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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
Few comforts for Russia's abandoned children
By Diana Goodman
BBC News, Russia

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 12 December, 1996.

Tens of thousands of Russian children were living in squalor and discomfort in institutions. Many of them were abandoned by their parents because they were mentally or physically disabled.
A map of Russia showing the capital Moscow

It was the sound of crying which hit me first as I stepped inside the home.

It was the sort of heart-wrenching plaintive sobbing that makes any mother instinctively look around for a child in need of comfort, the sound which says a child is cold and hungry or in pain.

This time it was not one child crying, it was dozens. But the director of the orphanage sat impassively behind a desk, apparently oblivious to the noise.

She was a large, portly woman, dressed in a warm coat and a fur hat.

When I shivered and commented on the lack of warmth she laughed merrily and said: "No it's not cold at all, I'm only dressed like this because I'm going outside."

She ordered us to take off our coats and sit down.

Volunteers

Sergei gently suggested that the human rights of children had to be defended. The director laughed with contempt and then began shouting about the rights of pensioners
I had turned up at the internat, as these homes are called, with a Russian musician turned lobbyist called Sergei Koloskov.

He has a daughter with Down's syndrome and, like all such parents, when she was born he was pressured by the authorities to give her up.

He refused and has since become actively involved in helping other parents to keep their children at home.

He has also trying to relieve the suffering of children who are in internats by providing volunteers and equipment.

The director was deaf to his suggestions and brushed his photographs away. "We need finance," she said. "Not fancy ideas.

"My priority is to find enough money to pay the staff."

Sergei gently suggested that the human rights of children had to be defended.

Despite the cold, most of the children were dressed only in T-shirts plus the pieces of rag which were used as nappies
The director laughed with contempt and then began shouting about the rights of pensioners.

They had to be defended too, she said. All this talk about the special rights of retarded children was ridiculous.

Eventually the director got bored and retired to her office in a completely separate building.

Before she left she privately told Nadia, the medical worker who was showing us round, not to say anything indiscreet.

But when Nadia opened the door of the so-called lying-down room, home to the children who cannot walk, no words were needed.

'Frighteningly pale'

The nurses looking after them work 12-hour shifts. They get paid just 25 a month
There, in a long narrow room, two rows of children lay marooned on their tiny beds.

Some were staring at the ceiling. Others were weeping inconsolably or softly whimpering.

Despite the cold, most of the children were dressed only in T-shirts plus the pieces of rag which were used as nappies.

One little boy had feet that were blue with cold.

All of them were frighteningly pale and their heads were shaved. Some were covered in sores or rashes.

The nurses looking after them work 12 hour shifts. They get paid just 25 a month.

Their job is to change, wash and feed the children, nothing more.

Poor health

Some children eventually die from malnutrition
It was lunchtime when I was there and the nurses were going round with metal billycans of food.

Western experts say that despite their disabilities many of these children could learn to feed themselves but they are regarded by the authorities and, as a result, by their carers, as idiots and imbeciles and no attempt is made to teach them anything.

The nurses went from one bed to another spooning a few mouthfuls of porridge into each of the children.

As soon as they turned their heads away, the nurse moved on.

Some children eventually die from malnutrition. Just a few days before, a 17-year-old girl had died of starvation because she could no longer digest the food.

Asked why she had not been taken to hospital, Nadia said: '"They turn our children away, they don't want to waste their resources on kids like these."

A telegram had been sent to the girl's parents but they did not come to collect her body. Like most of the children here, she had never had a visitor.

Crying

Nadia quickly rattled through the problems of each child.

Closest to the door was Carina, a four-year-old girl who was born with twisted legs because her mother had syphilis.

She was the size of a normal one-year-old. As she whimpered, she continually clenched and unclenched her hands.

When I lifted the covers on her bed I found she was naked below the waist and was lying on a cold rubber sheet with not even a cloth to catch her excrement.

When I stroked her hands she unclenched her fists and stopped crying. She listened intently as I talked.

When I moved away she was quiet for a moment, then she realised she was alone once more and started to weep.

Across the aisle was Valyera, an eight-year-old girl with cerebral palsy.

She was abandoned at birth and then adopted.

When she was three her new parents realised she was disabled and she was abandoned for a second time. "She can stand up sometimes," the nurses said. "And she understands everything."

Valyera squeaked and bellowed as we moved away to another bed.

Stigma

The nurses in the internats are not unkind. But they are completely untrained and they have no time to provide individual love and attention
Ninety-five per cent of all handicapped children born in Russia are rejected by their parents and if a mother does decide to keep a child the father will often leave.

The social stigma of having a disabled child is too much to bear in a country where handicapped children are seen as freaks who carry the evil eye.

The nurses in the internats are not unkind. But they are completely untrained and they have no time to provide individual love and attention.

They confessed however that they do have their favourites and one of the older women rushed over to pick up a frail little girl.

"When I'm alone here at night I cuddle her and hold her," she said. "Sometimes I even try to make her walk."

"Oh Valya," said her colleague. "Don't be so crazy, you mustn't spoil her."

