Kazakstan: Authorities Indifferent to Homeless Fatalities

The authorities are turning a blind eye to the growing number of homeless people falling victim to violent crime.

Kazakstan: Authorities Indifferent to Homeless Fatalities

The authorities are turning a blind eye to the growing number of homeless people falling victim to violent crime.

The numerous knife wounds on the body of a young homeless man found abandoned in an Almaty doorway were clear evidence that a serious crime had been committed.

But police showed no interest in investigating the April 19 death, the latest killing among Kazakstan's growing number of street-dwellers.

The city's internal affairs department told IWPR that between three and five homeless people are found dead every day in the former capital.

There are no official statistics on how many of these deaths are due to crime, but it is widely believed the vast majority die in violent territorial disputes with other street-dwellers.

In this case, police were called on the evening of April 18 after a fight erupted in a cellar used by a group of homeless men. They did not bother to respond until the next day.

"I phoned them but when they heard that tramps were fighting, they simply put the phone down," said a nearby resident, named Svetlana.

Eyewitness Giorgy Mishin said he was looking from his window when he saw a bleeding man climb out of the cellar and fall to the ground beside the doorway.

"He was swearing loudly at somebody before he fell down," Mishin said. "Another five people came out after him, checked him over and, seeing that he was already dead, ran off."

When the police did turn up they took the body to the morgue. But IWPR has learned that they did not bother to conduct even the simplest investigations into what happened.

Local residents said the men broke into the cellar about six months before the tragedy. Svetlana added that some locals took pity on them and gave food, as well as bottles to exchange for money.

Of the 117 corpses received by the Almaty morgue in January the vast majority were homeless people, according to staff member Margarita Valueva. "We have to bury them ourselves, they are probably tramps," she said.

Officials show little interest in finding out any more details. One member of the city's prosecution office said they did not have the time "to count every tramp".

Life on the streets is dangerous. Marauding gangs of youths seeking thrills beat up the homeless, secure in the knowledge that they will never face punishment.

While street-dwellers are known to mug passers-by, the commonest and most deadly incidents are disputes between homeless themselves, which have seen them kill one another for as little as a bag full of empty bottles - 50 of which fetch 1 US dollar.

A member of the regional prosecution office, who wished to remain anonymous, said, "State bodies don't want to get involved in solving those cases because it's difficult to establish the identities of people who aren't registered anywhere." He added that "a lot of the crime is committed with the sole aim of getting into prison".

Arkady, a 33-year-old homeless man, candidly admitted he was pleased to have been sent to jail twice for theft. "I don't regret it because I couldn't have survived if I was free," he said. "I've been out for a month now, and if I have to, I'll steal something again. It's better than killing someone."

The city's internal affairs department estimates the number of homeless in Kazakstan at around 50,000, out of a total population of 15 million. The closure of many large factories and industries after the break-up of the Soviet Union has added massively to

the problem.

The homeless cluster in city centres. Men account for 70 per cent of the homeless and the remainder is split between women and children. The majority are alcoholics and some are drug addicts.

They tend to form groups of five to 10 under a leader who divides up tasks, such as collecting bottles, begging and searching for food.

Public attitudes towards the street-dwellers are divided. "They live in cellars and down manholes and sometimes they get into the stairways. After they've been there, there's such a stench you can't even breath," said Igor Startsev, an Almaty businessman.

"On top of that, they'll steal anything that isn't red hot or nailed down. Let them die - the main thing though is to clear the bodies off the streets in time."

Others show more sympathy. "They should be gathered together and given help as regards food, clothing and hygiene," said Irina Grigorieva, 53. "They're people too, after all." But they are people, it seems, for whom the authorities do not care very much.

Erbol Jumagulov is an independent journalist in Kazakstan

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