MONGOLIA Growing up in squalor
Soviet subsidies that once accounted for one-third of Mongolia's economy ended overnight.
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia (AP) -- He's 15, but looks no older than 10 after a childhood with too little to eat.
Born the year that Mongolia became a democracy after decades of communist dictatorship, Erdenebat lives on the crumbling streets of the capital, scrounging in garbage cans for rotting vegetables and clumps of moldy rice that he shoves into his mouth with his grimy hands.
"I left home because there was no food to eat," he says.
Erdenebat is far from alone. A decade of economic decline has left thousands of Mongolian children homeless, and their ranks are growing steadily. Activists worry that with no recovery in sight, the country is abandoning a new generation of youngsters to life in the street.
"Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I don't know," says the Rev. Gilbert Sales, director of the Verbist Care Center, which gives 120 street children a place to live and enrolls them in school.
The end of communist rule in 1990 was peaceful, but Soviet subsidies that once accounted for one-third of Mongolia's economy ended overnight. Factories closed and the economy collapsed. Herders lost their monthly wages.
Thousands of rural families drift into Ulan Bator each year looking for work. Many find none, adding to the city's growing homeless population.
In winter, when temperatures in Ulan Bator fall to minus 22 degrees, people shelter in open manholes. The heavy manhole covers are gone, stolen for sale as scrap metal.
"Every Wednesday, we go to the street and visit the manholes looking for new street children," says Sales, whose center is run by the Roman Catholic charity Caritas. "It's now the second or third generation in the same vicious cycle."
There are an estimated 4,000 street children in Mongolia -- a huge number in a country with just 2.5 million people.
Many live on the streets full time and don't know where their parents are.
At the Lotus Children's Center, another home for street children, 16-year-old Batstesteg Soninbayar worries about the future.
His favorite subject at school is English, which he speaks with near fluency. But will his education be enough to keep him off the streets, he wonders.
"Mongolia is not getting better," Soninbayar says. "There are not enough jobs. Even when university students graduate, they have certificates, but there's not so much work for students."
He is too young to remember communism, but he has heard it was a time when everyone had a job and enough to eat.
"Communism was better, because when there was communism everybody could study," he says.
Mongolia's failure to drag itself out of poverty has fed nostalgia for communism, much to the chagrin of democracy activists who took to the streets in 1990 to bring down one-party rule.
The presidential elections in May was won by the candidate of the formerly communist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. The winner, Nambariin Enkhbayar, said one priority will be to attract investment to develop the country's rich gold and copper mines.
"Creating jobs is the only way to fight poverty and corruption," he said in an interview.
There are success stories.
Baatryn Bolortsetseg was 13 and living under the stairwell at her school when teachers noticed her grades slipping and sent her to the Verbist Care Center. Now 21, she has finished college with a nursing degree and is returning to the center to work as a nurse.
"Since I was a child, I always wanted to become a medical professional," Bolortsetseg says.
"She's a very intelligent girl," Sales says, beaming.
Didi Ananda Kalika, an Australian who runs the Lotus Children's Center, recalls a girl who grew up in her center, left and got pregnant, then dropped her baby off to be raised there.
"I'm not too happy about that," she says quietly.
Didi -- a yogic nun, formerly Gabrielle Dowling -- arrived in Mongolia in 1993 to work as a teacher and started sheltering homeless teenage girls to protect them from sexual predators.
Soon, police stations and hospitals began calling her to take in abandoned babies. Didi says she and the staff members of her center in an Ulan Bator slum were "a bit scared." Now, her light-filled children's center teems with rambunctious toddlers in donated clothes.
Some parents say they plan to retrieve their babies once they find work.
"Some of them, we don't know if they'll be back," Didi says.