"I can't help it," replied Valya, holding the small girl close to her chest as she crooned: "Don't cry my tiny one, please don't cry."

As she lifted the child into the air we saw that the bottom of the girl's spine was covered in weeping bed sores.

'Naive'

At that point Nadia insisted it was time to take a break.

As we sat in the adjacent office she boiled up a kettle for tea and brought out biscuits and chocolate.

None of us were in the mood to eat.

Sergei began pressing Nadia to help him establish a connection between this orphanage and his charity group.

"We could help you," he said. "We could send doctors and maybe heaters to keep the children warm and all the medicines you need."

But Nadia just shook her head. "You don't understand," she said. "It's pointless."

She looked around and then she whispered: "The truth is that the director uses this job to make herself rich.

"She sells everything she can. Sometimes even the coal which is supposed to be used for heating."

I protested that she could not be serious.

Nadia looked at me pityingly. "You're completely naive" she said.

"Just like that American missionary who is here at the moment.

"Last time he went round handing out soft toys and as soon as he'd gone, the director told me to collect them up immediately. We never saw them again."

Few medicines

We sat in silence and listened to the noise of hunger, pain and despair seeping out from behind the locked door
As we drank our tea we could hear bellowing and wailing from the room behind us.

I suggested we should go inside.

Nadia shrank back in her seat. "I can't," she said. "The director would kill me."

She explained that that was the room for difficult children with psychiatric problems who needed strong drugs to keep them subdued.

She said the drugs were not always available.

We sat in silence and listened to the noise of hunger, pain and despair seeping out from behind the locked door.

Smiles

When the ritual of afternoon tea was over, I went in search of the visiting American.

He told me his name was Dan and he was a former insurance underwriter who had given up his job to help orphans in Russia.

He was sitting on the bed of a bright-faced 17-year-old who was talking nineteen to the dozen.

When Dan lifted back the cover on the boy's bed we saw that his legs were deformed, but his arms appeared to be normal.

He has spent 17 years in homes like this, given idiot status because his legs are bent. How could he still be smiling?

Token education

Down the hall the children who are considered to be beyond help were wandering aimlessly around starkly empty rooms
As it began to get dark, we moved into the other half of the orphanage. The place where the so-called "walking children" are kept.

The nurses have painted murals here, of playful foxes and geese and brightly coloured gardens.

Some of the children get a token amount of education and they even watch a bit of television, but the misery felt by some of the others is overwhelming.

They sit on the floor in the long corridor, their legs pulled up to their chests, rocking silently as they stare into the distance.

Are they mad, or are they desperate because they are sane?

Clamouring for attention

I knew this boy would be in a home until the day he dies
Down the hall the children who are considered to be beyond help were wandering aimlessly around starkly empty rooms.

Some of them had green blotches on their temples. It was antiseptic lotion, used to cover the wounds caused when they banged their heads against the walls.

When we arrived the children sprang into life and rushed to the door clamouring for attention.

I asked their nurse why they had no toys. "They would eat them and beat each other up," she said. "They're too stupid to know what to do."

In the girls' room one of the children was in a makeshift straitjacket, constructed from a sheet.

The nurse explained that on the girl's first day she had tried to break a window to get out, so from then on she had been tied up.

Before we left the orphanage, I stopped to visit a boy banging his head repeatedly against the end of his bed.

I sat down and slowly rubbed his back and muttered the sorts of things that mothers say when they are trying to calm their children.

"Don't worry, it'll be alright," I found myself saying, and his breathing became calmer.

But then I felt like a heel, because for him, it was not alright and it never would be.

Retarded children are never even offered for adoption. I knew this boy would be in a home until the day he dies.

Hope

Volunteers who are trying to help children in Russia face a dilemma.

Should they send money to the internats, thereby helping to perpetuate a corrupt system they hate, or should they devote their efforts to supporting groups who are trying to find a new way of caring for children?

The Moscow-based Action for Russia's Children, which is manned by expatriate volunteers, has chosen the second course of action and is supporting an imaginative new scheme, run by a saintly former physicist called Maria Ternovskaya.

Each night now before I go to sleep I think of the pinched and lonely little faces of the children at the internat as they lie staring into the darkness in their narrow beds
With the help of a Christian group she has opened a small independent orphanage in Moscow.

She is also working on trying to change the law to make it easier for children to be adopted or fostered.

The small, cosy orphanage is divided into sections and there is a den mother in charge of each group.

As I spoke to one of them, a cheerful woman called Ludmilla, a small dark-haired girl was playing at her feet.

Ludmilla explained that the child had been taken away from her drunken parents after they threw her out of a fourth floor window. If Maria's orphanage did not exist she would now be in a Moscow internat.

Each night now before I go to sleep, I think of the pinched and lonely little faces of the children at the internat as they lie staring into the darkness in their narrow beds.

Sometimes I get up and sit by my own son's bed and pray that nothing similar will ever happen to him.

And I remember the smell which hung over the home. The smell of disinfectant, urine and death.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Russia
20 Jul 05 |  Country profiles


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