Kids struggle to survive Moscow streets

Many youths prefer homelessness to cruel treatment in shelters

January 20, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - They flutter through the Kursky railway station like flocks of dirt-smudged pigeons, sniffing glue fumes out of plastic bags, begging for money from strangers and scattering as police approach waving nightsticks.

These are Russia's lost children, part of an army of millions of homeless boys and girls who have fled unhappy homes or escaped from the harsh discipline in state orphanages. Mobs of them, some as young as 5, haunt the capital's subway stations, highway underpasses and railroad terminals.

The Kursky railway station, just east of central Moscow, is home to about 150 children who have drifted here from all over the former Soviet empire. By day, they roam the city, begging in subways and stealing what they can from shops. At night, they return to the station.

It is a filthy, disease-ridden and violent home. Some of the boys and girls work as prostitutes. Some have contracted hepatitis or HIV. After a day of begging, some wander holding bags containing glue over their mouths to get high. Others discreetly inhale the fumes under their coats, hiking their collars.

Station police occasionally administer what seem to be random beatings. Early Friday, two uniformed officers cornered a boy of about 16 in a station entrance. One slammed the boy with a truncheon as more than a dozen bystanders watched. Then the police led the youth away.

The children's begging and stealing create problems for passengers, said another policeman, who would not give his name. "They say that we beat them and take money from them," he said, "but we don't."

Why do the children stay? "The police beat them here," said Pavel Novikov, an evangelical Christian who feeds homeless children at the railway station. "But they don't get beaten as often as in the shelter."

Sasha Vasiliyev, 17, said he came to the railway station in 1991, at age 6, after his parents died. When he was 10, authorities sent him to an orphanage in his hometown outside Moscow. He stayed about 18 months. The routine was boring and the discipline harsh: As punishment, the director sometimes forced children to stand shirtless in the winter cold.

Vasiliyev returned to the station. The police periodically try to evict him. "They push me out into the street, even if it is minus-30 outside, and they say, `Never come back here!'" he said. But he returns.

Jan Korin, 8, arrived a few months ago from Belarus. He keeps his 50-cent tubes of plastic cement in a plush yellow bag that hangs on a string around his neck. The glue has made his gaze wander and his movements jerky. He cockily claimed he was happy sleeping in his nook, a space on the concrete floor next to the gates to the subway.

Where is his mother? "I miss her," he said, tears making his brown eyes seem larger. "Though my mother sometimes hit me, I still love her."

Jan's older sister, Tatiana, loitered in the station's underground shopping arcade, her face bathed in the light of a video game. She claims to be 16; her brother said her 13th birthday was coming up soon. Asked about her mother, she didn't look up from the video game.

"I don't know where she is," she said. "She doesn't care about us, so why should I care about her? I have a little brother to feed and clothe."

Their prospects are growing worse because of the gentrification of the neighborhood. In November, merchants and city officials ordered the Salvation Army to stop feeding homeless adults out of the back of a truck. In December, police swept through Kursky and other railway stations, rounding up homeless children and detaining them overnight.

"It appeared we were being blamed for the crime rate," said Gordon Lewis, the Salvation Army's coordinator for social services in Moscow.

Now there are rumors that another sweep is imminent, inspired by President Vladimir V. Putin's declaration last week that Russia's efforts to solve the problem of "the neglected" have failed. Putin said in a letter to his prime minister, "Homeless children and the criminalization of teen-agers has reached threatening proportions."

His aides have promised a series of reforms to be introduced in coming weeks.

Advocates for the homeless say that at least 10,000 children live on the capital's streets and that at least 90 percent are from outside Moscow. Only three shelters, with a total capacity of several hundred, are willing to accept them. One of the shelters is reserved for minors charged with committing serious crimes; the others are officially limited to use by legal residents of Moscow.

Dzera Oxana, a lawyer who works with homeless children, says a police lieutenant tried to find places for some of the children rounded up in the sweep last month. "She took the list of orphanages and called all of them," Oxana said. "All of them told her to go to hell."

Lawmakers have passed many measures to protect homeless and runaway children, but critics say that responsibility for the children is divided among agencies lacking the expertise, money and desire to act.

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