The Digital Journalist
Street Kids in Odessa

by Michal Novotny

September 2006

"Is anyone down there alive?" shouts Andrey, social worker of The Way Home NGO, into darkness before he opens a door leading to the cellar of an old and desolate house in the center of Odessa, Ukraine. No one answers but a little while later a weak bulb illuminates the stairs. Down some more steps and we are hit by an unbearable odor – a mixture of human feces and a strong smell of glue. Under the stairs, seven or eight half-naked and fleshless boy bodies are lying about in the garbage sharing just few square meters. "Come up, we've brought you some food," shouts Andrey and the scramble of bodies begins. Together we return to the van of The Way Home NGO that regularly distributes food and medical stuff to the children of Odessa.

Sergey Kushnir, 14, holding a plastic bag filled with glue for sniffing, screams in the sewer where he lives on the outskirts of Odessa, Ukraine, on Tues., June 6, 2006. According to the Ukrainian NGO "The Way Home," there are more than 3,000 homeless children living on the streets of Odessa. Almost all street children use drugs.

Michal Novotny/WpN
A couple of days prior to this scene, I arrived in Odessa with my girlfriend-journalist Jarmila to prepare an article for the daily Lidove Noviny's weekly supplement. A few years before, when photographing street children in Kiev, I had met one of the local photographers. "Here the kids just sniff some glue but, if you have time, go and see Odessa by the seaside. There the kids go for real, hard drugs." I had been wondering about it, waiting for the right time. Then this spring I was awarded one of World Press Photo prizes and, therefore, I did not have to persuade the editor-in-chief to pay for the tickets and some accommodation.

We rented a small studio in the center of town. It was so small that when we stretched the couch out to get some sleep, there was no space left in the room. Immediately we went to meet Sergey Kostin, the director and one of the founders of The Way Home NGO that had been taking care of Odessa's street children, the homeless and people with HIV. Honestly, at the beginning I was a bit worried about meeting him. I had worked many times in the ex-Soviet Union countries and such meetings usually included an infinite number of bottom-up shots of vodka. But as it became clear, as a former drug addict and alcoholic, Sergey, who did not drink anymore, had become a vegetarian and, more importantly, he had a clear understanding of the problems.

"Initially, we focused on the adult homeless only to discover that many of them were drug addicts, children and HIV positive. Gradually we have started working on additional programs. The street children program is one of them. According to our estimation, there are 3,000-4,000 children hanging around here and the number keeps growing. Several times per week we deliver food and medical stores and distribute condoms and needles." Kostin explained to us that in the headquarters of The Way Home there were a couple of rooms ready to accommodate children who Sergey manages to convince to leave the street. Such children are not held in the center, though. Anyone can leave whenever they feel like it. "Who stays and shows some interest can be set for a foster family or a children's home. In The Way Home center children can live in clean rooms, attend a school and spend some quality time in hobby groups, as well as, have holidays at camps by the seaside. Yet, unfortunately, a child of the street seldom wants to leave the world of drugs and life with no duties."

Taras, 17, cries after Denis "Moldavanchik," 12, was not able to find a vein for a self-made drug based on ephedrine known as "baltushka," in an abandoned house where they live in Odessa, Ukraine, on Fri., June 16, 2006. Almost all of Odessa's street children use drugs. The last research carried out by a Ukrainian NGO, "The Way Home," shows that practically all street children have sexually-transmitted diseases and many of them are HIV-positive.

Michal Novotny/WpN
The next day we start for the first inspection round. Ina, a one-armed ex-drug addict who started to believe in God, has been abstaining from drugs for several years. In the center she takes care of the children and occasionally she drives around the city – all the children love her as their stepmother. Other members of the team are Andrey, a lawyer, and Yuri, an aid man endlessly cracking jokes.

We carry a hot box with mash and a bag full of dressings and basic medications. We cruise around the spots known as meeting points of various gangs of the street children – desolate houses, sewers, markets where the children usually beg or work. The scenario is always the same – the children are given some mash and dressings or medicines, if necessary. Vitaliy, another member of the team, fills out short questionnaires and photographs the children. Most of them keep burying their heads into their sleeves or t'shirts where they hide a plastic bag filled with glue.

