Mongolia’s street children fight for survival – 21 Aug 07

Mongolia’s street children fight for survival – 21 Aug 07
Provided By: AlJazeeraEnglish

Almost a third of Mongolia’s population are classified as the urban poor. In the past decade hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders have moved to the cities where unemployment and alcohol abuse are rife.

Visit Lotus Children’s Centre to find out more.

Street Children Remain Neglected

Street Children Remain Neglected

Friday, 06 April 2007
By Damien Dawson
WAKING from an uncomfortable dream, not with the bounding energy of an intrepid reporter (it’s a little early for that), I contemplate my luck that at least I can emerge from it. While trying to think of some journalistic genius to impress myself with, I look out of my small, square window and it is plain to see that others do not have such luxury. Nor is this a one-off, as these are the same sights that I have seen almost everyday for a little short of 12 months.

It’s just after 8:00 am. A little girl is stumbling over piles of rubbish, bones and sanitary waste. She wears a pair of boots that are far too big for her short, thin legs, an old, tattered, brown deel and a dirty yellow scarf wrapped around her neck. Her face is a muddy brown color, stained with dirty water where she’s used muddy snow to wipe her face, dried out as it is with the dust and smoke of the cramped underground dwellings, where she lives with her younger sister and other homeless people. She does this any number of times each day before disappearing down a manhole hidden between a row of garages behind my apartment block.

Her name is Narantuya, which roughly translates as bright sunshine. Nara is 10 years old and the sole guardian of her little sister Moogii. These sisters spend their days rummaging through piles of rubbish. They look for enough food to last through the day, wandering from place to place, sometimes walking across the whole city in search of food. They share this daily task with homeless drunks and street dogs, all searching through the same piles of scraps. They make ends meet (barely) by begging, collecting bottles that they sell to recycling plants and anything else that they can scavenge that might have some monetary value.

Although homeless and orphans, these children consider themselves lucky. "Some children are sent out to beg by their parents who use the money they get to buy alcohol, even if they’re not homeless," Nara tells me. These children do not want their names or their faces to be seen in Mongolian newspapers because of the shame this will bring to their families. They at least are trying to retain their national pride. Others that they consider less fortunate than themselves are those forced into selling themselves on the streets, while their pimps are protected by corrupt policemen, who in some cases control the prostitutes themselves.

The children live in groups under the manholes to help stave off drunks who try to assault the young girls. Nara tells me, "Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t …" A quiet resignation infests these children that this is their lot in life.
Beyond all of the degradation, suffering and humiliation of being homeless, if it was thought imaginable, there is a further deeper and darker fate that could haunt the lives of the homeless children living in Ulaanbaatar’s alleyways and heating ducts.

In a week when the western world celebrates the anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, abducted women and children are being transported across the Chinese border in a modern-day slave trade.
The western world is dimly but increasingly aware of this, but it remains firmly at the back of the minds of those that possess the power to deal with the plight of those who are part of Mongolia’s future.

The Underbelly (Blog entry)

The Underbelly

Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia
Flag of Mongolia
Friday, Sep 08, 2006  01:13

Entry 6 of 17 | show all | print this entry

Photo album: View photo album View as slideshow


The tunnels #1

The tunnels #2
 

Click here for satellite map
Hide lines Reference map 

Sainbainuu

This week I began work at World Vision. It has been an eye opening week, that’s for sure.

On Tuesday, I visisted the city’s heating tunnels underground the city, where the street children and other homeless people live during winter. The NGOs estimate there are about 3000 kids on the streets. I can understand now why they go underground, it has already been snowing the last few mornings and the nights are freezing, so they can only really survive by going underground.

To get down to the tunnels, there are holes in the ground all over the city. Very hazardous, it’s important to carry a torch at night when you’re walking round or you could end up down one with a broken neck or at least a broken leg (apparently quite common!). Pretty horrific living conditions down there, stinky and dirty, it’s hard to imagine living there. I was glad to get out. A couple of us stepped in what must have been human excretement while down there, so it was an unpleasant journey home in the van afterwards.

What is interesting is that many mongolians don’t have much sympathy for the street children, viewing them as delinquants who choose to live on the streets and who wouldn’t want help even if it was offered. I can kind of see where the view comes from, since the kids can be pretty aggressive, disruptive and are obviously committing a fair bit of crime, but I bet they or I would probably be just the same if we were living on the streets. The kids are hungry!

