Erbol and Alimbek, a pair of third-graders and lifelong friends, were on their way home from school when a speeding BMW plowed into them.
The impact was so strong the car’s front license plate flew off. Without hanging around to inspect his handiwork, the driver sped away. Images of the gravely wounded children lying on the ground in their red school uniforms quickly did the rounds on Kyrgyzstan’s social media, sparking outrage among a public otherwise inured to stories of shocking traffic accidents.
The accident also revived calls to finally kickstart a dormant project to install cameras around the capital, Bishkek, as part of the serially delayed Safe City initiative. But officials admit that progress is unlikely to be made soon because of a protracted legal dispute.
There is another twist to Erbol and Alimbek’s story that has provoked particular revulsion, and which neatly highlights the sense of impunity felt by the country’s most hardened delinquent drivers.
Once the police managed to track down the hit-and-run offender, it was discovered that he had been involved in a similar incident on a previous occasion. In 2015, he fatally ran over another pedestrian and managed to evade prosecution by paying the relatives compensation.
Determined to get him off the hook again, the man’s relatives allegedly tried to intimidate Erbol and Alimbek’s families into withdrawing their police report. They even visited the hospital where the boys were being treated for injuries that included damage to the brain, broken bones and a ruptured abdominal cavity. “After we stuck up a sign saying ‘isolation ward’ at the entrance to their wing and posted a guard, they stopped coming,” Erbol’s mother, Eliza, told EurasiaNet.org.
Accidents are an all too common sight in Bishkek and beyond. In the first four months of this year, there were 1,634 reported traffic accidents, leading to 197 deaths. Of that total, 328 accidents involved children. Ten children have died as a result.
In the first three months of this year alone, the capital city saw more than 250 traffic accidents involving pedestrians. Of those, 81 involved children. By the end of April, there had been around 150 fatalities nationwide.
Even the briefest of drives around Bishkek and on the highways makes it clear why Kyrgyzstan’s roads are becoming increasingly dangerous for motorists, as well as pedestrians. “This is to do with the increasing number of cars in Bishkek, the quality of our roads does not meet current requirements, and then there is the lack of respect among drivers who just drive in complete disregard [of the rules],” Taalaibek Bugubayev, a spokesman for Bishkek traffic police, told EurasiaNet.org.
More specifically, that means breezing through red lights, failing to slow down at pedestrian crossings, overtaking at speed on bends, poor maintenance of vehicles, and driving too fast and too close to other cars. Pedestrians are also known to engage in reckless behavior, sometimes spurning uneven and poorly lit sidewalks, and crossing roads at will without taking basic precautions. With 380,000 officially registered cars on Bishkek’s roads — up from just 100,000 five years ago — the capital is where the risks are greatest.
Even when honest traffic policemen do try to lay down the law, they receive little respect, a legacy of years of law enforcement officers abusing their post to extort bribes.
The installation of cameras might go some way towards addressing at least some of those problems, traffic safety experts say.
Progress on that front has become snarled in bureaucracy and nebulous political horse-trading, however. The government on two occasions has held a tender for the contract to operate the system, but the results were cancelled each time. Indignant bidders are now fighting those decisions in the courts.
Interior Ministry press spokesman Ernis Osmonbayev said that as long as the legal case is unresolved, Safe City cannot be put into action. “Photo and video surveillance has only been installed at the entrance to the city. In the city itself, neither we nor the mayor’s office, which is [ultimately] responsible for Safe City, can install cameras because of the ongoing court case,” Osmonbayev said.
It is not clear when the dispute is likely to come to a close.
As Bugubayev, the Bishkek traffic police spokesman explained, without the cameras in place, it is not currently cost-effective to track down serial offenders. As an example, he cited one recent episode of a driver who almost ran down a schoolgirl and her father as they were crossing the road. “How many days did it take us to track him down? How much money did we spend on that? If we had had a camera, we would have found him immediately,” he said.
For now, there are mobile units moving around the city performing ad hoc inspections, said Osmonbayev, while adding that there are too few of them to deal with the volume of cars on the roads.
Earlier this month, the traffic police released a series of short advertisements warning of the dangers of speeding and using mobile phones at the wheel. Similar campaigns in the past have yielded no discernible effects.
Tired of waiting for progress, Nazira Beishenaliyeva has created a petition of civic activists and other members of the public calling on the president to quickly install speed cameras on the city’s roads. A few thousand people have already signed up. “Show some will. You will save our and your children and grandchildren. Your failure to act is continuing to kill hundreds of children and thousands of adults every year,” Beishenaliyeva’s petition reads.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.