Baku Street Kids

Azerbaijan's media put the number of homeless children in the country at 80,000 and rising. But human rights activists believe even this is an underestimate.

Baku Street Kids

Azerbaijan's media put the number of homeless children in the country at 80,000 and rising. But human rights activists believe even this is an underestimate.

At the sight of the police car, a group of dirty, barefoot boys run away in different directions. What they most fear in life is ending up in the police holding station. Each has been there at least once before.

The children's home is in the prestigious district around the Nizami cinema in central Baku. They spend nights in the porches of the newly built wings of the buildings. They earn their living by washing cars and begging. Mothers push their children out of the way when the homeless appear in the parks - they consider these destitute kids as a dangerous source of infection. The tea house owners turn them out for fear of driving away their customers because of the children's looks or that they will steal pastries from the counters.

One group has tried to help. The Azerbaijan representation of Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, which leases a nearby building, allows the children to sleep in the foyer in cold weather and the staff treat the children to rolls and sandwiches. Late at night and the boys share out berries they have picked from the bushes. They failed to earn anything today, so they have to content themselves with gifts from nature for supper.

During the summer months these berries are a lifeline - they are often their only meal all day. In winter they don't even have this. They are having supper, looking at the people passing by on this bright Baku evening. People hurry by without paying any attention.

Vitya, who is 12, is from the Sabunchi settlement. Vitya's parents are alcoholics. After drinking, his father always beats the boy, as he thinks that the son is to blame for all his misfortunes. The family never has any money, though somehow they manage to find it to buy alcohol. Vitya is one extra mouth to feed and an obstacle to his parents' dissipated life.

The neighbours have repeatedly warned the father that they will report him to the police for torturing the child. Vitya fled home four years ago after a beating from his father and has been begging since then. He stayed just two years in school.

Once he was caught up in a police swoop and was sent to Boarding School Number 1 in Mardakyan, a small settlement just outside Baku. He survived there only two months before fleeing again to escape the beatings. Vitya dreams to live at home and to go to school. But he doesn't want to return to his parents. Indeed, he doesn't even know where they are now.

Vadim, who is 15, doesn't remember his parents at all. His mother was killed in Russia when Vadim was one year old, and his father died in a road accident a year later. His elder brother brought him up, and the two were sent to the same notorious Mardakyan boarding school.

Having finished the 5th grade, Vadim and his brother fled and headed for their old home in the Terter region. But their house turned out to have been taken over by the neighbours and the boys were unable to get it back. A woman neighbour gave them shelter and with her help Vadim finished two more grades at school. The two brothers returned to Baku last spring. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to find a job, his brother said to Vadim: "You're grown-up already. Earn your living by yourself. I'll come to see you." He has kept his word, seeking him out every few weeks. He brings him something to eat and tells about his life at the railway station where he scrapes a living on whatever odd jobs he can pick up.

Anar is 11. He is the only one here with a loving, caring family. His parents are neither drunkards nor dissipated people; they don't beat their son. They love him dearly, but they have no money at all. Anar's family are refugees from Khojaly in Karabakh, who had to flee when the Armenians seized the town. There are five more children in the family besides him. The family cannot afford to buy food for them. Mother often cries, father tries to find occasional earnings either as a freight handler or a repairman.

Anar washes cars and brings home all the money he earns. If he fails to earn anything, he stays out for the whole night, not because he is afraid of punishment, but because, "it hurts me to see my mother crying". All Baku's barefoot children have experienced hunger, cold, beatings and humiliation. They have all been to the police holding station, which is actually a children's reformatory complete with barbed wire and observation towers. Children from 11 districts of the city and 55 regions of the country are brought there. But the reformatory is designed for 25 children. All the 14 staff are men. The children spend from a week to a month there - depending how long it takes to establish the child's identity. If nobody comes for them and they are reluctant to say where they are from, their picture is shown on television. If nobody comes forward, the fate of a child is in hands of the holding station. They are usually sent either to a special school or to the Mardakyan boarding school. About 500-600 children pass through the holding station every year, most of them brought from the railway station. The majority of children are boys of 7 to 14 years old. Last year only 56 girls came into the system.

There are three bedrooms in the holding station crammed with high iron beds with thin mattresses. There are some old desks and a colour TV in the classroom, a kitchen with three tables and a yard with a homemade summerhouse. The place reeks of poverty and squalor. And though the head of the holding station, Dunyameddin Safiyev, asserts that it is neither a prison nor a children's reformatory, what the children recount and even the look of the place prove the contrary.

The boys report frequent beatings with belts, telling you the names of the teachers who do it. They allegedly beat the children for everything, for failing to act respectful, for saying something incorrect or for laughing too loudly. The only person they talk well of is the director himself.

"Dunyameddin muallim is good," says Vadim, "He talks to us. He even brought me some sweets and milk. Besides, he never beats us or shouts at us..." The boys say it is possible to be released by paying a bribe. "Mother used to give 5-10 shirvans (15-25 US dollars) and I was set free," says 13 year-old Zaur. Besides the holding station and the special school, they fear the Mardakyan boarding school. Their dream is to get into Boarding School Number 2, which is supervised and financed by the United States Embassy.

"There is a good meal there, they don't beat you and the rooms are warm. I would like to return there in winter," says Vadim. They are still children. They dream of homes, warm beds and a hot meal, which they haven't seen for months. They want to go to school. But there is only hope of this in Boarding School #2 or in the Boarding school in Bilgha, which is also supported by foreign diplomats. Once some of the children were invited to stay at night in a place organized for them by the Red Crescent. The children stayed there a month, but the idyll was soon shattered. Andrey, the terror of local homeless children who have to give him part of their daily earnings, arrived, threatening to beat them to death if they didn't return to their life as beggars. The children reluctantly obeyed. "A child on the streets is like the red light of the traffic lights," says Safiyev. "Who knows, maybe if do not stop and pick them up, a crime will be committed tomorrow. But if the police pick up all the homeless children, we will have two maybe three bus loads brought here daily. It's too much of a vicious circle nobody can break. "

Alena Myasnikova is a journalist on the Baku weekly newspaper Bakinski Boulevard.

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