I have been blown away with the work World Vision is doing. They came in to help the street kids when even other aid organisations wouldn’t, and the transformations are just incredible. On Friday, I met a group of the kids living in the "Lighthouse Centres". All the kids arrived at the centres from living in the tunnels. They were
all either orphans or mostly they were in the tunnels after leaving dire domestic situations, usually abusive. All had STD’s when they arrived, even the kids as young as 5. One had seen her brothers and sisters murdered. Some of the girls had been raped by their fathers. The kids sang for us, and it was indescribably moving seeing them so happy, knowing where they had come from. One of the boys was so happy when he was singing, he was crying.

The projects are much more comprehensive and far reaching than I imagined. There are centres for getting the kids off the streets, then projects for re-uniting them with their families, projects for assisting impoverished parents generate income so they can look after their kids properly, projects for teaching the kids practical farming skills if they prefer that over formal education, projects in the children’s prisons for teaching the kids vocational skills to use when they get out….the list goes on.

I met a girl in the girl’s prison, aged 19. She was pregnant when sentanced and had had her baby in prison. She had the baby with her in a mother’s unit sponsored by World Vision, and in existance because of a law change lobbied for by World Vision. But the baby will be taken away in when it reaches a year old and put into an orphanage. The girl is in prison because she was living on the streets and stole $1.20. It was her third theft offence so she recieved a "three strikes, you’re out" sentance of 10 years. There is no parole here. The unfairness of the girl’s situation and seeing her crying, trying to imagine what she is feeling – about her future, about losing her child in a few months -was heart breaking. Particularly heart breaking is knowing that with the $1.20 she stole (before being caught) she had bought soap to wash with, and some washing powder. The World Vision advocacy team is working on lobbying the goverment to change the current laws pertaining to crimes like hers, and generally working to promote basic human rights.

For the lawyers reading this, I have been intereseted to hear about World Visions legal procedures projects too. The legal system here is in a very infant stage. The laws have been plucked straight from Russia and there has been very few if any precedents or effort to apply the law to the mongolian context. There is little if any understanding of what precedent means even! Or what it means to defend! The "defence" lawyers typically just listen to what the judge says and accepts it! World Vision is having to teach practitioners how to defend clients, and is working on developing a law of procedure because at the moment there isn’t one.

The photos with this entry are me and Rahel at the tunnels where the street children sleep in winter. The night we visited we there were no kids yet, because the city heating is only turned on next week so until then, they sneak into the stairwells of apartment buildings like mine and Rahel’s and sleep there. By the way, in case you were thinking that I look huge in the photo, I am wearing a borrowed jacket – the mutton fat hasn’t got to me yet!

Traffickers profit from vulnerability of street children in Mongolia

Traffickers profit from vulnerability of street children in Mongolia

by Daryhand Bayar, UNICEF Mongolia

Mongolia’s peaceful transition to democracy since the mid-1990s after 70 years of communism has brought many positive changes to the country. But it has also resulted in negative impacts such as a dramatic rise in the number of children living and working on the streets and an increased risk that children will be trafficked for sexual and other purposes, including through adoption. Although there is insufficient hard evidence to date, it seems highly likely that many of the children in Mongolia who become victims of traffickers are those who spend much time on the street and are most deprived of protection.

As a new concept and phenomenon in Mongolia, there is no equivalent for the term ‘trafficking’ in the Mongol language. But while there are no officially registered cases of trafficking in the country, there are more and more reports of children and young people being trafficked (often, by people they already know), and studies indicate that high levels of unemployment and poverty have set the preconditions for the spread of this crime.

According to a survey conducted by Mongolia’s Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), street children and unemployed youth are prime targets for traffickers. In Mongolia, estimates by various agencies and studies put the number of street children at about 3700 to 4000, a situation that was unheard of before Mongolia experienced the flow-on effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some of these children spend part of their time on the streets doing odd jobs, such as working as porters, shining shoes and collecting bottles or other items from garbage to sell. Other children beg to support themselves and their families. Many live in underground sewer tunnels and pipes (known as manholes) that provide hot water to people’s homes. There, the children seek refuge from winter temperatures that can sometimes drop to minus 40 degrees Centigrade (minus 104 degrees Fahrenheit).

