BELGRADE (AFP) — The plight of Luja, a 16-year-old who stopped going to school because he couldn’t afford books, reflects that of the hundreds of homeless children in Belgrade.
Instead of getting an education, he guards a private car parking lot, scraping just enough together to be able to survive.
Luja’s story is similar to those of some of the estimated 500 homeless children and teenagers who, during the day, wander along the grimy streets of the Serbian capital.
Most of them are Roma, but of different backgrounds, some having run away from their biological or adoptive parents, and others having fled orphanages or youth centres.
Many are refugees. Those who fled the southern territory of Kosovo in recent years joined ones who left their homes during the wars in neighbouring Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s.
Social workers fear Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17 could still bring a new wave of refugees as many Serbs and ethnic minorities living there might decide to flee north.
"I left school four years ago because I could not buy books and school supplies," Luja told AFP.
"Watching the cars at the parking lot at least brings some money," he explained.
After a day spent begging in the streets, trying to attract the attention of indifferent passers-by, cleaning windshields at main crossroads or minding luxury cars, these children return to what they consider their homes: abandoned basements or even drainage holes.
Some 300,000 children in Serbia are affected by poverty, have no access to medical care, nor a proper education, according to Judita Reichenberg of the United Nations childrens’ fund in Serbia
Only recently, a non-governmental group, the Centre for the Integration of Youths (CIM), opened a daycare centre for street children, offering them a place to eat, medical and psychological check-ups and medication, if needed.
The daycare facility, housed in the Rex Cultural Centre in downtown Belgrade, is open for five hours every afternoon.
The bar in the centre, a popular site for alternative music concerts, art exhibitions and independent films, is during that time transformed into a movable kitchen and a dining hall.
But it soon became too small to accommodate all those needing help.
"I come here because there is food and drinks. There is also a nurse to check our health," said Denis, leaning on a ping-pong table covered with a linen cloth for meals.
As he spoke, a volunteer off-loaded a pile of clothes on the table, sparking a mad rush by the children to find trousers and jackets in their own size.
The CIM organisation says it has been taking care of more than 300 street children and teenagers for three years.
Each of them has their own history to tell. But it is mostly because of mistreatment and misery in their homes that the children decided to live on the streets.
Scorned and rejected, they often become victims of sexual abuse, volunteers say. As a result, many of them turn to prostitution or drugs.
"We know that some of them are drug addicts. Although drugs and alcohol are forbidden (here), we welcome these children here because we want them to feel safe," said the centre’s coordinator, Mila Muskinja.
But the hostile attitude of the general population towards the street children has complicated the group’s activities, as it had to close a similar centre since tenants complained of their presence.
"That centre was open around the clock, but we had to close it as the tenants considered it a threat to their security," said CIM official Milica Djordjevic.
In coordination with the Belgrade city government’s welfare department, the organisation is planning to open another 24-hour centre in the coming months.
Although some Belgraders offer aid to the centre, mostly second-hand clothes, there are not many of those giving away what children need most: compassion and affection.
"Every sweater is obviously appreciated, but a change of attitude would be even more," stressed Djordjevic.