Cold Comfort for Georgia's Street Children

Conditions in Georgia's state orphanages are so harsh that many youngsters prefer to take their chances on the streets

Cold Comfort for Georgia's Street Children

Conditions in Georgia's state orphanages are so harsh that many youngsters prefer to take their chances on the streets

"Have you see them burying dead children in cardboard boxes?" asks an orderly at the Kaspi children's home. "That is a terrible sight. Some people take heart pills so they don't faint."

Just 40 miles from Tbilisi, the state-run orphanage is a breeding ground for disease and misery. Conditions are medieval - the dormitories are freezing cold and infested with insects while the children survive on bread and water.

"In all the years I worked in Third World countries, I never saw anything as appalling as the Kaspi children's home," said Lawrence Carry, a representative of the US embassy in Tbilisi. "Even during the barbaric civil war in Vietnam, children stood a better chance of survival."

The state allocates each child in Kaspi $1.50 a day but only 20 cents of this money actually reaches the orphans. The rest is stolen or embezzled. More than 100 of the children are desperately ill - and last year seven cases of dystrophy were reported. But the sick can expect little in the way of medicine - a slight improvement in their diet is the only treatment the doctors can prescribe.

Kaspi is typical of state-run children's homes across the former Soviet republic. Mzia Gelashvili, of the Frank humanitarian aid organisation, estimates that less than half of Georgia's 16,000 homeless children live in similar institutions, the rest simply roam the streets. It is hard to say who is better off.

The orphanages, at least, offer the hope of adoption - the silver-spun dream of any inmate. However, would-be parents are at the mercy of corrupt administrators who can charge up to $3,000 for a healthy child. And foreigners have been banned from adopting Georgian orphans since 1997 when the government outlawed the practice of "selling our children abroad".

There are alternatives to the state system. In recent years, a number of private organisations have sprung up, offering an alternative to this Dickensian existence. The best known is probably the Dzegvi Children's Home near Tbilisi.

The home was opened in the spring of 1995 when nuns from the Peristsvaleba nunnery came across Shalva Japaridze lying asleep in the street. Shalva was holding a sign which read, "Help me, I have a granny and a little sister and I am hungry." The nuns took him in and fed him. On the next day, his brother Mamuka appeared at the gates, begging for food. The nuns took care of him too. Soon street urchins from across Tbilisi were flocking to Peristsvaleba until the monastery could no longer accommodate them all.

"We had no experience whatsoever," remembers Gia Razmadze, the director of Dzegvi. "We just knew that we couldn't let them go back to the streets. We used to spend hours with them. Gradually, they started to trust us."

In the autumn of 1995, the children were moved to an abandoned nursing home in Dzegvi, around 15 miles from the capital. Today Razmadze and his staff work to provide basic food, comfort and schooling for 150 charges -- but funds are irregular and the Dzegvi home exists from day to day.

"We aren't afraid for the future," says Razmadze, "because we have love and compassion - and these qualities will help to raise the children."

Most importantly, Dzegvi manages to dissuade most of its charges from returning to their former way of life. Appalling conditions in state orphanages, on the other hand, simply drive many homeless children back to the streets.

Here they join street gangs which haunt the markets and car parks. Many of the gangsters have become totally alienated from society and live according to their own moral code.

Some of the children turn to drugs and glue in an effort to escape the harsh realities of their existence. Others resort to prostitution and, in Tbilisi's red-light area near Queen Tamara's Bridge, the more established prostitutes are facing serious competition from 12- to 16-year-olds of both sexes.

Meanwhile, Georgian newspapers repeatedly accuse the police of turning a blind eye to the street gangs in return for a slice of the takings. But officially no steps have been taken to investigate the allegations.

The authorities themselves stubbornly refuse to admit the scale of the problem. Tbilisi's local government claims there are just 400 street children in the capital whilst independent institutions say the real figure is 10 times higher.

And the problem will persist as long as the government continues to see it as an embarrassing inconvenience rather than a human tragedy. In the orphanages themselves, the children's own tales give a disturbing insight into the vast range of social factors which have left them dispossessed.

In one refuge, the House of the Future, the Tskhovrebadze brothers, aged 12 and 14, tell how they were thrown out onto the streets when their father sold the family home. And one young girl remembers how her mother attempted to marry her off to an old man in return for cash.

In this respect, the Dzegvi Children's Home offers far more than just food and education - it restores the children's trust in their fellow human beings. And that is probably the most valuable gift of all.

Sozar Subeliani is the editor of Georgia's Kavkasioni newspaper

Support our journalists