The main causes that have pushed Mongolian children onto the streets are poverty, unemployment, an increasing incidence of alcoholism in the home, domestic violence and family breakdown, all of which have increased in tandem with the uncertainties that afflict communities in times of rapid and difficult transition. More than 36 per cent of the population is classified as poor or very poor, and almost 48 per cent of children live in vulnerable, poor and very poor families where their parents are likely to be unemployed. In concert with the country’s shift from a state-controlled economy to a market economy has come rapid urban expansion, which has not been matched by a complementary expansion of social services in urban centres such as the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

Many rural families are increasingly migrating back to the cities because of environmental hardship caused by dzud (or disaster, such as winter snow storms) and difficulties in raising livestock. Many of these difficulties, including overgrazing, are connected to the economic changes experienced by the country through the 1990s. The loss of jobs caused by new privatisation measures and the collapse of businesses saw many people turn to herding to generate an income. Now, as they and longer-term rural dwellers return to the cities, their chances of finding sustaining work remain low.

About half the population of 2.7 million now lives in towns, and unplanned migration and urbanisation have had an adverse impact on access to and the quality of basic social services such as education, child care and health care. Children of migrant families are especially vulnerable. They often work long hours inside and outside the family. Many work alongside their parents in the informal sector to contribute to the family income. Others drop out of school while yet others are denied access to education and health care services because their parents cannot pay the registration fee required when they join new municipalities. Some end up living on the streets.

According to an assessment by UNICEF of street and unsupervised children, migrant girls who live and/or work on the streets are often recruited into prostitution. Research by CHRD indicates that highly organised criminals take advantage of the girls’ vulnerability on the streets and force them down this path in order to profit from their exploitation. The organisers are not necessarily unknown to the girls – they are often family members or other girls who have previously engaged in prostitution. The rate of prostitution is highest in Ulaanbaatar, but it is also prevalent in provinces near Mongolia’s borders. The implication is that children forced into prostitution in these provinces may also become victims of cross-border trafficking.

In addition, police and staff with the Children’s Nursing Organisations believe that traffickers could transport children across borders by pretending that a child is to be adopted by foreigners. According to data gathered by Mongolia’s National Centre against Violence, there are also unconfirmed reports that children have indeed been sold by their parents for adoption to foreigners. Either way, poor border controls mean that mechanisms for tracking and documenting the likelihood of children returning after they leave the country (with their parents or others) are very weak. In this sense, there are also indications that Mongolia is becoming not only a source country for child victims of trafficking, but also a transit country.

Mongolia’s Parliament has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. The Government has also taken action to set up a legal environment to protect children and their rights, including devising its National Programme of Action for the Development and Protection of Children, 2002-2010. But harmonisation of national law with the Protocol is yet to be undertaken, and Mongolia’s existing Criminal Code and Criminal Procedures Code do not yet reflect the Protocol’s principle of ensuring that all perpetrators of commercial sexual exploitation of children are pursued and prosecuted as criminals while their victims are not treated as criminals and permitted to enjoy their right to child-friendly judicial procedures.

In addition, there is a need for legal provisions that specifically address the rights of street children and their especially acute need for protection, building on the momentum generated by the work of many non-government organisations and other agencies on this front, including the initiation of several national consultative meetings on the rights and protection of street children. The particular vulnerability of children on the street to traffickers makes it imperative that Mongolia sign and implement the UN Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, which provides a framework for international cooperation in combating the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Nevertheless, there now are at least provisions for a prison sentence of five to eight years if a person is found to have sold a child.

It is difficult to estimate the true scale of trafficking in Mongolia, and especially in relation to street children. But the problem of trafficking is no longer shrouded in silence, and the Government and non-government organisations are making an effort to take concrete steps against trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, which – along with the increasing numbers of children on the streets and otherwise at risk – have become such a serious cause for concern amid the difficulties faci
ng a country in transition.

Woman Fights for Mongolia’s Street Children

 
In Frigid City, Orphans and Runaways Gather in Manholes to Stay Warm
Christina Noble

By MARK LITKE

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia, Nov. 27, 2005 — The sun is setting, the temperature is close to zero Celsius, and I’m crawling through a manhole into a filthy sewer tunnel under the streets of Ulan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia.

