Prague, 19 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Three Russian television channels really stirred a controversy on November 13 when they aired a film segment on the Belovodsk Children's Home in Kyrgyzstan. The scenes of naked, emaciated and sickly children in filthy surroundings drew press comparisons to survivors of Nazi death camps.
That alone would have been a major embarrassment for the Kyrgyz government. But the broadcasts coincided with a high-profile visit to Kyrgyzstan by American First Lady Hillary Clinton. So a film clip which originally was an attempt by a well-meaning charitable organization to help these children has provided the basis for a major strain on Russian-Kyrgyz relations.
The film was shot last summer by a Norwegian camera crew at the request of a Danish charitable organization called "Save the Children." The Danish group intended to show the film to donor organizations. How the film was obtained by the Russians has not been made clear, but on November 13, the Russian channels ORT, NTV and RTR all aired the footage. Beyond some of the children's cadaverous looks, the NTV segment reported that the children received one bowl of rice soup daily and that they had contact with an adult only once daily.
Naina Yeltsin, wife of the Russian president, made a publicized appeal to the Russian Red Cross the following day asking for money for the children in the Belovodsk home. Most of the children are mentally handicapped.
Mrs. Yeltsin's response was not as quick as Kyrgyzstan's. According to November 15 edition of the Russia newspaper "Segodnya", within 10 minutes of the segment's broadcast "the head of the republic (President Askar Akayev) gave the order for the government to immediately investigate the facts." The day Mrs. Yeltsin was making the appeal, Kyrgyzstan's Deputy Prime Minister Mira Jangaracheva was making a public appearance at the Belovodsk home. Jangaracheva said the reports "didn't correspond with reality," and were a "prefabricated sensation." Kyrgyzstan sent an official protest to NTV and the Russian government. Akayev called it a "planned" political action. Kyrgyz Minister of Labor Asylgul Abdurekhmenova repeated Akayev's charge at a special news conference on November 17.
The man responsible for the video being taken, Lars Gill of "Save The Children," said publicly he considers the Russian channels have violated his rights and those of the children. One doctor from the home explained the video was shot in the summer when temperatures are high, so of course some of the children did not wear clothing. Another doctor justified binding the children to beds by claiming they would bite other children if this were not done. The director of the Belovodsk home, Maxim Yelizarov, told RFE/RL on November 17, that the hospital is already much better than three years ago, and Mrs Jangaracheva added that in the Soviet era an average of 44 children in the home died each year while in 1997 only 10 had died.
To those living in industrialized societies the footage likely is shocking. But comments from the doctors at the home equally cannot be ignored. What sounds like cold rationalization is simply cold reality. Kyrgyzstan is unlucky to be the CIS Central Asian nation which has now been exposed for these conditions publicly. Similar conditions are present in neighboring countries, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and other CIS countries. Labor Minister Abdurekhmenova mentioned that the situation in Russian children's homes for mentally handicapped children is similar, raising the question why the Russian channels did not choose to use footage from closer to home.
There are shortages of medicine, shortages of hospital supplies, and wages for employees are low and often late throughout the Central Asian states of the CIS. A handicapped child born to a family in this region represents a great burden. Financially it is nearly impossible for the average family to support the needs of a physically or mentally handicapped child.
One type of establishment remaining from the Soviet era is the children's home, though they are poorly funded. This is often the recourse of the urban family in Central Asia, as elsewhere, when confronted with the task of raising a child who will have additional needs. Gill noted that among those whose rights were violated by showing the video were the parents of the children, who had not been contacted prior to the footage being televised.
There still remains the question of who is responsible for all the problems created by the broadcast. Certainly social services such as health care need improving in Kyrgyzstan, and in other countries of the region. If the children at Belovodsk benefit from the scandal which has been created, this episode may not be without a good side. In any event, the incident is unlikely to be forgotten by the Kyrgyz or Russian governments any time soon.