners ventured here. But since the country gained independence, Kyrgyzstan is slowly opening to the West.

FRONTLINE/WORLD correspondent Petr Lom -- a professor at Central European University in Budapest -- first traveled to Kyrgyzstan to investigate Islamic extremism. But he came across a strange local custom of bride kidnapping, which he decided to explore.

With his translator and friend Fatima Sartbaeva, a young Kyrgyz woman, as his guide, Lom sets out on a journey of discovery, driving deep into the countryside to a small village just outside the ancient city of Osh.

Petr and Fatima arrive as a wedding is about to begin. Women are busy making traditional Kyrgyz bread for the occasion, and men sit in chairs outside, talking and sipping tea. The groom confesses he has had some difficulty finding a bride, but he is hopeful that "this one will stay."

When the bride does arrive, she is dragged into the groom's house, struggling and crying. Her name is Norkuz, and it turns out she has been kidnapped from her home about a mile away.

Fatima had prepared Petr for this scene, telling him that the custom of bride kidnapping is shocking, but he is still stunned by what he is seeing.

As the women of the groom's family surround Norkuz and hold down both of her hands, they are at once forceful and comforting, informing her that they, too, were kidnapped. The kidnappers insist that they negotiated the abduction with Norkuz's brother, but her sister, a lawyer from Osh, arrives to protest that her sister is being forced to marry a stranger. Ideally in Kyrgyz circles, a bride's family gets a price for their daughter, but Norkuz is 25 -- considered late to marry -- and the women remind her she is lucky she was kidnapped at all.

Within the space of an hour, Norkuz struggles less, looking exhausted but laughing along with the women who have placed a scarf on her head. Tradition dicates that once the bride accepts the ceremonial scarf, the matter is settled and the wedding can commence. Norkuz relents.

A few days later Petr and Fatima return to see how Norkuz and her new husband are doing.

"Only one in 100 Kyrgyz girls marries her true love," Norkuz tells them as she cleans her new home. "After the kidnapping, you've no choice. You start loving, even if you don't want to. You have to build a life."

Having finally found himself a wife, the groom seems pleased. "We're happy," he says. "Keep visiting and we'll be happier."

Petr learns that the origins of this strange custom are murky: "Some say Kyrgyz men used to snatch their brides on horseback. Now they use cars, and if a villager doesn't have a car, he hires a taxi for the day."

Petr and Fatima speak with a taxi driver in Osh who says he helped kidnap a girl earlier that same day. During Soviet times, bride kidnapping was banned, but in the past decade, the old tradition has revived, especially in rural areas.

Jumankul, 19, is under pressure from his parents to marry and bring home a wife who can help work on the family farm. Jumankul tells Petr and Fatima that he's seen a girl in Osh whom he likes and plans to drive to the city in a few hours to kidnap her.

"We can't afford her hand," says Jumankul's father. "They wanted too much money."

The family has hired a taxi to drive Jumankul to Osh where he and his friends plan to find and kidnap the girl he has seen at a bazaar. But when they get to Osh, Jumankul can't find the girl. The group drops by a vodka stand to try to find out where she lives, but the girl working there suspects a kidnapping and refuses to tell Jumankul's brother, Ulan, the address of the girl. "Find it yourself," she tells him.

Not wanting to return home empty-handed, Jumankul and his friends decide to change plans and kidnap the girl in the vodka bar.

Her name is Ainagul, and by the time Petr and Fatima return to Jumankul's village outside of Osh, she has been resisting a room full of women for more than ten hours. Though Jumankul's older brother claims her family has already agreed to the kidnapping, Ainagul stands in a corner of the room, crying, and continuing to fend off the women who take turns trying to put the wedding scarf on her head.

"It'll be over soon," Jumankul's brother, Ulan, tells Petr. "You'll see."

But Ainagul puts up a strong fight, and the women tire of trying to convince her. After the oldest woman in the village makes a final attempt, telling Ainagul to stay or she will be unhappy, the women give up. Her ordeal over, Ainagul is free to go.

Once she has left, the women sit outside Jumankul's home and curse the departed girl. They say that her child will be a drunk and that her mother-in-law will be cruel. Jumankul, too, is upset and worries that he will never find a bride who will stay.

Petr and Fatima catch up with Ainagul two weeks later in Osh, where she is living with relatives.

"Because of what people say, you think you should stay," Ainagul tells them, sitting at a table. She is still shaken from the experience, looking down while she speaks. "But no one lives your life. You build your own future. Follow others, you'll be unhappy. I'd have lived in the mountains and tended sheep. I'd be a sheep too. I would waste my life."

Fatima identifies with Ainagul's hope to make a life of her own. Fatima confides to Petr that she herself was nearly kidnapped before she met her husband, an instructor at the American University in the capital, Bishkek. She says that her mother wanted a Kyrgyz man to kidnap her so she wouldn't study at the university and one day perhaps leave the country to live abroad.

Fatima's mother was kidnapped as well. In Balykchy, Fatima sits down with her mother to talk about bride kidnapping.

"Even though we want to stop violence against women and support gender rights we still practice bride kidnapping. My parents followed this custom even during Soviet times," Fatima's mother tells her daughter and Petr. "If my daughter was stolen by a man that I didn't want or know, I would be disappointed but I wouldn't reject our tradition; it is a part of us, our custom, our mentality."

In the most disturbing case of all, Petr and Fatima learn of a girl, Kyal, who was kidnapped from outside her home, then died. Four days after the kidnapping, her father picked up her body from a village a few hours away. She'd hanged herself. Though it isn't clear exactly what happened, Kyal's father has a theory.

"I think they kidnapped her," he tells Petr and Fatima. "And she refused to stay. Maybe she resisted and was raped, so she hanged herself." Even though the groom's family does not admit to any wrongdoing, Kyal's father wants to see an investigation. Though a widely practiced tradition, bride kidnapping has been illegal in Kyrgyzstan since 1994, but the law is rarely enforced. Kyal's grief-stricken family prays for justice.

"In one of the poorest countries in Central Asia, bride kidnapping is not high on the agenda for reform," observes reporter Petr Lom.

Back in the city, Petr and Fatima make one last stop to check in on a man whom, earlier in their filming, they watched attempt to kidnap a bride. After the girl refused to stay and was eventually let go, the groom kidnapped another girl the next day. This bride stayed.

By the time Petr and Fatima return to visit the groom and his new wife, it has been four months since the marriage. The couple stands together in a light snowfall, laughing with each other. The woman is two months pregnant.

"I have a husband. Before I got married, I was alone," she tells the visitors. "Now I have someone to take care of and to dream with." As the couple bids Petr and Fatima farewell, Fatima -- a university-educated woman who escaped being kidnapped -- wrestles with more complicated, conflicted feelings about this Kyrgyz tradition. In this case, at least, the couple seems happy.