A weak, AAA-battery headlamp barely lights the way. But the dank, humid air, the intense odor, and the hot pipes carrying sewage and steam are an assault on every other sense.

var oDiv = document.getElementById(‘columnad’); var embedDiv = document.getElementById(’embed_links’); if(oDiv.offsetWidth > 160 && oDiv.offsetHeight > 300) { embedDiv.style.width = “238px”; } else { embedDiv.style.width = “360px”; }

My guides are three Mongolian children — two sisters, Cangchimeg, 17, and Ganerdene, 16, and their 11-year-old friend, a boy named Galdanochir.

Faces smudged with grime, clothing torn and ragged, and malnutrition make them all look at least two years younger.

And yet, like streetwise urchins from a Dickens novel, they proudly show off the comforts of their underground home — their cardboard beds, the water faucet that shoots out steamed water for drinking and brushing teeth. And, of course, there are the thick lead steam pipes that keep them warm when the temperatures outside plunge below zero.

They have lived here for the past two years. And, as we came to learn, their story is similar to that of thousands of other children in Mongolia today.

They are orphans, runaways from abusive parents or kids from families so impoverished they simply have no choice.

In one of the poorest and coldest cities in the world, you will see them at every turn — begging, selling gum, shining shoes, picking pockets, or scrounging for something to sell or eat in back-alley garbage dumps.

It has been 15 years since Mongolians overthrew their communist government. Today, Mongolia is an emerging democracy, praised by President Bush for its commitment to freedom.

Down in the Manholes

But there are thousands of Mongolian children who define freedom much differently than a visiting American president; especially the homeless children who live in the manholes.

In their darkened manhole cave, Ganerdene, Canchimeg and Galdanochir say they like the freedom they have here, that it is their home until they find something better.

Her haunting face lit by a single candle, Canchimeg says, "Our parents used to beat us. Other kids would bully us when we tried to sell gum at the train station. The police would arrest us for no reason and use us to mop the floors at the police station before letting us go."

Canchimeg, already a young woman, drops her eyes as she describes how older men would try to force her into sexual acts.

"But I run away," she says defiantly. "And once we’re down here, we feel safe."

Several years ago, the Mongolian government was deeply embarrassed by reports on the manhole children. They tried sealing up manholes to keep the kids out. But that only led to an increase in children freezing to death on the streets.

More recently, Mongolia has opened its doors to dozens of non-governmental agencies who have provided food, clothing and care to the homeless. And, according to official government figures, the number of children on the streets has declined from about 4,000 to an estimated 2,000.

Christina Noble

But even if it’s 200, or two dozen, it would still by a "shocking outrage" to one tough, outspoken, and very unlikely guardian angel for the lost and abandoned children of Mongolia.

Her name is Christina Noble, a survivor of the gritty slums of Dublin, Ireland, who has devoted her life to the care of abandoned and abused children.

For years, her Christina Noble Children’s Foundation (http://www.cncf.org) worked miracles in Vietnam — building orphanages, schools, hospitals and saving hundreds of thousands of children from destitute lives on the streets.

Today, Noble has become a fixture in Mongolia, where she tirelessly lobbies the Mongolian government to protect the rights of children.

Alternately scolding and flattering officials, she is determined to show by example that protecting children is the hallmark of a civilized society. And ever so slowly, she is making progress.

‘I Love Ya’

On this night, she has brought her mobile medical clinic into the center of Ulan Bator to lure kids out of their manholes for some basic health care — treatment for broken bones, sewer burns, chronic skin diseases or worse.

Bundled in a baby blue ski suit and a flamboyant white boa, her shock of blond hair glowing under the street lamps, Noble hunches over a narrow manhole on one of Ulan Bator’s busiest thoroughfares.

It is freezing and she is weak from her own recent cancer treatment, but she stands like a rock, grabbing and hugging each child scrambling up from the sewer tunnel.

A dirty pair of hands and a grimy face emerges: A young boy, weary at first, breaks into a grin as he sees Noble. He scrambles out and into her oversized clutch.

"I love ya," she shouts in her heavy Irish brogue. "I love ya, darlin’," she says, planting a kiss on his forehead.

Then, another child emerges. And another. And another. At least 20 from this one manhole.

Noble is there to hug and kiss every one as she escorts them into her medical van for a few minutes of warmth, a Band-Aid or two, the gentle touch of a doctor cleaning an infected wound.

"Look at ’em, just look at ’em," she says. "Ach! Look at the sores. Look at the skin diseases. They’ll die from infection. They’ll get gangrene and have to have legs amputated."

