Tajik School Deaths Prompt Debate

Tragic fire at special needs school raises wider concerns about lack of resources for disabled children.

Tajik School Deaths Prompt Debate

Tragic fire at special needs school raises wider concerns about lack of resources for disabled children.

Tuesday, 14 February, 2006
A tragic fire at a boarding school for special needs children in Tajikistan prompted a debate about the poor conditions in which many of these forgotten and vulnerable members.

The fierce blaze broke out late on January 7 at the Chorbog school in the capital Dushanbe, where 92 children were sleeping. Thirteen, who are thought to have been in the ward where the fire began, died at the scene.

At least 50 others with burns and signs of carbon monoxide poisoning were taken to the National Burns Centre, according to a source at a Dushanbe accident and emergency department. Officials, however, dispute the claim of 50 injured.

The tragedy, coming just before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, has shocked people in Tajikistan into thinking about welfare issues.

“In the official press, there is wide publicity about the social policies pursued by the government, but in fact we have many problems in this sphere, which is shown by this latest incident,” said the deputy head of the Social Democratic Party, Shakirjon Hakimov.

Some like Maksud, who lives in a building next to the school, are concerned about the poor conditions under which the children were housed.

“I wouldn’t say that the children lived very well,” said Maksud. “Many times I saw people from nearby areas bringing them food. And compared with the mansions of officials, the building looked so dilapidated, and it was no better on the inside either.”

The director of the Safe Childhood group, Irina Shakirjanova, agrees that homes for special needs children are in a deplorable state.

“In these institutions the salaries are very low, so specialised personnel do not go to work there, and specialists are required to look after children with limited abilities,” she said. “Children are not even taken for walks, because there are not enough nannies.”

She says conditions are also bleak in the country’s orphanages where children are let out at the age of 14 with few qualifications, and then too often forgotten about. There are currently over 50,000 orphans in Tajikistan.

While there are no precise statistics on the number of handicapped children, UNICEF data suggests there are more than 20,000. The Ministry of Labour says the real figure is closer to 11,000, with just 13 somoni (about five dollars) allocated for each child’s daily care.

Yokio Mokuo, the head of UNICEF in Tajikistan , worries that young people with disabilities are often placed in poorly-funded institutions cut off from the outside world.

“UNICEF hopes that future reform will recognise the rights of defenceless children and integrate them into society,” said Mokuo.

Others agree that mentally and physically disabled children are not treated well in Tajikistan.

“We only remember that we have invalid children and orphans after a fire and on holidays, and then forget that they exist until the next tragedy. The problems of these children should be dealt with fully, every day,” said Sayahat Murodova, a Dushanbe resident.

UNICEF, the Iranian embassy, the Russian military who have a base in Dushanbe, and international organisations have offered clothes, blankets, food and money for the homeless children, who will be sent to other facilities until a new school is built in Chorbog.

In addition, members of the public have paid over 5,000 somoni, 1,500 dollar, into a special account set up to help support the children.

The fire also led to accusations of poor management, both within the school and on the part of government officials.

What is clear is that school headmaster, Sadullo Yatimov, has been fired. He was later arrested by the police, who have opened a criminal investigation into allegations that he was negligent and ignored prior warnings that the school was vulnerable to fire.

Preliminary reports suggest that an overload in the electricity network sparked the blaze. Electric heaters were used to warm the school, which was built in 1934.

An investigation has also begun into reports that no teachers or other staff were present in the building when the fire broke out. Labour minister Zokir Vazirov said, “the situation which took place at the Chorbog boarding school arose because of the irresponsibility of the management of the institution”.

Media reports suggest it was local residents who rescued the children, and that all the survivors had been brought out of the building when fire fighters arrived on the scene around 30 minutes after it started.

“The children were also saved by security guards from the Japanese embassy, which is located next to us,” said Zebunisso Sharipova, who lives in a building next to the school.

Tajikistan interior minister Humdin Sharipov later disputed that the children were taken out of the building by locals, though the Dushanbe fire department admitted to IWPR that an internal investigation has begun into the effectiveness of its members during the fire.

There are calls for government heads to roll, but no ministers have lost their jobs so far. President Imomali Rahmonov has only reprimanded Deputy Prime Minister Khairiniso Mavlonova, labour minister Vazirov and the deputy minister responsible for social issues, Bobokhon Mahmadov.

“We did not see a drop of repentance from the authorities, no mourning was declared, and most surprising of all no one resigned,” said Dushanbe resident Samad Saidov, who is among many people who are unhappy with the official response.
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