Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazak Street Kids
As the first rays of sun hit the roofs, their grey trembling shadows emerge from basements, sewers and attics, and scatter around the city. Some make for the railway station, others head for the markets with their sure promise of food. These are Shymkent's homeless children.
They come from families known as "unhappy", Soviet-era speak for homes where one or both parents neglect their children because of alcohol. Their eyes, staring out from dirty faces, tell of desperation and experiences most of us will never see in a lifetime.
Special police units occasionally round up the kids, lodging them in halfway houses before sending them back to their families, to boarding schools or, for some, juvenile detention centres.
Living on the street, it's hard not to get caught up in a life of crime and, though the problem may not be a new one, the police are having a hard time dealing with it. Even in the days of the Soviet Union, juvenile delinquency had become a permanent headache for police.
Though the issue was at the top of the government's agenda, no-one knew what to do with these kids. Last year, juvenile crime saw an upturn and the number of children ending up in the juvenile detention centre rose from 718 to 749.
Igor will be 12-years-old in January. He dropped out of school nearly three years ago, and has been living in attics and basements ever since. Igor's father had left the family home and his mother hit the bottle.
"Mum didn't drink when my dad was living with us," recalled Igor, "Then dad left, my grandma died, and my mum lost her job." Igor spares no grim detail when talking about the drunken binges at his dilapidated home, showing a scar on his shoulder where his mother stabbed him with a fork.
The police have picked Igor up and sent him back home a few times now. He says that last time he ran away, the local juvenile supervisor was in the process of trying to deprive his mother of her parental rights.
Igor doesn't know if the matter has been resolved but for the moment he is being taken care of in a halfway home: as a juvenile delinquent. For a year, he and two other vagrant children had been stealing anything they could find, but were finally caught red-handed.
He is now awaiting trial and is looking forward to a probable spell in prison or a high-security boarding school. "It could have been worse," mused Igor philosophically. After all, as he says, it's better than being out on the street during the cold, winter months.
"There have been a lot more homeless kids since unemployment became a problem," said Sagduna Sultanova, senior inspector in the juvenile division, "and the kids have changed: they are meaner and more impudent now. Even their diseases aren't the same, undernourishment being the most common condition. Believe it or not, homeless children used to be better groomed before."
If some families are unhappy, others are plain distraught. Twelve-year-old Ilya and his nine-year-old brother Slava got tuberculosis and left home. Their mother is currently sitting out a sentence for drug-related offences. Unfortunately for the two brothers, she sold their apartment before going to prison, leaving the boys homeless. Slava and Ilya were placed in an orphanage but they escaped soon after.
The police caught up with Slava begging at Shymkent's central market. They picked him up, leaving Ilya to fend for himself. When journalists from Otyrar television company found him wondering the streets, wearing just a dirty t-shirt and shorts, they gave him something to eat and some clothes, and decided it was best to return him to the orphanage.
Ilya had a fit, saying he would never go back. "I'll escape anyway," he sobbed, over and over. He was inconsolable. "I have to wait for my mum to come back."
The journalists then called Lieutenant Colonel Ruslan Jaksylykov, head of a Shymkent police response unit. Ilya was more than happy to go along.
Things started to look up. It so happens that police units are allowed to support and look after up to twelve teenagers as apprentices in a military band. The cadets live in the unit compound, and on finishing secondary school are eligible to enrol in any military college in Kazakstan without having to take any entrance examinations.
Lt. Col. Jaksylykov accepted Ilya into his unit and, it seems, with Slava looking set to follow suit the brothers will be reunited, this time with a secured future ahead of them.
Unfortunately, the majority of vagrants meet a much sadder fate. Sooner or later, those picked up and sent to one or other orphanage flee from the dreary routine and find themselves back on the street. Unemployment and the lack of social outreach facilities drive them to their only means of survival: stealing.
"I don't want to steal," said 17-year-old Rakhim, smiling, "but I have to make a living. They won't give me alms anymore. I'm too old for that, but there's no work for me." He started mugging schoolchildren until some high school kids literally beat him at his own game.
Rakhim then stole from street markets, but when stallholders got wise to his tricks they made sure he didn't get anywhere near them. So Rakhim burgled a house but got caught fencing his haul. "Stealing is bad," nods Rakhim in acquiescence. "You get to go to jail for it."
About ten years ago, soon after independence, foster homes started up across the country with government backing to families willing to take children on. Many believed this could solve the problem, but the project has since tapered off with government officials habitually citing lack of funds.
Daur Dosybiev is a regular IWPR contributor
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