As she describes their plight, Noble becomes more emotional, more emphatic.

"Many of these kids also have syphilis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia," she says. "Some have all three."

"A lot of these children won’t survive the winter," N
oble says. "And yet, they would rather die on the street and in the manholes than to face the horrific beatings and abuse that they have run away from."

Blue Sky Village

To offer an alternative to children, the Christina Noble Foundation has built a refuge for children here, called "Blue Sky Village." It is a cluster of traditional Mongolian nomad tents, called ‘gers,’ spread across several acres.

At any one time, about 50 children call Blue Sky Village home. And a few others come from poor communities nearby to spend the day.

At the refuge, older children from the streets and younger ones who might have ended up in the manholes are given a normal life. They are well-clothed and well-fed. They are given education, recreation and respect.

Noble says she knows the government of Mongolia is struggling economically, but more needs to be done. And she’s increasingly confident that the authorities will learn from her example.

Mongolia’s children, she says, deserve nothing less.

"For God’s sake," she pleads, "Give the children back their childhood. Give them back their life. Let them laugh. Let them sing. Let them cry.

"We have a tsunami, we have an earthquake, and the world goes rushin’ in," she adds. "Well, this is a disaster, too."

"Maybe," Noble says with more than a little Irish pluck and a twinkle in her eye, "that young Microsoft fellah will see this story and give us a hand."

Back to the Manholes

Still, many days will end in heartbreak for Noble, as she watches children she has hugged and encouraged and treated for illnesses … crawl back in their manholes for the night.

Even on the coldest of winter nights here, with temperatures of 30 and 40 below, there are many defiant street children who insist that living underground is safer than any place else they’ve known.

After years of abandonment or abuse, these tough kids don’t trust too many people. Noble understands that.

She treats them with dignity, even when they choose to go back to their manholes.

But on this night, she walked away shaking and sobbing: "They will pay with their lives. It’s just not right. It’s not the way it should be."

Dolgion: ‘Life is given only once’

Street children
ULAANBAATAR
MONGOLIA
Dolgion: 'Life is given only once'
Photo: B Toshka

Dolgion, 14, lives in a sewage pit on the fringes of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The air is hot and fetid, with much of the space taken up by two large heating pipes. An all-engulfing stench of rotting garbage and human waste issues from a sewage pipe below.

People call us transheiny [sewage] kids and shun us. I’ve been living like this for the last four years. Before we lived in Yarmag District [an Ulaanbaatar suburb] in a gher [traditional felt-covered round tent of nomads]. My mother worked as a nurse at hospital. Father had no job. As far as I can remember, he was always unemployed. Once he disappeared for several days and when he returned he gave me a plastic pistol as a gift. I never forget that gift.

Our gher burnt down when I was seven. Me and my classmate were playing after classes when fire started from an electric socket. The two of us tried to suppress it by throwing dirt on it. I had heard that water is no good for electricity. Firefighters arrived only after an hour when our home had already turned to smoking ashes.

A relative of my father took us in. It was difficult to live with another family: too many people, crowded place. Father tried to find another home for us, but he began to drink too much. One day my mum left, and I stayed with Father.

After Mother left us, Father returned home drunk almost every day. At the end, the family we stayed with told us to go away. We did not know where to go and just wandered the streets. Father befriended some bad men and drank with them. Often he would become too drunk to walk and collapse right on the street. I would hang around guarding him. Even if I wanted to carry him away I couldn’t because I was too small then. I followed my father like this for more than a month. One day he collapsed again, and I told myself ‘I cannot take it anymore’ and ran away, leaving him behind alone.

I learned that it’s no good to lie hungry as one may die at the end. It is better to walk and walk

Four years have passed since then. I never saw my father again; I don’t even know if he is alive or not. After separating from Father, I lived in District 120,000. I wandered the streets, collected food from garbage dumps, begged on the streets. I was small then and people would take pity on me and give good money. There were times I was very hungry. Once I couldn’t find anything to eat for two days. At the end I fell unconscious. I learned that it’s no good to lie hungry as one may die at the end. It is better to walk and walk.

Special guidelines used for this edition
To protect the integrity of the children in this edition and their stories, we followed guidelines worked out beforehand by street children’s charities. All the children consented to talk with our reporters after being told where and how their stories would be published. Their views have been recorded without censorship. They have been able to withdraw from the project at any point and strike out things they decided not to share with a wider audience.

