Yodgar Obid: I Grew up in Cotton Plantations

Yodgar Obid, courtesy  photo

Yodgar Obid left Uzbekistan in 1990s to Europe and calls Austria his home. Recently his poems over sufferings of little children on Uzbek cotton plantations found its way to the English language cotton campaign site.

kultur-multur.org contacted Mr. Obid in Graz, Austria and asked to recite The Little Slaves in original Uzbek language . At the end of this interview listen to the sad poem as read by the author, as well as Thomas Thurnher’s composition to Mr. Obid’s poetry.

Yodgar Obid: I Grew up in Cotton Plantations

kultur-multur.org: How did you write these songs which were published in English?  Why did you write these songs?

Yodgar Obid: I write myself of course. They have taken the songs from me and translated them into English and Russian.

Yodgar Obid: I know the situation in Uzbekistan very well. I myself was born in the “cotton fields,” so to speak. I was born in the kolkhoz Mirzachulla in the Syrdaria oblast, where for the sixty years of my life I was surrounded by the sight of cotton. My kolkhoz was renamed the Bolshevik Kolkhoz. Then it was called Communism. It is near the city Bakht or Gulliston Mirzachula, which is an ancient name of Jahangir Myrza, the son of Amir Temir. As I remember, there was nothing else but cotton. The land is dying (from cotton monopoly), but, the main problem is that the future of the nation is dying: the children remain uneducated, with declining health and (sometimes) are dying in the direct meaning of the word. As a poet and as a member of my family, which is the Uzbek nation, I could not close my eyes on this tragedy.

kultur-multur.org: Did you use to harvest cotton when you were younger? Yodgor Obid with Thomas Thurnher in 2006. Photo  curtesy Silvia Thurner

Yodgar Obid: Of course. As long as I remember myself there was cotton all the time. We used to collect 20 to 40 kilograms of cotton every day. I remember collecting korak (are cotton flowers that did not manage to bloom) in the December and even in January. Everyone was involved — the pupils, the students and even the old men and women. The young people had no choice. If they refused to harvest cotton, they would be punished severely. From dusk til dawn we would clean these korak and during the nights the kolkhoz activists would go around and check on us, keeping track of who is sleeping and who is working. I used to live in these conditions until the Khrushchev’s Ottepel (thawing) in 1960s. Until then the members of the kholhoz did not had passports and without passports they were not considered citizens. The kolkhoz people could not travel far without a special permission. I enlisted into the army and after the military service I did not return to the kolkhoz, naturally. I stayed in Tashkent, where I received my passport.

kultur-multur.org: When you were in Tashkent were you free from cotton?

Yodgar Obid: We were chased around all the time. I worked in a cotton-cleaning factory and all of us were forced to go to cotton harvests during harvest times. After all I went to study in Russia. I freed myself from cotton only there, at the Literary Institute in Moscow. But, after my return to Tashkent I worked as a literary consultant on poetry for The Union of Writers of Uzbekistan. Twice we organised Writers’ Trip to the cotton fields. The trips were a funny experience. The Soviet writers wanted to prove their loyalty to the Communist ideology.

kultur-multur.org: How much cotton have you harvested in your whole life, you think?

Yodgar Obid: I never really made such calculations. I spent my entire childhood harvesting cotton. How many years, how many kilograms… December and November were coldest months and our hands would freeze. During these times we would harvest about 15 to 20 kilos. There were people who could harvest 80 to 100 kilograms. I wasn’t that good.

kultur-multur.org: You were not a stahanovets (an exemplary leader of socialist labour).

Yodgar Obid: I was expelled from school several times because I did not want to collect cotton. I was stubborn and scandalous, even though I studied well. Between us, the normal folk, there was no real Communist or Socialist commitment. But we were interested in the fifteen to twenty kopeks (Soviet ruble consists of 100 kopeks) that we received for every kilogram of harvested cotton. Children of poor families tried hard to help their parents this way. We had to harvest anyway so it was better to do as we were told and to receive a little bit of money for a slice of bread.  The situation could be called “voluntary slavery.”

kultur-multur.org: Do you have memories of special or romantic encounters related to the cotton plantations?

Yodgar Obid: Of course we did fall in love. I fell in love when I was seven years old, in first grade of a primary school. Back then the Crimean Tatars were deported to Uzbekistan (as suspected collaborators with the Nazi Germany during the WWII). We used to share a room with a family of Crimean Tatars in the house we lived in. Our room was split into two parts; my family and I lived on one half and they occupied the other half. Their situation was terrible and many of them were sick. Their daughter had white hair bands, which along with school uniforms, were for me like a fairy tale. Many boys saw these small fairy tales and fell in love with them. The Crimean Tatars shared all of the pain and sorrow of our people. In the kolkhoz there were others too — Kazakh, Turkmen and Tajik people. The relationships were very good because we had a common sorrowful fate.

kultur-multur.org: How is the situation now there? Are there other possibilities?

Yodgar Obid: Now the situation is much worse than during the Soviet times. Now it is not only the seven year olds – now anyone old enough to walk goes to work with their parents. Now we receive messages and photographs (from Uzbekistan); friends call us and tell us that they are all collecting cotton. It’s the same situation – if anyone refuses to work, he or she will be expelled from university. They are easy targets for threats. I recently received a message, they say now rich families buy “slaves” and send them to work instead of their own children. So the most part of our people are hard-working but they do slave labour, becoming slaves themselves. I know that in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan the situation is not as bad, but Uzbekistan is a big concentration camp. You cannot even walk freely on the streets because then you will be asked why you are not harvesting cotton. There are road checkpoints as well, where the police stop cars and ask the same question. It is truly a prison.

kultur-multur.org: How do you feel being in Europe?

Yodgar Obid: I live in Europe and a comparison is impossible. There are poor people and rich people here but there is no forced labour as such. I have an Austrian citizenship since 10 years and people treat me well. Some of my books were translated and published. Music has been composed for eight of my poems by Thomas Thurnher, an Austrian composer. We write to each other often and Thomas always lets me know when the songs are played on the radio.

END

Interview by Janyl Jusubjan
Translation by Jambulat Chytyrbaev

Listen to Little Slaves by Yodgar Obid in Uzbek here

Listen to Thomas Thurnher’s composition to Yodgar Obid’s poetry here

The Little Slave in English and Russian, and more information on child labor exploitation read here

Reports say the situation with child labor in the cotton plantations in Uzbekistan are worse this year than ever, read in Russian here

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