Rustam (not his real name) is a 19-year-old university student in Samarkand, the ancient city in eastern Uzbekistan that straddles the old Silk Road between China and Europe.


An Uzbek boy carries a sack of raw cotton on a farm near Yallama in 2003. Uzbekistan officially outlawed child labour in the cotton fields this year but the practice still continues. ((Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov))

But in September and October, his university, like most of the city's learning institutions, is closed for almost two months. It is closed because most of the students, teachers and even schoolchildren are in the fields picking cotton.

This work is compulsory and mostly unpaid. Those who dare skip it could face serious consequences.

Uzbekistan is the world's third-largest cotton exporter. Three-and-a-half million tonnes of cotton are harvested here every year, yielding an amount that represents 15 per cent of the country's GDP.

As well, each year tens of thousands of students are mobilized, sometimes for as long as 50 to 60 days at a stretch, at the expense of their education. Even, some would say, at the expense of their well-being.

Bread and sugar

"You should see our living conditions when we are in the field" says Rustam, a tall, wide-featured boy who speaks good English. "It's like the 16th century! Ten to 12 of us have to share a small, clay-floored room.

"We sleep and eat directly on the floor. They give us some bread and sugar in the morning and a meagre soup in the evening. We have to work endless hours until we harvest 80 kilograms of cotton every day," he says outraged.

Do they pay you some money, I ask. (Cotton is grown on state and private farms, but the monopoly purchasers are two state controlled trading companies.)

Rustam bursts out laughing. "We have to pay a fine if we don't meet the quota. Parents have to bring us food so we are not starving. But many parents are too poor to do so."

This autumn, however, Rustam is not picking cotton with his fellow students. Instead, he found a part-time job as a doorman in one of Samarkand's hotels, earning some pocket money.

He is able to do this only because he paid a $300 bribe to be exempt from the cotton picking.

To whom did he pay the money?

He does not answer, feeling that he already said way too much to a foreign journalist. In Uzbekistan, those who criticize the authorities are severely punished.

President Islam Karimov, a former Communist leader, has been in power since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He is widely said to be one of the most autocratic rulers in the region. The country counts thousands of political prisoners.

"In Uzbekistan, we are all against the compulsory cotton picking," says Rustam, disheartened. "But no one will dare to say it openly."

A personal journey

In mid-October, I spent twelve days in Uzbekistan travelling with my mother. She spent four years here as a refugee during the Second World War.

At the time, as a teenager, she, too, was forced to leave school and work in the cotton fields.

In those days, schoolchildren also lived in harsh conditions with very little food, participating in the national task of picking cotton. But that was during the war and Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. Apparently, not much has changed.

Children as young as 10 are still forced out of schools to harvest what is called the "white gold," 90 per cent of which is picked by hand in fields heavily sprayed with pesticides.

In September, after coming under pressure from Western human rights organizations and several Western importers, Uzbek authorities officially banned child workers from its cotton fields.

Officially, no one under the age of 16 is allowed to work. But the reality we saw on this visit does not reflect the official line.

Fields of cotton

As we travel through the Fergana Valley, in the country's extreme east, cotton fields stretch endlessly on both sides of the road. Plants one-metre tall and covered with white puffs are everywhere while dozens of silhouettes bend over them.

We stop the car to talk to a group of young girls, each with a heavy bag full of cotton hanging from their necks. Our mini-camera is rolling as we are shooting the story of my mother's journey back to the country of her exile. She wants to talk to the girls.

They don't pay any attention to the camera and answer our questions. They are all 14 and scheduled to be in the cotton fields for five weeks. Five weeks away from school.

Suddenly, a female teacher appears, screaming. We are not allowed to film. With her mobile phone, she calls the school's director and orders us to wait until he arrives.

We are all nervous. In order to get my entry visa, I had to sign a letter saying I wouldn't be doing any journalistic work in Uzbekistan. We might be facing expulsion from the country. Cotton picking by school children has become a very sensitive issue over the last couple of years.

After a half hour of discussion, my mother's friend, 79, who's accompanying us in our journey, comes up with a plea. She also spent her childhood here during the war. "Please let us go. I'm looking for my mother's grave. She was buried here in 1943. And I have very little time left to find it."

We are allowed to leave and realize we've been very lucky. Last year in the Samarkand region a German TV crew had all its tapes and gear seized after filming child cotton labourers.

We never found the grave of our friend's mother. But we were all in a state of shock to find that, more than 60 years after the Second World War, the state still forces Uzbek children out of school and into the cotton fields.

And the world knows so little about it.