Names have been routinely changed. Photographs were taken with the active participation of the children. Where sexual exploitation was an important aspect of their testimony or where children were not comfortable being photographed, visual anonymity has been maintained.

As winter approached I moved to Narantuul Market [a large flea and food market]. In the beginning I picked leftovers from a canteen there. Narantuul market is a dangerous place. If you don’t have friends there, children can easily beat you. They usually hang out in gangs. Children who work as market porters are usually older. The younger ones steal, rob other children.

I had a friend there named Cola. Once Cola sold a pair of shoes and it turned out they belonged to his older brother. The brother got mad and beat the two of us harshly. Blood was coming out of my ears. I ran away from there and now stay here, in a bunker sitting on the city heating pipes. Already I’ve been here for two years.

There are six of us living in this pit. Batbaatar is 16. Nyamdorj does not even know his age. He was abandoned by his parents when small. Auntie Uugaana is eldest at 22. Before, kids from the Sharkhad area would come, beat and rob us. But after Auntie joined us they don’t come any more.

How do we live? In the morning one of us will go
for water. Some wash their faces, some drink water and then we all go out to collect empty bottles. Sometimes it is very cold outside, so we wait until it is noon and gets warmer, then go for lunch at a canteen for the poor. In the evening we sell whatever bottles we’ve collected during the day. Together we make 2,000-2,500 tugriks [$2]. Rarely more than that.

A vodka bottle earns 40 tugriks, one soft drink can brings 15 tugriks. With this money we buy food in the evening. Mostly we buy Chinese noodle soup. We put the noodles into a plastic bag, add water and then place them on the heating pipes. There are two large pipes running in the bottom of our bunker. They are so hot that we easily get burnt if we touch them. So in a few minutes the soup gets ready.

Down in the pit: Dolgion and his comrades. ‘People call us sewage kids.’ Photo: B Toshka
Down in the pit: Dolgion and his comrades. ‘People call us sewage kids.’ Photo: B Toshka

If we don’t have enough money, on weekends we go to a place giving hot food for free. It’s quite far so we take a bus. We don’t pay for the bus ride. Many poor people go there on Sunday, so the ticket conductors know.

When we have some spare money, we go to PC game room. It costs 400 tugriks [$ 0.35] to play for one hour. We have to clean our clothes by rubbing them with snow, wash our faces and hands. Otherwise they won’t let us in. They allow us to play only when there are few people there. But with the money we have, we can only play 15-30 minutes each.

Earlier it was much easier to collect bottles. They are becoming rarer now, fewer and fewer every day. People store bottles and cans at home and then sell them themselves. The apartment blocks’ concierges collect the remainder. And some adults now own the garbage dumping places. When we go there they chase us away.

Clothes are hardest to get. None of us have good clothes – let alone a warm sweater. We don’t even have underpants. We find our clothes mostly at garbage dumps. The winter jacket I wear now was given by a man who knocked me down with his car. I was about to cross the street just near the [General] Zhukov Museum when a car came over and its side mirror caught and dragged me. I was carried for a few metres and fell down with such force that my jaw was completely displaced, hanging loosely. When I came to I found myself lying on a white hospital bed. When I got better, the man gave me 60,000 tugriks [$50]. He said he would help me whenever we happened to meet again. One month later I saw him and he took me for a lunch and bought me this jacket. He’s a good man.


Seeking shelter
Why don’t we go to a street children’s shelter to bathe? True, they don’t charge money. But we have no soap and no clothes to change into afterwards. If you hadn’t given me a T-shirt [referring to a gift from the interviewer], I would wear the winter jacket alone. Without socks and underwear, it is very easy to get sick in the winter cold.

One of my friends died of pneumonia. He was a year older than me. We hung out together in District 120,000. There was a niche in the wall on the second floor. We would climb there by rope and sleep at night. That day I covered him with my jacket and went out to find food. When I got back he did not wake up. I put my hand on his nostrils; there was no breathing. I immediately called an ambulance, but it never came. It is free to call police and ambulance from public telephone, you know. [Hospitals do not accept children without health insurance.]

Later on I was interrogated by the police. Luckily there was a female officer handling my case. She asked me to tell why my friend died and I told her the truth. Then she told me to repeat this in court. The trial took place in a very small room. The judge was going in and out. At the end he said ‘Innocent, innocent’, and told me to go away.

