Scandalous Story Of Starved Children In Belarusian Orphanages Hits The Guardian’s Pages

The horrible story about heavily sick malnourished orphans triggered a scandal in Belarus last November and has attracted the attention of The Guardian.

The story of several dozens severely malnourished children and young people in one of the Minsk orphanages for people with special needs was told by online magazine Imena in November 2016.

Journalist Ekaterina Sinyuk and photographer Alexander Vasukovich spent several days in an orphanage and documented the life of 50 disabled children and youngsters who didn’t speak, didn’t move and were so thin they reminded death camp victims.

The magazine reported that one 20-year-old girl weighed 11.5kg.

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A child in one of the Minsk orphanages. Photo: Alexander Vasukovich

The story transpired when Alexy Momotov, a paediatrician from the orphanage, invited journalists to cover a charity football match to raise money for nutrition for orphans.

Problem was that due to legal limitations and the lack of funds the orphanage was not able to buy special, highly-nutritious food such patients need; nor could it hire rehabilitation therapists.

Local doctors failed to attract the attention of authorities and government officials. Alexy Momotov tried to raise money for the nutrition via posts on Facebook. “We tried to organise a festival but nobody came,” he said.

“We realized that without public support, all these people are doomed to short and painful existence”, the journalists of Imena wrote in their article.

The photos of raw-boned children shocked the Belarusian people and prompted a huge scandal. In a very short time the readers donated over $33,000 that the orphanage needed to buy “enteral” food – densely packed nourishment designed for underweight patients – for its patients for half a year.

Minsk orphanage. Video: Imena magazine

It was also found that there were many other starved patients in similar orphanages outside Minsk.

Outraged Belarusians were asking: how is it possible that in the centre of Europe children in an orphanage look like as if they lived in “Buchenwald concentration camp”?

“The answer is not clear,” the Guardian writes. “Some orphanages said children simply did not hold down normal food, but that there wasn’t the money for enteral supplies that might have enabled them to gain weight. Others said that even with enteral nutrition they did not gain a normal physique.”

The deputy director of another orphanage, Marina Fedorenchik, said: “Let me put it this way … These children are brought to us to stay the rest of their lives. The majority of them were given up for adoption at birth. All of them have sufficient congenital mental disability coupled with the nasty form of cerebral palsy or other congenital pathologies.”

The prosecutor’s office told the media that the principal breach of the law was that the children were deprived of the required medical nutrition not only in the Minsk orphanage but also in other orphanages.

Following publications in Imena and other major Belarusian media, an investigation in Minsk orphanage and other nine Belarusian orpanages where patients with similar health problems live was launched. Its results revealed 90 patients with weight deficit, 70 of them – with the most severe form of it.

Some had been receiving special food, but most of them had been fed with products that did not suit them, which, according to the inspectors, over the years led to a deterioration of their quality of life.

Meals at an orphanage in Minsk. Photo: Alexander Vasukovich

Officials of different levels and two orphanage directors were dismissed, many received a reprimand.

“The directors are the people in charge of the procurement of the orphanages,” the prosecutor’s office is quoted by the British newspaper. “If regular medical checks involving dedicated experts had taken place, the abnormal condition of the children would have been obvious.”

One orphanage director, Vyacheslav Klimovich, blamed the situation on the psychological state of the children themselves, the Guardian writes. “The reason why they do not put on weight lies not in the malnutrition but in their psyche. There is no accessibility as there is no brain there. They have absolutely different processes.”

Pavel Burykin, a paediatrician, said this attitude had to change. “We can help any child if our prime goal is to improve the quality of his life,” he said.

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A Minsk orphanage. Photo: Alexander Vasukovich

According to Anna Gorchakova, director of a children’s hospice, the scandal arose not only because of “poor institutional cooperation but also because of the common attitude to severely ill children”.

“They are fed, looked after, but they are treated as plants,” she is quoted by the Guardian.

According to the Ministry of Education there were over 21,000 orphans in Belarus in 2016. Only about 5,000 children are biological orphans, others are social orphans, meaning their parents are alive and deprived of parental rights. This is a very disturbing tendency, the Ministry said.

For Belarus where much of the state’s attention is paid to social support, the case of the orphanage in Minsk is non-typical and outrageous.