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Below the Surface

A crashing economy and personal ills have left thousands homeless in Bishkek. Some have gone underground. From EurasiaNet.

by Dalton Bennett 3 August 2010

BISHKEK | Beneath the glamour and excess, the fast cars and “VIP” clubs, Bishkek’s feeble image of new money quickly evaporates. For an increasing number in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, the economic crisis means homelessness. Some seek refuge underground in the dark and dangerous corridors of the city’s central hot water and power system, living among decaying animals, used needles and human filth. They face near certain violence, disease, and often death.


Many of those living underground are former convicts, lifelong substance abusers, labor migrants, and orphans. But they weren’t always such outcasts. “These people were normal. They had families, friends, homes, and jobs but lack of employment, gambling, substance abuse, and other social problems have forced them onto the streets, some underground,” said Saule Meirmanova director of Bishkek’s Pervomayski district state-run homeless shelter.


Before his downfall alongside deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiev, Bishkek’s former mayor, Nariman Tuleev, took measures to address the homeless crisis with the creation of the first municipal shelters in November last year. These centers, which operate until 31 March, are spread throughout the city’s four districts, providing “shelter, medical attention, and one hot meal for all individuals,” Meirmanova said.


Yet like most state-run support projects, Bishkek’s Pervomayski shelter struggles to stay afloat. It provides at most 70 beds for what Meiranoza estimates to be nearly 3,900 homeless individuals within the district.


Ex-cons, substance abusers, and tuberculosis sufferers are forbidden from staying at one of the state-run shelters.


On a cold spring night, one newly released convict who calls himself Azamat was refused service at a shelter. Before nodding off to sleep underneath the warm pipes, he huffed on a bag of industrial adhesive.


“At least I won’t be hungry,” he said, cackling into a puddle of drool.


A 24-year-old from Naryn, who asked for anonymity, spoke of the dangers of living in the shelters. “There are many bad people in these centers; I am much safer trying to survive underground. If I go [to a shelter], I will surely be beaten or killed,” he said.


Dushan, a 38-year-old construction worker from the central town of Toktogul, took to the streets when work dried up and the prices of utilities in Kyrgyzstan more than doubled last winter.


“With the increase in utilities, my $100 rent was impossible. Without work how am I am able to pay rent and unexpected utility bills?” he said.


Adding to his misfortune, without the proper Bishkek living permit – a propiska – he is unable to find work.


"Without papers or a passport, what good am I? I don't exist," Dushan said. In the meantime he scavenges for cardboard to sell while seeking refuge underground at night.


His story is familiar. Yet dire economic times aren’t the only factor driving individuals underground. Because of personal loss and tragic misfortune, some have simply given up on life above ground.


After his wife’s death in a car accident, Sadyr Jumagulov, a migrant worker from Sokuluk, a village just outside Bishkek, became homeless. Spending his nights in the underground halls, he was awakened recently by drunken teenagers. They beat him with a brick, smashing his face and breaking his leg. Unable to lift his body, stripped of his clothes, and without food or water, he was stuck underground for two days before he could help himself out.


“They beat me for fun. They knew I had no money. I woke up near death, stripped naked. Look at my leg and what they did to my face; I’d rather be dead,” he said.


As he lay immobilized in a mire of decomposing garbage and human excrement, dozens of flies flew in and out of Jumagulov’s wounds. For now, a recently released convict who was beaten the same night looks after him.


Tursunbek Abdyshukurov, 23, says the violence is not as bad as the fear of being wrongly imprisoned. A recent local murder has left subterranean dwellers within the district terrified of being falsely accused by the police, he said.


“They’re going to send me to jail tomorrow. A murder happened yesterday. They think that I’m the murderer and the police just want to close the case,” Abdyshukurov said. As he spoke, a large fragment of tooth bobbed in his lip, lodged there courtesy of the pipe-wielding teenagers.

Photo and story by Dalton Bennett, a freelance journalist in Bishkek. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.

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