Turkmenistan: Reduced to Begging

Poverty is driving increasing numbers of children to beg on the streets of the capital.

Turkmenistan: Reduced to Begging

Poverty is driving increasing numbers of children to beg on the streets of the capital.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Glowing reports of phenomenal economic growth rates are all too familiar to television viewers in Turkmenistan. But outside on the streets of the capital Ashgabat, the picture is starkly at odds with this image of prosperity.

More and more children are being forced to beg or do odd jobs just to feed themselves or their families. Interviews conducted by IWPR indicate that many come from families which were well able to support themselves before being driven into poverty by government policies.

On April 5, President Saparmurad Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, Leader of the Turkmen, reported that things were continuing to get better, announcing that so far this year, the economy had grown by 20 per cent compared with January-March 2003.

If that is the case – and it is extremely hard to verify the government’s extravagant claims – the benefits are not obvious. Turkmenistan used to have fewer children begging than some of its Central Asian neighbours, but that has now changed. Local people report that the number of children begging in Ashgabat has risen dramatically in recent months.

Vladimir, an emaciated teenager sitting in the city centre asking passers-by a handout, told IWPR that his background was not originally a destitute one.

“I should say I’m one of the lucky ones,” he told IWPR. “You think we’re homeless and our parents are alcoholics. But I actually go to school in the afternoon, and work in the morning. I have a home and a mother. It’s just that she’s unemployed. She was made redundant and can’t find other work, so I help out. Only I don’t say what I do – she’d be upset.”

Vladimir took time out of his “job” to give IWPR an insight into why children work and sometimes live on the streets, in return for a fee of 50,000 manat, about 2.5 US dollars.

He talks about his life with a seriousness beyond his years, describing the patch where he has worked for over two years, outside a restaurant that once used to attract a lot of foreigners. These wealthier customers have disappeared, and at the age of 13, Vladimir is facing stiff competition from younger rivals.

“It’s becoming harder to earn anything – people have become meaner. The younger ones always get the clients,” he said. “I used to be the only one begging, but others are appearing all the time. They are younger, smarter and greedier.”

IWPR’s tour guide pointed out how the street children divide up the available space, “Everyone has their own job to do. To most people it just seems to be a lone beggar sitting there, dirty, pathetic and asking for money. In reality it’s a whole system. Only an experienced eye can see the whole picture.” As Vladimir showed an IWPR contributor round Ashgabat’s central market, the small gangs of kids who normally pester shoppers for small change held back, clearly impressed by his role as tour guide.

“There are all kinds of children here,” said Vladimir. “Those three brothers over there are from Mary [in southern Turkmenistan]. They really are in a terrible position. They’ve no home and nothing to eat. No one knows how they ended up in Ashgabat, although I do know they left their collective farm where there were another six children in the family. Their parents couldn’t feed them all.

“Somehow they manage to survive here. The market traders sometimes give them something and they spend the night right where they work. But they need to hide from the police, otherwise they’ll be sent straight to a young offenders’ institution. I have a deal with the police – I drive away the others and they don’t interfere with my work. They’ve know me for a long time so I trust them.”

Vladimir is unashamed about asking for money. “I’m not embarrassed. I’m not doing anything bad, I’m not stealing. I simply ask and it is up to each person to decide whether they give me anything. I am helping my small family survive.”

Other children are in greater distress. “Look – you see that boy? He’s nearly an adult yet he spends all the money he earns on cannabis, and his parents are drug addicts too,” commented Vladimir, unsympathetically. “People feel sorry for you because they think you haven’t eaten anything all day, but he goes and spends it all on drugs.”

Over the last year and a half, there has not only been a rise in the number of beggars but also children working at the market, washing cars or scavenging for food and things to sell.

Elena M, who did not wish to give her full name, was shocked to find her son scavenging.

“Not long ago a neighbour saw my son on the rubbish tip, looking for empty plastic bottles with his friends [to sell],” she told IWPR. We had a row about it at home. My son explained that he and his friends wanted to buy ice-cream but didn’t want to ask at home because they would be refused the money. He admitted that they sometimes beg on the streets. I didn’t know where to hide from shame.”

Elena is a trained doctor, but has had to accept a nursing job in recent years – and was sacked even from that post, in line with Turkmenbashi’s instructions to replace hospital staff with conscript solders. Her husband still earns a salary, so this family is solvent if hard-pressed.

Most of her son’s peers come from larger and poorer families, and have no option but to scavenge. “I am scared my son will end up like them,” she said.

By contrast, Tazegul, a middle-aged woman who sells herbs at the central bazaar, does not mind her two young sons Merdan and Sultan working alongside her all day. “They help carry shoppers’ bags. They earn 20,000-30,000 manat [less than two dollars] a day,” she said.

“They don’t go to school…. It’s better for them to learn the value of money than go to school and fill their heads with the rubbish in the Rukhnama [President Turkmenbashi’s book, intended as a spiritual guide for the nation]. When they grow up and things change in our country they will be able to pay for the knowledge they need then.”

According to one local expert, the single biggest factor in the growth of poverty is the government’s failure to pay public-sector wages on time, leaving people with no income for six months or more. President Niyazov recently admitted the scale of the problem, noting that his government owed up to 280 million dollars in unpaid wages. He failed to say how that squared with the substantial revenues the government should be getting from sales of gas, Turkmenistan’s principal export commodity.

This increasing poverty makes itself felt in the rise in begging by children rather than adults. Vladimir explained why this was the case, “Begging is dangerous for adults, the police are tough on them. They put them in police cars and take them away. There was one here, Mered, a very strong man. He fought in the [1979-89] Afghan war and got shell-shock when he was wounded. He was very nice to the kids, telling us about Afghanistan and showing us his medals. Then the police took him away and we haven’t seen him since.”

A policeman, who gave his name as Bairam, explained that adults were detained and taken away, sometimes to do forced labour, on the express orders from Turkmenbashi, “Last year the president ordered that beggars should be removed from the city. Some are sent to a retirement home or to an alcohol rehab centre. Those who can work are taken to the desert to dig the new lake or work on the railway.”

The “new lake”, a gigantic project begun in 2001, is an attempt by Turkmenbashi to work a miracle by creating a reservoir in the middle of the desert. Those who have visited the construction site say it is reminiscent of a prison camp, with much of the labour force press-ganged from Ashgabat’s homeless people, or the country’s penal system.

The project has been condemned by both local and international experts who have warned that this experiment – in a country starved of water – could have catastrophic results , but work is continuing and the reservoir’s foundations are almost finished.

The policeman continued, “We don’t bother about children begging because there is no law against them, nor have there been any orders from on high. So some parents send them out to beg on the streets. Many families simply have no other income. There used to be isolated cases – there always have been. But now it’s become far more widespread, and soon a time will come when our methods can no longer conceal the problem.”

It was time for Vladimir to leave us and go to school. “You know, lots of children at school hate me because I always have money and I can afford things they can’t. But I don’t tell anyone where I get the money,” he said.

Vladimir added that he knew that other boys at his school scavenged for bottles or carried people’s bags at the market, “but we never talk about it with each other. They are like two different lives, one at school, another on the streets.”

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