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Azerbaijan: Street Kids Get High To Escape Miseries

Hundreds of Baku's homeless children resort to substance abuse for a brief escape from the harsh realities of their lives.
By Lia Bairamova

The ragged boy standing in one of Baku's central metro stations was about eleven-years-old. He was openly squeezing a glue product called Supermoment out of a polythene bag. Dozens of people were passing by, but none of them paid any attention to this young substance abuser.


Even the policeman on duty passed without so much glancing at the boy. I tried to speak to him but I only managed to find out that he was called Yashar and that he came from Ganje. Then the child moved off and melted away into the crowd of passengers.


In recent years, the number of homeless kids in the Azerbaijani capital has increased dramatically. Many of them have run away from homes, where they suffered abuse or neglect. They live on the street and sleep in cellars, doorways, attics and the sewage system.


The police say that there are at least a thousand such children in the city, but the real figure may be even higher than that.


According to Nigar Menisimli, director of the Umid Eri children's home, the drug and substance abuse amongst these children is growing worryingly. "Turkey encountered a similar situation at the beginning of the Nineties," she said. "Then the leadership of the country declared war on substance abuse. With us it is only just beginning and we could use the example of our neighbour to prevent horrific consequences. However, very few people are engaging with this problem in Azerbaijan."


The age of street children sniffing glue ranges from eight to 18. Many say they started the habit out of curiosity, when older friends offered it to them. And then got hooked because it helped them to escape the misery of their lives.


"When I do it, I forget that I have to go home to my drunken father and my mother, who is always in a rage," said Orkhan Mamedov, one of the children brought in by the police. "It is a nice feeling."


The square outside Baku's central station is constantly full of the under-age homeless, many of whom have run away from the families in one of the regions of Azerbaijan. The youths - in nine cases out of ten they are boys - begin their city life by getting to know the veterans of the station, who tell them what to do and how to feed themselves.


The work does not demand much guile. In the evenings, the children go to the centre of town and stand with outstretched hands. If they are lucky, they can earn up to 5,000 manats (about one US dollar), money which they spend the following day on food, cigarettes and Supermoment glue.


Glue is a central part of the life of the young beggars. A good half of them are long-term users and sniff it openly in the Samed Vurgun garden not far away.


The police are constantly on the look out for the young people and most of them have been to the police department in the railway station several times. But there is little that can be done: officers understand very well that they cannot lay charges against anyone under 14.


All they can do is look for their parents and, if they succeed, try to take the kids home. But in the majority of cases the mothers and fathers of the runaways are hardened alcoholics. "You can't accompany every child," complained one policeman. "Most of the kids who are sent home are back at the station sniffing glue a couple of days later," said another.


The children turn to thieving to fund their habits. It is a practice Nigar Menisimli, the children's home director does not condemn. "These kids simply can't conceive that people can have another life," she said. "They were born straight into an abnormal existence. No one has explained to me what they should do and not do."


Lieutenant-colonel Alihusein Alihuseinov, the head of the children's section of Baku's Sabunchin district, gave one case history as an example.


Recently two boys, Vugar Magerramov, 13, and Vusal Orujev, 15, were detained in his district, he said. It turned out that they were thieving, played truant and did not come home for weeks on end. On the whole, they stole household goods from their neighbours, such as aluminium pans and traded them in at metal collection points for petty cash. They spent the money on drink and cigarettes.


Vugar's family came from Yevlakh in western Azerbaijan. His father, who served time in jail, no longer lives at home and his mother, who has no permanent home, survives by street trading near the station. Vugar says that he has been detained six times by the police. He was eventually sent to the special school in Mardakan, but ran away five times.


Vusal has a similar story. He comes from the Geokchai region. His father drinks heavily, his mother washes dishes in a city café. They have three other children and do not earn enough to support them.


Vugar and Vusal are currently in a temporary children's holding unit, while the authorities try to sort out their case and send them off again to a special school.


In their raids on the city streets, the police sometimes collect as many as fifty children at a time. Over a year, that figure rises to one thousand. But these are just the ones who get caught. Hundreds of others are not covered by official statistics. So long as parents tolerate the problem - and even take the money their beggar children collect - and there are no proper institutions to deal with it, the crisis looks set to continue.


Lia Bairamova is a correspondent with Zerkalo in Baku.


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