"The world changes before your eyes," laughs an 11-year-old blond boy, Vladik. "You look at a picture of an elephant and suddenly you see that it smiles at you and splashes water all over you with its trunk. You can actually feel your wet clothes." The little sniffer consumes up to eight bottles of glue a day. Sixteen-year-old Seryozha is shouting that he needs 30 bottles but other boys giggle; he is just trying to show off. They earn money for their glue various ways, starting with begging, from little odd jobs at markets or in the bars, to prostitution. "Mostly we beg," claims Vitaliy. He found himself in the street when his younger brother had barely turned 7. "Our mum died. She was using drugs and drank a lot. She suffered from many diseases: cirrhosis of the liver, TB, AIDS, and so on." The children of the street are also hunted by such diseases. According to research done by the Way Home center, 23 out of 38 monitored children the ages of 14 to 18 years were HIV positive, 18 of them suffered from fatal jaundice, Hepatitis C-type, and six of them had TB. According to experts' judgment, one sick child represents a threat in a radius of about 600 kilometers. Deprived children travel to different Ukrainian cities where they meet other children. Lack of responsibility, ignorance, or sheer lethargy leads them to slowly destroy themselves, especially those who use drugs intravenously.

The children sniffing glue in the street were usually cheerful and communicative. How different it was when we entered the ghostly cellar crowded with the young bodies. When the boys came out to eat the delivered mash none of them uttered a word, as if they were in another world. Their hands were covered with sore wounds from using dirty hypodermic needles. We took two of the boys in the worst shape, Taras and Konstantin, to our van and brought them to the center. In The Way Home the boys were shaved and bathed. When Taras and Konstantin took off their clothes, it was obvious that all their veins were heavily pierced. They were dressed in clean clothes and fed. Nevertheless, two days later we met Konstantin in the street again, stuffing himself with a stolen hamburger and heading for the filthy cellar that became his home.

Konstantin Golubenko, 17, cries because he cannot find a vein in which to inject a self-made drug based on ephedrine known as "baltushka," in an abandoned house where he lives in Odessa, Ukraine, on Sat., June 17, 2006.

Michal Novotny/WpN
The next week of our stay in Odessa, Jarmila and I started visiting selected gangs of children alone. Now we would stay much longer than the short visits with the NGO social workers. With several gangs of the sniffers we would stay for long hours, but somehow we could not get in touch with the children using hard drugs. Once when we came to see them, we brought some bread, sausages and milk. We managed to wake them up; they took the food, mumbled something incomprehensible and turned back to their stinky den. This happened several times. During one of our visits at least some of them noticed us and moved. Miroslav started crushing some influenza painkillers on a sheet of newspaper with a beer bottle. The pills are available in every drugstore and one dose of baltushka, as the boys call their drug with affection, costs less than 30 cents.

Initially, Miroslav, who was most likely the leader of the whole gang, refused any photography. "We've brought you some food again," I said. He noticed the loaded plastic bags in Jarmila's hands and he changed his mind. When he had prepared the drug, everyone tottered from the cellar up to the first floor. There was more light coming through the broken windows and they could better find their veins to shoot up. One helped another and often it was a long time before they succeeded finding a vein that was still possible to pierce. The most talented one to jab friends' veins was a 12-year-old boy nicknamed "Moldavanchik" (he is from Modavia). When this session was over, I left the house through some window covered with a rusty metal sheet. I felt sick and my head was buzzing. First I thought that this was the result of what I had just seen, but later I realized that when Miroslav had been preparing the baltushka at the airless cellar, the other boys kept sniffing glue. I remembered Ina's words: When she visited the boys for longer periods of time, she would come up high with the glue fumes. Now I went through the same thing.

Miroslav Tolpiza, 16, holds an injection filled with a self-made drug based on ephedrine known as "baltushka," in an abandoned house where he lives in Odessa, Ukraine.

Michal Novotny/WpN
When we entered the cellar of this house of horrors a few times after this episode we sometimes caught the boys preparing new doses. The situation became worse and worse: either Taras would shake with fever, 15-year-old Ivan would be hit with a spell of coughing and spit blood, or Konstantin would rend the air with inhuman screams for what seemed an eternity before Moldavanchik could find his vein. These were scenes from hell.

For a long time I could not help thinking about what Ina once told me: "Those boys from the cellar have gone so far that we can hardly help. Once in a while we can shave them, change them, bring them some food, but they will always go back to the street. For them there is no way back."

(To see more of Novotny's photographs from this assignment, go to:

© Michal Novotny

Michal Novotny (born 1973) is based in Prague, Czech Republic. His career began at the age of 18 when he hitchhiked to the war zone in the former Yugoslavia. Since that time he has covered major events and feature stories in more than 50 countries, usually under contract with the national daily newspaper Lidove Noviny. He has received many national and international awards in several competitions including World Press Photo and Best of Photojournalism. He regularly works on assignment for major newspapers and magazines: Stern, Focus, Vanity Fair, L'Express, L'Equipe, DM and El Mundo magazines among others.

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