Ghost Children of Big Mango

Cut loose from adult society, a band of glue-addicted Indonesian street kids forges its own.

The suffering of children—whether from the afflictions of poverty, disease, or war—tends to be regarded as a greater offense to conscience than the suffering of their elders. But why? Is starvation, say, worse for a child than for a grown-up? And what of being shot? Is a youngster’s agony necessarily greater? Such a claim appeals less to reason than to sentiment—and at its core is the notion that the comparative innocence and defenselessness of children amplify any harm that befalls them. In other words, it is in the eye of the beholder that the suffering of children appears greater. That’s why, as any charity fundraiser knows, the image of a wide-eyed tot is a far superior opener of wallets than that of a wizened geezer.

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Children do not create the conditions of their plight, which is another reason they are represented as universal victims. Their lack of responsibility for the crises they endure and have come to symbolize makes us feel that it is not too late—if we can only rescue them—to undo the damage. According to this conventional moral calculus, a wrong or harm suffered by a child shames us by serving as a reminder that we—adults—have failed to protect our young. So we are more distressed by the suffering of children because their woe reflects poorly upon us as a species.

To judge by the latest annual report of the United Nations children’s agency, “The State of the World’s Children 2005: Childhood Under Threat,” human beings are sorry animals indeed. UNICEF warns that the number of children afflicted by hunger, sickness, violence, and the myriad deprivations of body and soul that come with extreme poverty is growing steadily (the report claims the number is now a billion) and that efforts to reverse these trends are sorely insufficient. And if children cannot be blamed or credited for their condition, then this report is really an account of the ways that grown-ups are making a hash of the world—particularly by allowing inequality to increase and intensify of late.

For many throughout the postcolonial world, the struggle to enter the modern global economy has resulted in more extreme poverty, deteriorating public health, and an escalation of armed conflict. You don’t have to subscribe to the notion that children suffer more from these things than their parents to recognize that the young present a particularly vivid mirror of the social distress they inhabit. The homeless, glue-sniffing street children James Nachtwey found and photographed in a Jakarta train station are hardly an anomalous phenomenon of some Indonesian netherworld. Children like them are ubiquitous throughout the urban slums of Asia, Africa, and Latin America—the lost souls heaved up and stranded by massive social and political transformations. Indeed, it is possible to view the plight of Nachtwey’s subjects as evidence of Indonesia’s prosperity—because it was the economic boom of recent years that lured the rural poor to seek their fortunes in the cities, and it was in this migration that a good number of children got lost and fetched up in ghostly bands to haunt the rising nation’s rush hours.

The children Nachtwey came to know over the last six years at the Mangga Besar (Big Mango) train station forged their own society. They survived by begging and, when that failed, by stealing—on a small-time, subsistence level—and they sniffed glue not only to get high but also to allay their constant hunger. “They were truly outcasts, surviving on the narrowest of margins, and as such were virtually invisible,” Nachtwey says. In exposing themselves to his camera, they made themselves seen. They were not, however, looking to return to the society that had abandoned them. When shopkeepers complained of their presence on the sidewalk, the police would round them up and send them to social services homes for street kids, but, Nachtwey says, “Despite the guarantee of security, a clean, relatively comfortable place to sleep, and a couple of decent meals each day, the children dreaded such places. The kids had become essentially wild, and as addicted to freedom as they were to glue.”

These children didn’t choose the kind of freedom to which they have become hooked.

It was thrust upon them, and they fashioned it in their own image. In their outcast way, they’ve taken responsibility for—or claimed control of—their damaged lives, such that it may now be impossible to “save” them. Their way of life drastically reduces their chances of surviving into adulthood, and for that reason the image they present makes a special appeal to conscience. But surely, if they do make it out of childhood, that appeal should not be diminished.

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