No Help For Chechnya's Street Kids

Grozny is unable to cope with a tide of abandoned children.

No Help For Chechnya's Street Kids

Grozny is unable to cope with a tide of abandoned children.

Wednesday, 10 November, 2004

At a petrol station in the centre of Grozny, cars draw up every few minutes and are besieged by a crowd of grubby ten-year-old boys.

The boys ask the driver how much petrol he wants, fill up the car, receive a few roubles and mutter a few words of thanks. These are just some of the street children of Chechnya.

Traditional Chechen attitudes mean that these children are ashamed to beg, but try to earn their money by finding jobs.

Children have suffered terribly from the decade of war in Chechnya. There was a sharp rise in the number of recorded cases of children living on the street or otherwise uncared for in 2000, when major hostilities ended in the second Chechen campaign. The fighting left behind many orphans as well as what are called “social orphans”, whose parents are alive but have abandoned them.

Two official campaigns to track down abandoned children found almost 700 of them in 2003, and 138 so far this year.

However, experts in Chechnya’s hospitals say these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and the real numbers will only come to light if the authorities open a children’s home or special school in Grozny. Currently the Chechen capital, where the problem of street children is particularly acute, has no such institution, and the five children’s refuges in the republic are all located outside the city.

There are two government offices – one of them part of the Chechen interior ministry – which are nominally responsible for the children, but while they monitor the situation they have few powers to make a real difference.

It used to be the job of the Inspectorate for Underage Children to find runaways and deliver them to a children’s refuge or reception centre. But because of the destruction of the last ten years, the city has no such institutions catering for minors.

As a result, the children and teenagers whom the inspectors pick up during police raids in the city end up back on the street on the same day.

Umidat Khaidarova, an inspector for underage children in the Zavodskoi district of Grozny, complains that there is nothing she can do.

“We carried out a raid in the centre of the city,” said Khaidarova. “There at a bus-stop we saw ten-year-old Hasan Kharsiev. It was a typical story – his parents died in the bombing of Grozny and the boy lives with his aunt. She barely takes care of him, she has no time for her nephew, no interest in getting him to go to school, and he begs for money on buses.”

“Well, we took him into the Centre for Underage Children and had a chat. But what then? The boy is absolutely free, and he knows it. He knows that he will be free that evening. And we have no alternative.”

Not all the street children are orphans like Hasan. Aishat Jabrailova of Chechnya’s labour and social development ministry explains that there are three categories, all in need of help, “First of all, there are children delivered to us by the police force. Broadly speaking, they are caught in markets, cellars or doorways. You can guess that this is the most problematic group, but it isn’t the only one.

“The second group we have to take care of are complete orphans. Officially there aren’t many of them, just 1,355. I repeat, these figures need to be confirmed. And the third group are social orphans, by which I mean children abandoned by their mothers and fathers or one of them. Sometimes the parents have split up and the children have been left in the care of relatives who often can’t afford to give them shoes, clothes or food.”

There are more than 600 children in the republic’s five regional shelters, but the labour and social welfare ministry says this is only a fraction of those in need of protection.

Many of the children in the shelters have living relatives who are not prepared to give them up for adoption.

Next year the government plans to start implementing a five-year programme it calls Children of War, intended to create a network of crisis centres, treatment clinics for disabled children, and help centres for large families. The budget for the programme is extremely modest at 1.6 million roubles, around 50,000 US dollars.

The tragic story of a Grozny boy named Turko underlines how badly such work is needed.

Turko’s parents were killed in the second bombardment of Grozny in 1999. Not wishing to live with his uncle in a village, Turko returned to the city and joined a group of drug-users. He found a way of earning money – planting explosive devices for rebel fighters. He earned between 100 and 200 dollars a month doing this.

Last year, Turko was caught – rounded up in a drug den during a “clean-up operation” by the security forces. A week later, his dead body was found in the city centre. It lay for a few days in Grozny’s central mosque until the elders there buried it.

“They say Turko was suspected of blowing up military armoured vehicles,” said Asyet Shamkhmurzayeva, inspector for underage children in the Chernorechye district of Grozny. “If a teenager was seduced by that way of earning money, then it was his misfortune, not his fault. The war made him an orphan, and in a relatively peaceful period he was thrown overboard by a state which failed to throw him a lifeline.”

Around the time of Turko’s death, the then Chechen interior minister, Alu Alkhanov, warned that, “If we do not get to grips urgently with the problems of children who are unprotected or abandoned, then dozens and hundreds of people will grow up to join the criminals and swell their ranks.”

His ministry proposed restoring a reception centre and a special education facility for young people, but to date the idea has not received any funding.

Alkhanov is now president of Chechnya, following the election that followed the death of Akhmad Kadyrov in May. There is every sign that his dire predictions are coming true, and children’s refuges outside the capital are still turning young people away because they are full up.

Amina Vasayeva is a journalist based in Grozny.

Support our journalists