“The girl injecting herself in the video was notorious on the streets of Odessa. She was an amazing girl. One of the toughest I’ve ever known. Her dad killed her mother and sexually abused her since she was four. At the age of six, she ran away from home. She ate stones and needles because she felt so bad and ended up in hospital. She lived on the streets since then. [At sixteen], she overdosed.”
So describes documentary filmmaker Tjörvi Guðmundsson one of the street children featured in a disturbing music video he made to the new Mínus single ‘Throwaway Angel’ (posted on the band’s Myspace). Tjörvi, who has spent the past five years living with the children on the streets of Odessa and Ukraine’s capital Kiev, dedicates the video to fallen friends and those still struggling to stay alive in horrific inhumane conditions where violence, torture and crimes are everyday occurrences. On May 1, he will open an exhibition at Gallery Startart on Laugavegur 12b where he presents both photographs and videos with these children as the subjects.
While Ukraine has experienced economic growth for the past years, the number of homeless children continues to be a serious problem. Although it is nearly impossible to find accurate numbers, Tjörvi says hundreds of thousands of children live on the streets without any adult protection. He has met thousands and describes them as the strongest and most wonderful people he has ever met. To tell their story and make a documentary that focuses on a reality ignored by governments worldwide, he has been harassed by local authorities, received death threats from the mafia and had to bribe the police multiple times.
“Why did I decide to do this? There are a couple of reasons, mostly personal. Nothing I want to explain in detail. I wanted to do a documentary about this subject and took the next plane to Kiev. At that time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Tjörvi explains: “I got to know a strong group in Kiev. Children from age eight to seventeen. They live under a bridge during the summer and hide down in the sewers during the winter, when the temperature can drop to minus 20 degrees.”
To be able to get to know the underground world and show the tragic reality of their lives as accurately as possible, Tjörvi had to become one of the group. He slept in the sewers, became their friend and observed their every move. But earning the children’s trust took time.
“They don’t trust people easily but when you spend time on the streets, you slowly start to understand their daily routine, where they hang out and at what time. At first I followed them around. Then I tried to approach them. After about one year I had become part of the group. Then a whole new chapter began.”
“I got to know a new community, shaped by their world and the dangers they face every day. They have their own laws and rules and each member has his own role. Some may be good fighters while others are better at negotiating with the cops, begging for money or stealing. There is strong affection between them and they look after each other. They also play around and do fun things together, just like all kids do, and are often really happy. The difference is that all their games are a matter of life or death.”
There are many reasons why the children ended up on the streets. Abandoned or forced out of their homes by parents who are either drug addicts or alcoholics. Some of them ran away because of violence and sexual abuse. Others escaped from orphanages, where they are often victims of even more brutality. Thousands of children became homeless at such an early age that they don’t know whether they have parents or not and life on the street is the only thing they know.
“When these children have lived on the street for so long they become addicted to it. Some of them are fostered but run back to the street. After living among them and experiencing their lives I can understand that in a way. These are just kids that have lost their friends on the street and feel obligated to defend their territory. The street becomes their world, their mother and home.”
Most of them sniff glue or paint to keep the hunger pains away and many use hard drugs to escape reality. The toughest street children only live until about the age of seventeen, he says. “They are always on the run and just take one day at a time. Life [on the streets] is worth nothing. They are often murdered by fellow streetgangs. They are sold to sexual slavery. They are kidnapped and their organs removed and sold. In this world, it isn’t like someone is going to report a crime or that the police will investigate cases like these. If a child is found dead on the street, nothing is done about it. No one cares.”
Sold into Sex Slavery
Many of the kids work as prostitutes and the child sex industry, controlled by the mafia, is extremely harsh in Ukraine, Tjörvi explains. Trafficking and sexual exploitation of homeless children is widespread, and a growing number of kids are HIV positive.
“People might think this won’t have any consequences, but HIV in Odessa is considered to be one of the largest HIV problems in Europe. All the kids I worked with in Odessa, for example, are HIV positive. I had to teach them that it wasn’t enough to clean the needles with cold water after they had injected themselves. That was something they didn’t know and had therefore transmitted the disease to each other, around 30 to 40 children. Odessa is one of the biggest tourist spots in Ukraine and many children from Odessa are sold into the sex industry across Europe. They more or less all have HIV,” he says.
Tjörvi adds that the majority of people close their eyes to this problem. “There are lots of rich people in Kiev. That doesn’t change the fact that no one gives the children anything. They are looked at as the scum of the earth. Not as children the system has let down.”
He doesn’t have much respect for aid agencies working in the country: “I could never have imagined what a fraud many of these organisations are. Some mean well and try to help but my experience is that most of them only use these children to get funding. I don’t want to name any names, but I’ve seen plenty of organisations use the children to get more money. They bring them in, give them food, take pictures of them to post on their websites but throw them back out on the street afterwards. Two employees working for an aid agency in Ukraine quit their jobs after I showed them how the situation on the streets really is. I have plenty of respect for the Norwegian aid people though for doing a lot to help the children directly. They hand out clean needles.”
Tjörvi says many of the children have become sceptical towards adults. They know there isn’t much hope of a better future as only a very small percentage gets a second chance in life. “I have a good friend, Victor, who got off the street. I think it is mostly because he has such a great sense of humour. He is a brilliant kid, extremely funny. A family fell in love with him and took him into their home. I met him again six months ago and he has it pretty good. Miracles can happen.” I ask if it’s necessary to get so close to the subject, as he has, to do a documentary of this kind: “As I see it, there are two types of documentaries. The ones more like news pieces where the filmmakers shoot for a month or so and then describe the circumstances. Then there are documentaries where the filmmaker starts to live the film. When you do that, and get the subject to stop noticing you or the camera, you can capture the real atmosphere that will hopefully reflect through the film. By now, the film has become the side issue to me though. These children are my best friends today, and that’s what it is all about. They have taught me more about life than I could ever teach them. I owe them a lot.”
Understandably, the experience has affected him a great deal. Asked how he has handled this, to get so connected to the characters and witness this tragedy without giving up and leaving, he responds:
“I’ve gone through that period. Today, I would probably think twice, knowing how this experience would fuck me up. No question. The thing is, you get stuck. At first, you feel guilty. You feel guilty about dining at a fancy restaurant after hanging with the kids in the sewers. Then you start to lose touch with reality. Now I’m trying to put myself back together again. Of course I want to believe that this world will come to an end but I’m also realistic. This is a very political and complicated issue. But the kids deserve much more. They have done nothing wrong. It is the system, the economy and the parents that are to blame. Not them. That this problem hasn’t been tackled is outrageous.”
After the exhibition at gallery Startart, Tjörvi will go back to the kids on the streets of Ukraine to shoot the main parts of his documentary.