Shelters? I’ve been once or twice. Many kids at the shelter learn taekwondo fighting at the nearby sport club. When they hit their feet fly as high as my face. The older ones bully and beat other kids. When New Year gifts were distributed older boys went round the rooms and collected all of them from us. They ate our gifts for days. Older boys are mostly abandoned children brought up in the shelter.

Children’s rights? We have nothing. We’re just like human garbage. Nobody needs us.
Anyone can come and beat us. I want to go to a place where there is no beating. Recently children from that house [points to a residential apartment block nearby] came over and hit us all for no reason. The police come to us only if a theft happens nearby. They take us to the police station where they beat and beat demanding we confess to stealing. They force us to sit on a stool like this [arches his back] and then beat us with batons. Or they tie you tightly on a bench, insert a wooden pole between the legs, right below the crotch and then start rolling it… so-o-o painful.

Once, right when they were doing this to me, a police officer came in. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘He has stolen things,’ answered the man hurting me. I screamed ‘I did not steal anything. They torture me, telling to admit that I did.’ The officer ordered them to release me. This happened last year. Now the police are a bit quiet. Once in a while they come over our pit, look inside with flashlights and ask if we have knives or other weapons.

People rarely help us. Most are suspicious of us, thinking we are all thieves. There is a man named Ochir who lives nearby and operates a depot where people give bottles and cans. He is a very good man. Often he allows us to sleep at the depot building. Even brings in a TV set. Channel 25’s programme about computer games is good. Once I saw a programme by Gurbazar [a popular TV journalist] where twins – both now old women – meet after many years apart.

All people want to have a good life. I do not know what my life will be like when I grow up. I am afraid that I will die one day with my whole life spent like this, collecting bottles. Life is given only once and I am scared that I will see no good times.

Last summer there was much talk about giving money to children. But once the politicians got elected, no more talk of money at all. They were promising money only to get elected. I think that now they collect all the money for themselves. [The general election was held in June 2004 with the opposition promising to pay 10,000 tugriks ($10) monthly for each child, if elected.]

Cash in hand: each empty vodka bottle Dolgion can find is worth 3 cents. Photo: B Toshka
Cash in hand: each empty vodka bottle Dolgion can find is worth 3 cents. Photo: B Toshka

Belief and disbelief
Now I believe in God. Last summer two Chinese men used to visit me bringing food in a large bowl. They even shared food with me eating from the same bowl with the same spoon. While eating they told me that I should believe in Jesus. I did not believe then. One day the two men said they are leaving for home – Hong Kong. They brought very good food for the last time and gave me 1,000 tugriks [$1].

Before I did not believe in Christ. And then one kid told me about his revelation. After that I believed. It was only a month ago. The first thing I asked from God was to heal my sores because my hand was terribly swollen from fingers to elbow. My foot was also hurting with a wound from a burn blister. In three days the swollen hand got normal and the wound on my foot is now healing.

I met a man recently claiming to be a friend of my mother’s husband. He said that she died in early August. I did not ask anything more. I simply cannot accept this.

When I grow up, I will own a bottle collection point. Most important is to get documents. When I turn 16 I will get a citizen ID card, then work for a while to collect money. With this money I will set up a collecting point.

Other dreams? Well, I will find my parents. I will work all on my own and will find them myself. When I find my parents I will buy a house and we all will live together. I don’t believe that my mother died recently. I simply do not believe it.

Dolgion spoke
to Lutaa Badamkhand (lut@magicnet.mn),
a freelance journalist who publishes an online
cultural
e-zine (www.MongoliaToday.com).

DARK SIDE OF MONGOLIA

DARK SIDE OF MONGOLIA
By By Conor O’Clery, The Irish Times
part 2 (Click here for part 1)

The economic and political reforms have given a veneer of prosperity to Ulan Bator, but they have brought great hardship to many Mongolians, especially urban dwellers who worked in now defunct state industries. The fall in world prices for Mongolia’s main exports, copper, gold and cashmere, and the contraction of the Asian and Russian markets have also hit Mongolia hard. Always a poor country, the living standard is lower than in the last years of communism. According to the World Bank, one third of the population lives below the poverty line and one in four children is chronically malnourished.

Many teenagers are forced to go into streets in order to earn money for their families.

