Seventeen-year-old Seryozha squeezes himself through a pair of absurdly narrow bars and beckons me to follow. It’s -8C, but I have to take off my coat or I’ll never make it through the gap. I lie on the ground, hold my breath, and wriggle slowly under the bars. It’s undignified and awkward, but there’s no other way in.
The bars fence in an underground utility room that holds the heating and sewage system for a Soviet-era apartment complex. I follow Seryozha warily through a series of pitch-dark chambers, using my head torch to avoid low-slung pipes and piles of human shit. Above us, Kiev is enjoying a day of crisp winter sunshine. At the far end of the chambers, a jury-rigged lightbulb casts a pale-yellow glow on a row of filthy mattresses.
Seryozha shows me a bag of food-scraps he has scavenged from bins. The smell makes me gag. For Seryozha and at least two others, this place is home. They seem indifferent to its shortcomings; probably because they are all high. The dirt floor underfoot is scattered with empty yellow tubes. They’re from a brand of Ukrainian glue that’s used for resoling shoes, but when inhaled from a plastic bag, the fumes suppress feelings of cold and hunger and produce auditory and visual hallucinations. They also cause brain damage.
On one of the mattresses, a woman in her 20s is inhaling eagerly. The bag she holds clamped to her mouth inflates and deflates in time with her breath. “Look, she’s sniffing!” Seryozha giggles. He has a heavily scarred face and wary eyes, but when he smiles he looks young and suddenly lovable. The woman’s eyes roll back in her head and she’s briefly transported to another realm. “Glukhi, glukhi!” says Seryozha. Hallucinations.
At 17, Seryozha’s young enough to get a place at one of Kiev’s shelters for homeless children, but he’s not interested. “There are bars on the windows,” he says. I point out that there are also bars on this cellar. He gives one of his cherubic grins. “But you can get out, you can go for a walk.” The word he uses for going for a walk, “gulyat“, means to wander around, but when street children say it, it can mean variously “wander around”, “hang out”, and even “beg”.
Seryozha’s what Ukrainians call “a social orphan”: a child with one or more living parents who are unable to care for him. His is a story of alcohol abuse, beatings, spells in orphanages, and parental failure. By now, the story is familiar: I’ve heard a version of it from every street child I have spoken to.
He can’t remember when he started using glue, and when he speaks he mumbles in a way that reminds me of a punch-drunk boxer. He has a vague plan to get into a rehabilitation centre and kick his habit, and then in the next breath he’s talking about his plans for summer, and how he’s looking forward to living outdoors.
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