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City of Lost Children

A gripping look at Mongolia's children who are left to survive on their own in a city that turns a blind-eye.

July 12, 2008|By Kent Treptow

Ten feet outside Aizam’s home is a music kiosk. The size of a tool shed, it’s cluttered with movie posters, cigarette boxes and cassette tapes piled flat and anonymous in precariously leaning towers. Pressed up against the glass, a man in an immaculate black suit smiles from a cracked plastic case. He is a famous man, a major entertainer known throughout the country.   

The man is Aizam’s father. But the boy doesn’t brag about him. In fact, he has a hard time speaking of him at all, much less looking at his picture in the kiosk window.

His story is told in whispers when he’s not around.

Aizam’s parents divorced when he was 10. His mother remarried, but her husband threw the boy out on the street because he didn’t want a child that was not his own. Aizam returned to his father’s door, but no one answered.

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Eventually he joined a group of children who lived in a manhole between a music kiosk and a movie theater. In the seven years since, he has seen his father several times walking down the street with his new wife. They stroll past and ignore him, as if he is not there.

“He has lost me,” Aizam says.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, sits on the wide, northern steppe like an anvil rusting in a meadow. Seventeen years after the fall of communism, much of it still feels like a Soviet backwater. Crumbling, monolithic apartment blocks dominate the western skyline. Coal-burning power plants foul the air. Lenin statues lurk in overgrown parks like forgotten transients.

An enduring legacy of the communist downfall is the phenomenon of Mongolian street children. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian communist state folded after more than 60 years in power, taking state-subsidized industries and jobs with it.

International trade, 95% of which was conducted with the Soviet Union and communist countries in Eastern Europe, fell sharply. Between 1990 and 1993, economic output decreased by one-third. Mongolia endured food rationing, shortages of basic goods and triple-digit inflation.

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