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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Mongolia's drinking epidemic
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC, Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Heavy drinking in Mongolia is nothing new. Genghis Khan was reputed to have consumed huge quantities of alcohol after vanquishing his enemies.

But today, alcoholism is reaching epidemic proportions, driven by cheap liquor and wrenching social and economic change.

I visited a young man lying on an old iron bedstead in a bare white room inside an Ulan Bator hospital. The man was an alcoholic and this desolate room was his last resort.

Mongolia's appalling level of alcoholism is quite literally a Soviet hangover

Into his right arm an intravenous drip was pumping a mixture of drugs that will, he hopes, help cure him of a disease that is destroying his life and distorting his mind.

"Alcohol makes you feel courageous," he said. "It makes you think you can do anything, take on anybody, even threaten to kill them. I have done these things. I've beaten people, humiliated them. I've even done it to my own family," he said.

This young man's story is far from unique.

Mongolia is today in the midst of an epidemic of alcoholism. On the streets of Ulan Bator you do not have to go far to see its effects.

Ulan Bator railway station, even at 10am in the morning, was already crawling with drunks, many of them already so intoxicated they could hardly stand.

On my left I could see a group of what looked to be middle-aged drunks, many of them in a very bad state indeed.

Just across the road there was another group of young men, perhaps in their 20s, and they all seemed to be knocking back what looked like bottles of clear alcohol.

Now the point is, these people were not just isolated bums. More than half of Mongolia's adult population is now reported to be drinking too much.

Economic ills

Mongolia's appalling level of alcoholism is, quite literally, a Soviet hangover.

When the Russians left in the early 1990s they left behind two things - cheap industrial strength liquor and a collapsing economy. It has turned out to be a lethal cocktail.

Tumendemberel once had a good job as a teacher in an Ulan Bator college. But in the early 1990s, when the Russians pulled out, the college slashed its staff and Tumendemberel lost his job.

Unemployment quickly spiralled into depression, and drinking. He ended up on the streets, where he spent the next eight years.

"When the socialist system collapsed it caused lots of social problems, especially unemployment," he said.

"Many Mongolians just don't want to face these problems, so they drink to escape them. But far from escaping their problems, alcohol has made them much worse.

"You can see the effects today on society. Crime is getting worse and worse. Muggings are now common on the streets of Ulan Bator. Illness and disease is spreading too. It's all caused by drinking," he said.

Tumendemberel finally escaped from alcohol and from his life on the streets. He found salvation at Mongolia's first group of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Each week one group of around 30 former alcoholics comes to a church hall on the edge of Ulan Bator to confront their addictions.

One by one they stand up to tell their story. The process is painful - all the more so in Mongolia with its macho culture.

It is a leap that most of the young men hanging out at the Ulan Bator railway station will never make. Instead they will remain trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, alcoholism and violence.

Daily threat for Mongolia nomads
27 Jul 03  |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Mongolia
09 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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