In Kyrgyzstan, many minor disputes are resolved in so-called “Courts of Elders” or “Aksakal Courts” (which translates to ‘Courts of White-beards’). These tribunals mediate arguments over everything from swearing in public to domestic violence, from stealing a clove of garlic to making off with a herd of goat. Most often, they deal with the chronic problems of everyday life: undying neighborly squabbles, leaks and cracks in crumbling Soviet buildings, habitual drunks. Their work is authorized by Kyrgyz law, though they are allowed to use their personal wisdom and local custom to bring parties to agreement and resolve conflict. Here are a few of the judges working in these courts.
“I’m a deputy imam in my neighborhood mosque.” “Do you use Islam in your work at the Court of Elders?” “No – I use only the law. Only the formal law. Islam should inspire us, but the law is now a separate thing.”
“No one cares about elders anymore. Children – girls and boys – smoke in front of me. And I tell them to stop, and they tell me ‘go away, old man.’ In the villages everyone listens to the elders, but here the Court of Elders has no meaning.”
“We do all sorts of work. We hear cases, we oversee registers of possible religious extremists, we help with pasture registrations. Our village government, police, Women’s and Youth Councils — they all help us and we help them.”
“Look at the awards I’ve gotten for my public work. I’m the head of my Court of Elders, head of my co-op – and I do it well. I was a housewife. 6 children. And now I work for the people.”
“I spend most of my free time writing genealogy charts of the Kyrgyz tribes. And when there are cases I resolve them.” “Can I take a picture of you?” “Get one of me with my hat!”
“I was sent here when it was a collective farm. I taught Russian … but now the farm is gone and the people have left. Now it’s only old people who can’t leave and young children. So we don’t have that many cases.”
“I was a simple welder, that was my career. And now I’m a Chief of the Court of Elders. Who would have thought? I try my best.”
“We work closely with the police. The police are thankful for us.”
“The prior head of our Court of Elders ruled with an iron fist. This one is softer. It takes more patience.” (She is a member of the court).
“Mostly, people complain to us about their families. And then there’s pasture problems, cattle thievery, access to water. That one they really complain about. People have to pay for their irrigation water, but no one wants to. And they say “yes we paid” to the administration, but they can’t lie to an elder like me.”
“I’m a beekeeper in my free time. And I’m the only female head of a Court of Elders among our district’s villages. I’m proud of that. Our village got no land when the new [Kyrgyz] government set the town lines [after the USSR fell apart] and the factory shut down. We even have to ask the next village over for water. All the young people are leaving.”
“I was just voted to head the court yesterday. The last court resigned in some scandal.” “What was the scandal about?” “I can’t say.” “What are your plans for the court?” “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to the capital for advice. I’m just going to try to do my best. We already have cases. I cleaned this office myself – do you like the flowers? “