ZUUNBAYAN, DORNOGOVI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Bayartsogt Jargalsaikhan had been guarding the weapons warehouse since midnight in the January freeze, and he was cold. Five minutes before his shift ended, he went inside to warm up.
That fateful decision in 2017 would get Bayartsogt and his fellow soldiers tortured by their commanding officer, leaving him permanently disabled and making him one more statistic in Mongolia’s long history of human rights violations inside the military.
Seeing Bayartsogt end his duty early, the deputy captain gathered all eight junior guards. He commanded them to strip naked. He poured cold water on their heads and chests. Ordered them to lay on the cold concrete floor, run around the faraway guard tower. When they returned, he beat them on their backs with a metal rod. Then he stepped on Bayartsogt’s toes with his military boots. Bayartsogt lost consciousness from the excruciating pain.
Most of his toes had to be amputated, leaving him without balance and mentally unable to hold down a steady job. Six years on, 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 have not fully recovered yet.”
Illegal punishment is common in Mongolia’s military, where 44 soldiers have died and 468 violations have been reported in the last decade, according to a 2022 report by the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia. It states that 45% of former soldiers say they were physically abused 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 done, there is no clear internal process to file complaints, and whistleblowers face the risk of retribution by commanding officers. The human rights violations affect a large population as all men aged 18 to 27 are required to serve one year in the military, which consists of the border guards, the armed forces and domestic troops.
Neither the defense ministry nor the armed forces responded to several requests for comment. But Minister of Defense Saikhanbayar Gursed acknowledged the violations at a 2021 conference.
“A big sensation has been created in society because of a few officers, management and soldiers who have no education, maturity and culture,” he said at the time. “Thousands of mothers are upset. How can the reputation of the 100-year-old armed forces 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 his memories, Erdenebat traveled to the military unit in Dornogovi province to claim his brother’s body. While changing the cloth covering his brother during the initial funeral rites, “I discovered that my brother’s back was black and brown all over. I felt shocked to see the injuries,” he recalls.
Erdenebat posted a photo on Facebook with a note that his brother was tortured. His 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. “You know how they butcher animals in the market? The autopsy was exactly like that. I could not stand it.”
The autopsy revealed that his brother had died due to blood clots in his lungs. His brother’s fellow soldiers told Erdenebat they had been tortured by their supervisor. They were made to run carrying mattress rolls on their backs and then do duck walks. When they collapsed from exhaustion, the officer beat them savagely, leading to his brother’s death. And yet none of the soldiers filed an official complaint.
The Human Rights Commission first recorded torture in the military in 2006, and has since regularly inspected military units. The inspections haven’t always worked. The murder of a border guard in 2021 by his commander caused a public outcry and the commission investigated once again.
The 2022 report catalogs a variety of offenses. Some soldiers were beaten, sleep deprived, not allowed to use the bathroom. They were psychologically traumatized. “They forced us soldiers to do things like kiss each other and dance on a wooden post of the tent,” recalls Bayartsogt.
Twenty-five soldiers said they were sexually harassed.
Torture can cast a psychological shadow. Three out of five cases of suicide among conscripts and former soldiers between 2009 and 2021 were linked to depression related to serving in the military, according to the report.
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
Despite the prevalence of violations 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 nearly 1 in 3 former servicemen said they had wanted to at some point.
Military rules state that soldiers need permission from their commander in order to file a complaint, which increases the risk of retribution.
“Conscripts have very few opportunities to make complaints,” said Colonel Myagmarjav Gerel, a consulting professor at the National Defense University, at the 2021 conference on improving working conditions in the military. “It is time to pay attention to adding provisions and clauses to the military regulations that will allow the communication of complaints, suggestions and requests.”
Bayartsogt says that soldiers who complain are nicknamed “leaks” and disliked. Some amount of physical abuse is tolerated because of a stereotype that soldiers should be disciplined. “People can bear suffering,” Bayartsogt says.
Bayartsogt went outside the military system for justice. He posted about his experience on Facebook, which went viral, and the government appointed him a lawyer to file a criminal complaint. The judge found the deputy captain guilty.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
Otgontsetseg Renchin, a mother of five sons, says she worries about sending her children to serve the country. She has heard many stories of torture; 30 years ago, her older brother was beaten by his officer and returned home on the brink of death, she says. In 2019, she attended a candlelight vigil for Erdenebat’s brother in Erdenet city.
When her oldest son enlisted during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, she feared for his safety. “As I had psychological trauma and deep fears, it drove me crazy,” she recalls. Her son was hospitalized twice during his service, for a toothache and for hypertension, she says. When he returned home, he was silent for three months before describing his experience.
“They did not let my son sleep and rest, causing him constant headache and chest pain,” she says.
The Ministry of Defense has to refresh training protocols and develop rules that honor human rights, says Enkhbold Batzeveg, a commissioner with the National Human Rights Commission. The military will develop plans for implementation and the commission will inspect the process every six months, he says.
“We have planned human rights training and promotion activities and will implement them so that soldiers will not experience torture and can file complaints if such situations occur,” Enkhbold says.
The government has created courses in “military psychology” 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 be deployed in the military.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
Seeing Bayartsogt’s post on Facebook, a famous singer began a donation campaign on his behalf and collected 47 million Mongolian togrogs (13,511 United States dollars) — enough for Bayartsogt to buy a two-bedroom apartment in Ulaanbaatar.
His wife, Otgonchimeg Dashravdan, says their lives are still defined by the torture. Her husband always wears socks, even in bed. Sometimes their young daughter asks them, “Mom has 10 toes, but why does Dad have no toes? Is it painful?”
“My husband and I having nothing to say in response,” she says.
Bayartsogt has been unable to hold down a steady job. He has been a hairdresser, a security guard, a vendor and now pumps gas.
“If I were healthier, I could’ve had a better job to support my family and have a better life,” he says. “I would not be called ‘a cripple.’”