New Internationalist

Dolgion: ‘Life is given only once’

April 2005

Dolgion, 14, lives in a sewage pit on the fringes of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The air is hot and fetid, with much of the space taken up by two large heating pipes. An all-engulfing stench of rotting garbage and human waste issues from a sewage pipe below.

People call us transheiny [sewage] kids and shun us. I’ve been living like this for the last four years. Before we lived in Yarmag District [an Ulaanbaatar suburb] in a gher [traditional felt-covered round tent of nomads]. My mother worked as a nurse at hospital. Father had no job. As far as I can remember, he was always unemployed. Once he disappeared for several days and when he returned he gave me a plastic pistol as a gift. I never forget that gift.

Our gher burnt down when I was seven. Me and my classmate were playing after classes when fire started from an electric socket. The two of us tried to suppress it by throwing dirt on it. I had heard that water is no good for electricity. Firefighters arrived only after an hour when our home had already turned to smoking ashes.

A relative of my father took us in. It was difficult to live with another family: too many people, crowded place. Father tried to find another home for us, but he began to drink too much. One day my mum left, and I stayed with Father.

After Mother left us, Father returned home drunk almost every day. At the end, the family we stayed with told us to go away. We did not know where to go and just wandered the streets. Father befriended some bad men and drank with them. Often he would become too drunk to walk and collapse right on the street. I would hang around guarding him. Even if I wanted to carry him away I couldn’t because I was too small then. I followed my father like this for more than a month. One day he collapsed again, and I told myself ‘I cannot take it anymore’ and ran away, leaving him behind alone.

I learned that it’s no good to lie hungry as one may die at the end. It is better to walk and walk

Four years have passed since then. I never saw my father again; I don’t even know if he is alive or not. After separating from Father, I lived in District 120,000. I wandered the streets, collected food from garbage dumps, begged on the streets. I was small then and people would take pity on me and give good money. There were times I was very hungry. Once I couldn’t find anything to eat for two days. At the end I fell unconscious. I learned that it’s no good to lie hungry as one may die at the end. It is better to walk and walk.

Special guidelines used for this edition:
To protect the integrity of the children in this edition and their stories, we followed guidelines worked out beforehand by street children's charities. All the children consented to talk with our reporters after being told where and how their stories would be published. Their views have been recorded without censorship. They have been able to withdraw from the project at any point and strike out things they decided not to share with a wider audience.

Names have been routinely changed. Photographs were taken with the active participation of the children. Where sexual exploitation was an important aspect of their testimony or where children were not comfortable being photographed, visual anonymity has been maintained.

As winter approached I moved to Narantuul Market [a large flea and food market]. In the beginning I picked leftovers from a canteen there. Narantuul market is a dangerous place. If you don’t have friends there, children can easily beat you. They usually hang out in gangs. Children who work as market porters are usually older. The younger ones steal, rob other children.

I had a friend there named Cola. Once Cola sold a pair of shoes and it turned out they belonged to his older brother. The brother got mad and beat the two of us harshly. Blood was coming out of my ears. I ran away from there and now stay here, in a bunker sitting on the city heating pipes. Already I’ve been here for two years.

There are six of us living in this pit. Batbaatar is 16. Nyamdorj does not even know his age. He was abandoned by his parents when small. Auntie Uugaana is eldest at 22. Before, kids from the Sharkhad area would come, beat and rob us. But after Auntie joined us they don’t come any more.

How do we live? In the morning one of us will go for water. Some wash their faces, some drink water and then we all go out to collect empty bottles. Sometimes it is very cold outside, so we wait until it is noon and gets warmer, then go for lunch at a canteen for the poor. In the evening we sell whatever bottles we’ve collected during the day. Together we make 2,000-2,500 tugriks [$2]. Rarely more than that.

A vodka bottle earns 40 tugriks, one soft drink can brings 15 tugriks. With this money we buy food in the evening. Mostly we buy Chinese noodle soup. We put the noodles into a plastic bag, add water and then place them on the heating pipes. There are two large pipes running in the bottom of our bunker. They are so hot that we easily get burnt if we touch them. So in a few minutes the soup gets ready.

Down in the pit: Dolgion and his comrades. ‘People call us sewage kids.’ Photo: B Toshka
Down in the pit: Dolgion and his comrades. 'People call us sewage kids.' Photo: B Toshka

If we don’t have enough money, on weekends we go to a place giving hot food for free. It’s quite far so we take a bus. We don’t pay for the bus ride. Many poor people go there on Sunday, so the ticket conductors know.

When we have some spare money, we go to PC game room. It costs 400 tugriks [$ 0.35] to play for one hour. We have to clean our clothes by rubbing them with snow, wash our faces and hands. Otherwise they won’t let us in. They allow us to play only when there are few people there. But with the money we have, we can only play 15-30 minutes each.

Earlier it was much easier to collect bottles. They are becoming rarer now, fewer and fewer every day. People store bottles and cans at home and then sell them themselves. The apartment blocks’ concierges collect the remainder. And some adults now own the garbage dumping places. When we go there they chase us away.

Clothes are hardest to get. None of us have good clothes – let alone a warm sweater. We don’t even have underpants. We find our clothes mostly at garbage dumps. The winter jacket I wear now was given by a man who knocked me down with his car. I was about to cross the street just near the [General] Zhukov Museum when a car came over and its side mirror caught and dragged me. I was carried for a few metres and fell down with such force that my jaw was completely displaced, hanging loosely. When I came to I found myself lying on a white hospital bed. When I got better, the man gave me 60,000 tugriks [$50]. He said he would help me whenever we happened to meet again. One month later I saw him and he took me for a lunch and bought me this jacket. He’s a good man.


