Children Under Ground

May 2001 – 15’45”

Text: Childhood like non-returnable bottles. Childhood at risk. Lost. These are the lives of 3.000 children in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Every night they find shelter in the manholes of the town in order to escape the great cold. Every morning they come out from underground to look for some food in the sweepings along the streets.

Interviews to children:

Question: Why do you live here rather than with your parents?
Answer: I don’t have parents. My father died and so I came here. I stole money at home and they threw me out.

Question: Where are your parents?

Answer: In Chingheltei.

Answer: In Erdenet.

Answer: I don’t know.

Answer: How long have I been living here? 2 years.

Answer: 3 years.

Answer: 1 year.

Question: It’s warm down here…

Answer: Yes, it’s very warm... maybe 25°C.

Answer: I am sweating down here…

Answer: Yes, it’s warm. It’s comfortable. In winter it is 25°C below 0 outside. Sometimes even 40°C.

Question: What do you want to do in the future?

Answer: I would like to go to school. To find my parents. I would like to come back home. I would like to live better, with new and warm clothes. I would like not to starve anymore. I want to go away from here as soon as possible.

Text: In the capital Ulan Bator live a million people, half of the whole population of Mongolia. Eleven years have passed since the Socialist government fell but the signs left by 70 years of Soviet rule are still clear, in the architecture as well as in the monuments.

People are attracted to the capital by uncertain prospects of work, by the desire for money, goods and western-type comforts. The impact of the town for a nomad, who has always lived in small centres or in the steppe, is often shocking. In Ulan Bator especially the economic reforms started at the conquest of democracy and the removal from the Soviet block caused the most devastating social impact. In 5 years more than 1/3 of the population was reduced to very grave poverty.

Interview Mrs. De Vita (1)

People have become more and more poor, the rate of unemployment has increased terribly with a consequent difficulty in adjusting to the new environment: alcoholism is widespread and so there is violence in the families and this is the main reason why children run away from their homes and why they are in the streets now.

Interview Mrs. De Vita (2)

These children look for a shelter in the underground of the city, underground where the heating tubes pass. This situation is extremely dangerous. Not to mention the unhygienic conditions.

Interview Mrs. De Vita (3)

They are in a situation where they could experience any kind of violence. A recent inquiry about the street children shows that most of these children have sexual transmitted diseases. They evidently are in a situation in which children of 10,11 or even younger have sexual intercourse.

The story of Khurlee:

My name is Khurlee and I am 13 years old. I don’t go to school and I can’t find my parents. I am an only child. I would like to find some money to go looking for my grandmother and get some news about my parents. Nine people already live at my grandmother’s. I’ve been living here for 5 months now.

Text: Poverty in Mongolia is a recent fact, born between 1990 and 1995, when economic reforms started. During the Soviet Regime, problems were not unknown, but everyone could guarantee themselves a decent level of subsistence and an elevated grade of instruction. Everyone, nowadays, can read and write, with a high percentage of graduates.

Text: The new poor, more than 1/3 of the Mongolian population, are the dark side of changes which have enlarged social differences. They are the sorrowful sides of the new rich. While people in the degraded suburbs look for leftovers in the trash, in the city centre Western patterns and products spread. In the capital there are people who, thanks to the reforms, have become very rich and now parade affluence which was almost unimaginable a few years ago. This way the country is splitting up more and more rapidly. The ones who have nothing left lose hope, fall into depression, and can no longer react.

The story of Enkhbayar:

My name is Enkbhayar and I’ve been living here for 6 months. This is my home. My parents divorced and my mother got married again. Her new husband couldn’t stand me and he always beat me. Anytime I went to visit my father I always found him drunk and he used to beat me as well. So I decided to come here. I used to go to school but I had to leave it because of this situation of mine. I need clothes. I don’t know what I will do in the future…

Text: Every morning about 3.000 children from the underground of Ulan Bator leave their shelters and go wandering in the vast suburbs. Some go searching for work in the markets. Some steal. But most of the children rummage in the garbage, pick up bottles and other objects they can sell again. They move to the centre to eat, in the dumps of the hotels. Here is where, with vaguely edible table scraps, they have their meals.

Interview Mrs. De Vita (4):

They are usually children who run away, sometimes they are two little brothers or two little sisters. Or they are children who are left by their parents because the father is an alcoholic, or the mother is ill.

But there are many more reasons. Afterwards they join together and they form little groups, but up until now I don’t think that they have established criminal gangs.

Interview Mrs. De Vita (5):

The best help that could be given is, for at least, one of the two parents to find a job. The information we have, in fact, shows that when a job is found, even if temporary, for at least one of the parents, it’s much easier for a child to come back home.

Text: Besides UNICEF, there are 28 care centres run by volunteers in Ulan Bator. They guarantee board and lodging to the abandoned children in the Mongolian capital and try to place them in their families again, get them back to school. These centres keep on working thanks to the funds coming mainly from Western countries. However they are not sufficient to cope with the emergency of the 3.000 children from the underground.

Father Gilbert, a Philippine Catholic priest, runs one of these centres…

Interview Father Gilbert (1):

There are 120 children in the centre, now. We started very small in 1995, with only 15 children. But, in the years afterwards, the problems of the street’s children got worse. I take them out of the streets and we enrol them either to the kindergarten, especially kids like these. We enrol the older ones to the different public schools around. And we also employ teachers around here in the centre, to follow up the studies of the kids, because all of the children are intellectually fit.

Text: Every Wednesday the centre run by Father Gilbert is open to the old as well as the poor and the homeless. There is a warm meal for everybody. In the centre, it is possible to achieve good results with the smaller children who often are there with their parents’ permission. It’s often possible to rebuild the relationships within the original families and the school. Good nourishment, health care, clothes, attention and love are guarantied to the children.

The greatest problems concern the bigger children, from 10 years up.

Interview Father Gilbert (2):

When the children are in the streets for more than 6 months it’s very difficult for them to stay in a centre like this.. It’s either that they stay here for one day, or they leave or they don’t want to come at all. So what they do in the streets, a normal street’s child, would look for something to be able to survive and the only way to survive is to steel, or to pickpocket, or to do some works also, like shoeshine or car washing.

Most of them have been long enough in the street you could let them stay for a long time in a centre like this.

Text: The temperature goes down.

Another night begins for the children who live in the town manholes.

Another night to survive, in the warmth and the unbearable stench of the bowels of Ulan Bator.

Subtitles and captions:

Maria Grazia De Vita


Responsible attendant in Mongolia

Father Gilbert

Attendant to a welfare centre
End Credits:

“Ulan Bator: the children from underground”


Dino De Toffol
Davide Bellatalla

direction and editing by

Enrico Soci

Stefano Codin

produced by

in collaboration with
Lupo World Trekkimg

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

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