This has resulted in the phenomenon of Ulan Bator’s street kids, who have been growing in number for six years. Today, according to the police, there are 382 children living permanently on the streets, many refugees from abusive alcoholic parents. The number rises occasionally to between 500 and 1,000. They beg, steal, pick-pocket, polish shoes, carry rubbish or do other menial tasks just to stay alive. The street children sleep in the open when the weather is warm and during the freezing winter nights they take refuge in communal flats or in the city sewers. Below ground they huddle in gangs of about 25 for safety and sleep close to the insulated pipes carrying hot water to apartment blocks.

There are 16 foreign agencies working with the Mongolian government to relieve the plight of the children, including the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation. Dublinborn Christina Noble, herself once a badly abused street child in the Liberties, has run a centre for street children in Vietnam since 1990. Mongolia has the same problems as Vietnam, Noble told The Irish Times last year, children being eaten alive by lice, suffering from syphilis and herpes – with no one to help because Mongolia is not fashionable". Two Irish nurses, Annette Hearns (29), and Orna McEntee (27), who work with the foundation, have been down the sewers to see conditions for themselves. Over several months they befriended the children, otherwise it would be too dangerous.

"The sewers are pitch black, full of flies and so humid that my glasses steamed up," said Annette. The foundation "helps families to stay together to avoid their children ending up on the streets and assists those children who are on the streets to get back into mainstream society," said its Ulan Bator-based director, Joe Woolf. "We are helping boys and girls who are prisoners, we are running a health education programme and a drop-in health clinic and we are also renovating a hospital for poor children. And with a mobile Mercedes clinic we will be touring the countryside, bringing primary health care to people that need it, and looking after and educating abandoned children and reintegrating them back into family life where possible."

Other aid workers said child prostitution was a huge problem. Most of the street girls are engaged in commercial sex. I was told of one case where a child of seven worked with a pimp aged 10. The clients are almost all adult men. One 13-year-old gave birth in a sewer. She and the baby survived and were taken into care. The British organisation, Save the Children, which has been working in Mongolia since 1994, says there are about 200 child prostitutes, of whom 60 are registered with the police. The big fear is a HIV epidemic. In one recent survey of 114 young people between the ages of four and 20, 106 admitted they had had a sexually transmitted disease.

Life in Ulan Bator and small urban centres is so hard that many people are returning to the rolling steppes. The nomadic herdsmen, lovers of stories, drink and good horsemanship, live a life unchanged since the days of Genghis Khan, roaming freely in a country three times the size of France. After the break-up of collective farms, they were allowed to own more livestock and the number of animals in Mongolia increased from 25 million to more than 30 million. "If you work hard and look after your animals you can get rich," said a horseman 100 kilometres south of Ulan Bator, as he looked for a lost camel – a frequent problem on the unfenced grasslands.

That is not quite the experience of Natsag and Altangerel, a retired police official and his wife, who live on a gentle grass slope which is rich in buttercups and wild strawberries in summer. They have only one name each, as the communists banned surnames in 1921 to end clan allegiance. (The government is now encouraging surnames again but most people want to choose Borjiin, the family name of Genghis Khan). The couple invited me into their ger, a circular tent of felt and canvas with a conical roof and a couch, bed, sideboard and stools arranged neatly around a metal stove, but no television as they have no electricity.

After sharing some snuff, extracted from Natsag’s ceramic jar with a long metal spoon, and drinking a bowl of fermented mare’s milk, they spoke to me sadly about life after communism on the steppes of Mongolia. They have two small pensions and 20 sheep, 30 goats and 10 cows, many more than before the reforms, but "life is getting worse, and we just have enough to feed ourselves because flour and rice are so expensive and the money for goat hair is very little now," said Altangerel, who reared nine daughters, one of who is unemployed.

"During the Soviet period it was better for workers. The poorest are more poor now and the young can’t find jobs." They did not want to go back to collectivisation but something had to be done. Said Natsag sharply: "Mongolians are lazy. They don’t want to improve themselves, that’s the problem."

"What about the teenagers spending their evenings in the new nightclubs in Ulan Bator, I asked Altangerel. "That’s OK, within limits," she said. "The big problem is that, before, children respected their parents, and youth respected the public. That’s not the case any more." She added, as she put dried cattle dung in the stove, "I have to say that before 1990 it was better from that point of view."