The Prison Camps of Bashkortostan
A little over 4 million people inhabit the vast mountainous region of Bashkortostan. Twenty prison camps dot the republic. The camps hold approximately 30.000 prisoners.
There, a total of 120,000 children in prison in Russia today. There is no intermediate form of punishment in the Russian penal system. You are either a lawbreaker or a law abider. You are either a prisoner or you are free.
Before being transferred to the prison camp in Bashkortostan a child is brought to one of three special detention centers in Ufa. At the detention center the youngest detainees are 10 years of age. About 300 children are processed through the centers every year.
Cut Off From the Outside World
The first snowfall of the year had just fallen in Ufa as our vehicle pulled up to the gates of the detention center. The three-meter (9 feet) high grey concrete walls with double barbwire trimming encircled the compound.
There was one iron-gate in the wall. It did not open. We had to enter through a door that was guarded by a police officer with a submachine gun. As we stepped inside the walled yard we saw rows of troop carriers bearing the markings "OMON" which stands for the special antiterrorism unit of the police force. These police are dispatched to trouble spots inside Russia, usually uprisings or sites of bomb attacks.
Off to the left side of the yard was a two story concrete building to which only security personnel had access. Any attempt to escape from this compound would prove futile.
Please Bring Us Bread...
Inside the building we were introduced to 16 children, ages 10 to 14. Natasha was the only girl detainee. The boys were shaven. Their clothes resembled oversized rags. For footwear they had running shoes that barely held together. Laces were nowhere to be seen.
There was the smell of urine in the air. The supervisor explained that the boys urinate in their beds every night. This is due to the traumatic conditions at home. From home the boys had been forced onto the streets and eventually wound up in prison.
Local pastor "Oleg" recalled that they had frequently received calls from the authorities appealing for humanitarian aid. " Bring bread, no fruit, vegetables or butter Ė just bread!" had been the heartbreaking message. They had run out of food and allocated government subsidies had long been exhausted. The subsidies had been insufficient to begin with. Because of its own poverty the Church has been powerless to respond in a meaningful way.
Inside the prison we saw a thick windowless iron door on which the words PUNISHMENT CELL were inscribed. It was the most dreaded room in the building. It was difficult to imagine why 10-12 year old boys needed to be put in an incarceration cell. We were not allowed to look inside the cell.
Christmas is a Myth
For these children and thousands of others already in Russian prison camps and interim places of detention Christmas is a myth. They have never seen a Christmas meal or a Christmas present. They have never heard a Christmas carol Ė or the Christmas story for that matter. It was evident that these children would never know the Lord Jesus who came to make live meaningful for them as well.
With IRR-TV chief producer Laura translating for the boys one of our team members, Kosti, an ex-convict himself, shared an experience from his life.
"My dad came home drunk on Christmas eve. Instead of getting Christmas presents and singing Christmas carols dad tore up our home. As he barged through each room smashing furniture, he took a thick leather army belt and beat me and my sister until we bled.
In desperation mom tried to intervene to intercept the horrendous blows from dadís belt. Dad grabbed a bread knife and struck mom repeatedly. Bleeding uncontrollably mom had slumped on the kitchen floor and with her last ounce of strength had pled for mercy on behalf of her children "do not harm these children!"
Miraculously Kosti and his sister had managed to escape the house. Fleeing into the winter night they found shelter by a heater in the hallway of an apartment building.
"Our greatest celebrations can turn out to be nightmares" added Kosti. "But God can restore a life that has been smashed in a thousand pieces. For God there are no hopeless cases. Your life may seem like a curse but God can make it a blessing to others - no matter who your parents may have been!"
A Christmas Gift For Imprisoned Children
As a part of an unprecedented outreach to 1.1 million residents of the remote Russian city of Ufa, IRR-TV will provide a special Christmas gift for 300 boys in the Childrenís prison camp in Salavatova. The gift will include a special Christmas celebration with a meal, food for one or more months, a set of warm winter clothes for each boy. If you wish to know more about this special gesture of Godís love you may contact IRR-TV at firstname.lastname@example.org. or visit our on-line donations site at
Abruptly, in the middle of nowhere our small motorcade turned onto an unmarked stretch of dirt road leading into thick woods. Soon we came to a huge compound in clearing surrounded by barbed wire, watchtowers, powerful spotlights and dogs. It was the Kamyshinskaya Correctional Camp. This special camp is a prison for young teenagers tucked away from civilization. For obvious reasons the camp does not need publicity.
Our host, from the Russian Ministry of Justice, deputy director of all prision camps in the Volgograd region, Colonel Mihal Sankin sat in the first car of the convoy. Under his supervision there are 17,000 prisoners at 15 different prison camps.
Most of the 300 children at the Kamyshinskaya prison are guilty of theft and murder. Sentences ranged from one to eight years. Their lives have ended before they have barely begun.
The prison itself is a heavily guarded village fenced in on all sides by barbwire. In addition to layers of barbwire, watchdogs and 220 specially trained guards with the help of spotlights keep a watchful eye on the underage inmates day and night. There has only been one attempted escape in the last 10 years. It failed.
Orphans and Outcasts
Some of the convicts are just beginning to learn the alphabet at age 14.
I remember Ivan especially well. Passing by the prisoners lined up before us we stopped in front of the boy. After a quick interview we found out that Ivan had been brought to Kamyshinskaya six months earlier.
"How much time do you still have to serve?"
"What about your mother and father...?"
"I donít have a father or mother."
I could see pain in the boyís eyes. They begged for warmth, love. He was astonished at our unannounced interest in him - as if he was saying: "I canít believe I really mean something to someone!"
In the central square of the camp was a sign twenty feet high. On it was an image of a mother and her two children in her arms. The text read "Son, come home a good man."
Ivan as well as many other boys pass that sign everyday. Ivan knows that no one in this world is expecting him home. When he walks through the gates of the prison camp six years from now no one will be there to meet him. There will be no motherís warm embrace or kiss or teary cheek pressing against his. Ivan is alone. True someone knew him six years ago, but not anymore. On that day the only moisure on his face may be a pelting rain driven by an autumn wind...
Should the local congregation get through to him before he is paroled, Ivan might have a chance.
For others things are better. At the camp there are two areas for visitors. One is for visits of under four hours in length. The other is for visits of up to three days.
Sergeiís parents have come for a visit. The news quickly spreads through the camp. Itís Mishaís turn next week. For Ivan - his turn will never come. Call it emotional torture, slow death.
We continue on. We are shown several classrooms in the compound, all fitted with reinforced metal doors. Here learning is done behind locked doors. The alphabet is posted on the wall. Many fifteen year olds are still learning to read.
Each room in the barracks holds twenty beds. The wire frame mattresses are not a hot selling item. At the end of each bed is a nametag bearing the prisonerís name, offense, date of admission, duration of sentence and expected date of release. Some tags have a red line drawn through them meaning that the prisoner is under special surveillance suspected as a potential escapee.
"Boys donít leave this prison camp as good men," admits Colonel Sankin with a painful sigh. This matter is heavy on the chief administrative officerís heart. Few officials really care. Sankin is an exception. "After their release many of these boys turn up in different prison camps."