In Uzbekistan, summer vacation begins in mid-September, when the heat subsides. It lasts about two months, but many schoolchildren hardly even see their parents during this time. Instead they are required to serve their country by picking cotton.

An obscure ritual dating back to the former Soviet command economy unfolds during the autumn harvest season in the Central Asian republic, when President Islam Karimov mobilizes the masses. About 2 million schoolchildren are then ordered to work in the fields and harvest the "white gold," as cotton has been known since the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In addition to natural gas and gold, cotton is one of the most important sources of hard currency for the Uzbek elite. The price of cotton is currently at its highest since trading began 140 years ago.

Not that the young cotton pickers see much of those profits. Nazira was just 11 when she worked in the fields last year. For an entire month, she, her teachers and the other children from her class in a village near Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan would start picking at 7 a.m. and worked until the early evening hours.

The children were told to meet their quota of 10 kilograms per day. "I was barely able to pick three kilos," Nazira reports. She was paid 60 sums per kilo (3 euro cents). After a month's work, she gave the money to her mother. "She used it to buy me a winter cap, but it wasn't enough, so she had to pay a little extra herself." Read full English version of article in Spiegel Online International.