On the run
Early morning breeze in the old part of the town carries the music playing at nearby café, attracting passersby. The strays of sun gently warm the surface, although in the shade the cold still bites the skin. Among the sightseeing backpackers, the petite girl shows up at the half-filled pond in the town center.
Iroda, 18, is wearing a long sleeve t-shirt and thin vest. Her freshly washed hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. Little puffiness in her face hints she hardly slept at night. She speaks so softly that words are difficult to catch.
It took two days of persuasion, dozens of phone calls and two failed arrangements before she actually could come. “I am sorry for standing you up,” she apologizes. “I am just afraid.” She tells how some women recently lured her to a meeting only to physically abuse her. “They took all my money.”
In the past several months, she has been living on the run. The police had tracked her down after her uncle reported about her missing. But she refused to return home. She keeps changing her job and phone number, so that her uncle doesn’t find her.
Iroda was the only child in her family. After her birth, Iroda’s mother abandoned her. Her paternal grandmother raised her with a belief that her mother had died during childbirth. When Iroda turned 12, her father left for Russia for work. She hasn’t seen him since then.
As her uncle gained custody to raise Iroda during her father’s absence, he set harsh boundaries. “I was not allowed anything,” she says. In turn, she started to sneak out of house to wander in the streets and found new friends. Skipping classes became normal to socialize with them.
Then, a terrible thing happened. She only remembers how she was drinking a juice. Then she woke up in a pool of blood with sharp pain in her abdomen. She was drugged, trafficked, raped. She was only 13.
Iroda instinctively touches her abdomen, as she describes the pain she had felt six years ago. “It was the worst day in my life. I had lost the most precious thing – my dignity.” With shattered hopes and broken mind, she had also lost control. As a result, she was sent to a specialized educational correctional institution for children with problems in behavior.
With growing number of migrants working abroad, the number of children left behind has also increased in recent years. “International research shows that migration has profound effects on family structure and children left behind,” said Sascha Graumann, Representative, UNICEF Uzbekistan. “Because of parental migration, children may suffer the consequences of family disruption, receive insufficient care and face the possibility of being institutionalized.”
During the three years she spent at the institution, her father had called Iroda three times. She doesn’t know what city in Russia he’s been working. She had never asked him about it. He never told her himself. He only said he wasn’t planning to return.
The second time Iroda was sent to the closed institution for stealing food from a grocery store. Upon release, she weekly meets with district police officer for a report. Repeated encounter with law enforcement has made her extremely afraid of them. During the interview, she constantly looks around to make sure no police is around.
“I’m not going back in the life,” she says, referring to her past experience in the streets. She serves food at a choykhona (tea place) near bazar, she adds, and opens her clenched fists, revealing the chipped pink polish on her nails. Thirteen-hour-shift earns her 35,000 soums a day, enough to pay for a room and board.
Iroda had never graduated from school. She turned 18 when she returned from a closed institution. She wanted to finish the remaining two years. “But what parents would want to see me next to their children?” she gasps.
Iroda doesn’t have any friends now. Self-made tattooed letter “J” on her right wrist is a reminder of her best friend from correctional institution. Along with 14 other girls, they had lived in the same room for more than three years.
Under the long sleeves, the teen hides numerous scars on the inner side of her right arm. Each scar was a fresh cut with razor in anguish.
Iroda doesn’t want to return to her uncle’s home. “He will lock me in again.” Without trust to anyone, she keeps running away.
“I only wish I could finish school,” she says. “I don’t need anything else.”