Seeking shelter
Why don’t we go to a street children’s shelter to bathe? True, they don’t charge money. But we have no soap and no clothes to change into afterwards. If you hadn’t given me a T-shirt [referring to a gift from the interviewer], I would wear the winter jacket alone. Without socks and underwear, it is very easy to get sick in the winter cold.

One of my friends died of pneumonia. He was a year older than me. We hung out together in District 120,000. There was a niche in the wall on the second floor. We would climb there by rope and sleep at night. That day I covered him with my jacket and went out to find food. When I got back he did not wake up. I put my hand on his nostrils; there was no breathing. I immediately called an ambulance, but it never came. It is free to call police and ambulance from public telephone, you know. [Hospitals do not accept children without health insurance.]

Later on I was interrogated by the police. Luckily there was a female officer handling my case. She asked me to tell why my friend died and I told her the truth. Then she told me to repeat this in court. The trial took place in a very small room. The judge was going in and out. At the end he said ‘Innocent, innocent’, and told me to go away.

Shelters? I’ve been once or twice. Many kids at the shelter learn taekwondo fighting at the nearby sport club. When they hit their feet fly as high as my face. The older ones bully and beat other kids. When New Year gifts were distributed older boys went round the rooms and collected all of them from us. They ate our gifts for days. Older boys are mostly abandoned children brought up in the shelter.

Children’s rights? We have nothing. We’re just like human garbage. Nobody needs us. Anyone can come and beat us. I want to go to a place where there is no beating. Recently children from that house [points to a residential apartment block nearby] came over and hit us all for no reason. The police come to us only if a theft happens nearby. They take us to the police station where they beat and beat demanding we confess to stealing. They force us to sit on a stool like this [arches his back] and then beat us with batons. Or they tie you tightly on a bench, insert a wooden pole between the legs, right below the crotch and then start rolling it... so-o-o painful.

Once, right when they were doing this to me, a police officer came in. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘He has stolen things,’ answered the man hurting me. I screamed ‘I did not steal anything. They torture me, telling to admit that I did.’ The officer ordered them to release me. This happened last year. Now the police are a bit quiet. Once in a while they come over our pit, look inside with flashlights and ask if we have knives or other weapons.

People rarely help us. Most are suspicious of us, thinking we are all thieves. There is a man named Ochir who lives nearby and operates a depot where people give bottles and cans. He is a very good man. Often he allows us to sleep at the depot building. Even brings in a TV set. Channel 25’s programme about computer games is good. Once I saw a programme by Gurbazar [a popular TV journalist] where twins – both now old women – meet after many years apart.

All people want to have a good life. I do not know what my life will be like when I grow up. I am afraid that I will die one day with my whole life spent like this, collecting bottles. Life is given only once and I am scared that I will see no good times.

Last summer there was much talk about giving money to children. But once the politicians got elected, no more talk of money at all. They were promising money only to get elected. I think that now they collect all the money for themselves. [The general election was held in June 2004 with the opposition promising to pay 10,000 tugriks ($10) monthly for each child, if elected.]

Cash in hand: each empty vodka bottle Dolgion can find is worth 3 cents. Photo: B Toshka
Cash in hand: each empty vodka bottle Dolgion can find is worth 3 cents. Photo: B Toshka

Belief and disbelief
Now I believe in God. Last summer two Chinese men used to visit me bringing food in a large bowl. They even shared food with me eating from the same bowl with the same spoon. While eating they told me that I should believe in Jesus. I did not believe then. One day the two men said they are leaving for home – Hong Kong. They brought very good food for the last time and gave me 1,000 tugriks [$1].

Before I did not believe in Christ. And then one kid told me about his revelation. After that I believed. It was only a month ago. The first thing I asked from God was to heal my sores because my hand was terribly swollen from fingers to elbow. My foot was also hurting with a wound from a burn blister. In three days the swollen hand got normal and the wound on my foot is now healing.

I met a man recently claiming to be a friend of my mother’s husband. He said that she died in early August. I did not ask anything more. I simply cannot accept this.

When I grow up, I will own a bottle collection point. Most important is to get documents. When I turn 16 I will get a citizen ID card, then work for a while to collect money. With this money I will set up a collecting point.

Other dreams? Well, I will find my parents. I will work all on my own and will find them myself. When I find my parents I will buy a house and we all will live together. I don’t believe that my mother died recently. I simply do not believe it.

Dolgion spoke to Lutaa Badamkhand (lut@magicnet.mn),
a freelance journalist who publishes an online cultural
e-zine (www.MongoliaToday.com).

Street children in Mongolia
Mongolia emerged from Communist Party rule in the 1990s into the so-called ‘free market’. The changes were sudden, bringing wealth to a few but shocks to many. Industries collapsed and the resulting poverty and unemployment led to widespread alcohol abuse and social breakdown. Some 36 per cent of the country’s 2.4 million people live below the poverty line (on less than $1 a day). Where once a social benefits net provided support for large families and runaway children were tracked down, today indifference reigns. Police estimates put the number of street children in the capital Ulaanbaatar at over 1,000. With winter temperatures dropping below -25 C, these children survive in a punishing physical environment.
Working to help are
The Lotus Centre
Web: www.lotuschild.org
Email: lotuschild@magicnet.mn
Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia The Lotus Centre provides shelter and education to street children and helps poor families stay together.

Save the Children Fund, Mongolia
PO Box 1023,
Central Post Office,
Ulaanbaatar – 13,
Tel: + 976 11 329371;
+ 976 11 329365
Fax: + 976 11 329361
Web: www.savethechildren.mn
E-mails: ganaa@savethechildren.mn

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 377 This feature was published in the April 2005 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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