George Hsia Photography
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the transition from socialist governance to a democratic system has brought with it a myriad of problems for Kyrgyzstan. Especially concerning is the growth of the homeless population and declining health status and access to health care. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world, second poorest in Central Asia. A World Bank report in September 2007 showed that 43.1 percent of Kyrgyz people lived in poverty in 2005, of which 11 percent were deemed to be living in extreme poverty. It is estimated that food prices rose 25 percent from January to September 2008. A correspondent of the newspaper “Vecherniy Bishkek” reports that among the homeless throughout Kyrgyzstan, 10 people are dying every few days. At 5 soms ($0.12), for less than the price of bread, you can stay in a warm shelter, but even that is too expensive for some.
Before coming to Kyrgyzstan I had heard that many homeless were forced to live underground. As impossible as it sounded I was curious to find out the truth. Winters can be harsh in Kyrgyzstan and at night it is not uncommon for the temperature to drop below freezing. Many homeless die because of exposure and those that survive are constantly at risk for for getting frostbite. To avoid frostbite many seek the refuge and unfortunately many times it is underneath a manhole. They are often infested with rats and is wall to wall rubbish and feces. In 2004 the UN cited Kyrgyzstan for human rights violations, not taking care of its homeless population. Because there was also an increasing number of street children, the unfortunate consequence was that many homeless children were rounded up and forced into state institutions where they are often mistreated. For the adult homeless they are generally ignored. The winter I was there the government’s only response was to open an abandoned building in the middle of Bishkek. Smoke-filled, dirty and without any water or bathroom facilities it was hardly a refuge but at least they wouldn’t freeze.
It was there that I met a small group of dedicated Christians helping those the government would rather ignore. They traveled the streets daily giving basic medical care to the homeless, cleaning wounds and giving medicine and food. They fought to open a more permanent facility where they could provide more medical care but the government quickly closed them down because they didn’t want them to affect their neighbor’s home prices. In spite of the setback while I was there they had found another facility farther out of the city and had restarted the medical clinic. There the homeless could bathe and exchange their filthy clothes as well as receive a hot meal and medical care, everything from basic first aid to minor surgery.
The homeless are from all walks of life, history teachers, cab drivers, economists, business owners. All are hard working but because some have fallen on hard times and there is no one they can turn to for any help. Once they become homeless they are stigmatized by society and this rejection only pushes them farther into isolation. One day when working with one of the locals at the clinic we were told about a homeless man who had died inside a manhole. While we were a few hundred yards away we could already smell the body. He had died about a month earlier. When the police arrived they wanted nothing to do with him and didn’t even want to touch the body. They tried to force the other homeless to retrieve their friend’s body. Ultimately my friend and I removed the body. Not only did he die alone but even in his death the local police would not treat him with any diginity
If you’d like to help those providing medical care to those in Kyrgyzstan, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
. I have their private contact information and can connect you. Their monthly expenses are about $2,500 and are completely funded through donations. They have hired locals to help them with the clinic and they have a volunteer staff of foreign doctors who share their time and expertise.
For further reading about the homeless situation in Kyrgyzstan