Friday, December 3, 2004

Underground spokesman explains manhole life

10,000 homeless people are living in Ulaanbaatar according to research by the Homeless People’s Movement of Ulaanbaatar, as reported by Mongoliin Medee. The movement is an unofficial organization formed by homeless people in the city. The movement had planned to organize a demonstration on Independence Day in order to demand land from the government.

Ts.Nyamdavaa, a member of a the movement’s council, said they had eventually decided to not to hold the demonstration because they should first get agreement from all the homeless people to participate in the demonstration and should register the movement officially with the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs. “We should live above ground because we have a right to live and stay alive under the Law on Constitution …We are living stateless and we should become integrated with society,” Nyamdavaa said, explaining that they only want the right to land and that if they have land they can to establish a town for themselves.

They established a council of seven people who are better educated. The movement did an unofficial survey of homeless people who live in manholes and garbage dumps in and around Ulaanbaatar. Their findings show that 70 percent of them are girls and women and 25 percent of them are elderly. The survey also counted 248 manholes in the city, over 100 of which have been closed and locked in the last year to protect the heating network from damage. Those who previously lived in the manholes that have been closed have now had to compete for other places to stay.

At present there are a minimum of two and a maximum 30 people are living in a manhole, Nyamdavaa said.He said that two extra people per week come to underground life from above ground and explained that most of the people living in manholes have been expelled from their families. When questioned about how the people behaved to have become expelled from their house, Nyamdavaa replied that although there are alcoholic people in manholes, not all of them are alcoholic. “It is not true to say that most of them are alcoholic. There are even people who were deeply in debt or homeless.”

He gave one example of a person who had recently come to his manhole who had been running a shop. The man had taken out a loan for his shop, but then it had burned down while he was absent. He was unable to repay the debt and he sold his house and car in order to pay the debt. When he became homeless and he had no way of earning a living, he came under great pressure from his wife and brothers. So he left his family and went to live underground. Nyamdavaa says there are many respected people living underground who are honored painters, singers, engineers, and state prizewinning teachers.

These are people who have not been able to adjust to changes in society. He points out that although those living in manholes have left their former lives, they still have feelings like other people and some of them are married to each other and have had children together. He adds that those who are living underground because of problems in their normal life are still not happy underground. “As for me, I console myself that I’m living freely and without any responsibility” he said. He explained how many homeless people earn money, saying that they go to work three times a day, collecting rubbish.

They ‘own’ the garbage bins situated close to buildings, apartments and industries and earn a minimum of Tg3,000 a day. “People think that we just collect garbage but we actually collect money because the people drop their money in the form of bottles, cans and bones from meat.

The most profitable things are bottles because we can get twice as much for them as for other kinds of garbage. I buy the bottles from people who collect them and then sell them on to bottle collection points. I also clear snow from land at the front of bars, restaurants and other organizations and get Tg1,000 from each of them. And I make a contract with the organizations to collect their cans and bottles”.He said that the homeless people are not interested in saving money because they don’t need to buy clothes or other such things. They spend the money they earn the same evening on alcohol, food and entertainment.

Nyamdavaa explained he that lives his life passing the days without any goal. There is a saying amongst homeless people that they must live to see another day. He explained this saying as expressing solidarity between those who live below ground and are not respected by the rest of society. He complained that homeless people are often beaten by police and are ejected from public transport with conductors citing that they smell. He also explained how homeless people have no rights to medical care.

He told the story of a friend who was seriously ill. They spent Tg1,000 on calling the ambulance but the medical staff refused to help, saying the people do not have any official address and that an ambulance cannot be driven to a manhole. Nyamdavaa explained some of the hardships and competitiveness of manhole life. “I could find my manhole only through my strength. I was burned three times before I found a manhole for myself” he said. On three occasions people set light to him using fuel while he was sleeping.

He says he was not injured seriously, although he had a serious head injury after a fight with people who wanted to steal his manhole. He said that groups of robbers live underground and often steal money and other things from other homeless people. He said that the robbers are from the first generation of underground dwellers, children who started living in manholes in 1990 and grew up in these places. They have been deprived of normal love and affection and are illiterate, he said.

They have now become adults and are stronger. They use violence against men and women in the manholes and commit the all the worst brutal crimes. He says these people can be hired for money or alcohol to do all kinds of illegal activities for other people. He therefore argues the government should take measures to enable these people to enter normal life.Nyamdavaa believes that homeless people want to live above ground and enter normal life if they have a chance or if they can be given land.