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Thursday, December 4, 2003

The Prison Camps of Bashkortostan

By Hannu Haukka, CEO of International Russian Radio-TV
Special to ASSIST News Service

BASHKORTOSTAN, RUSSIA  (ANS) -- A little over 4 million people inhabit the vast mountainous region of Bashkortostan. Twenty prison camps dot the landscape of this Russian republic. The camps hold approximately 30.000 prisoners. The official figure is less but those familiar with the camps maintain that the higher residency figures are correct. One camp is labeled “Tuberculosis Camp.” It has a residency of 2.500 tuberculosis stricken inmates.

An IRR-TV team asked for permission to visit the infamous Salavatova prison camp situated 200 kilometers from UFA. This camp differs from the other 19 camps in that it is home to 300 young boys in detention. Normally it is off limits to western visitors.


There are no intermediate forms 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. Children are not an exception to the rule.

Before being transferred to the Salavatova prison camp a child is brought to one of three special detention centers in Ufa. The offending child is usually charged with theft, vandalism or violence.

At the detention center we visited the youngest detainees are 10 years of age. About 300 children are processed through the centers every year.


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.


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 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 Valentin recalled that they had frequently received calls from the authorities appealing for humanitarian aid. “Bring bread, no fruit, vegetables or butter; 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.


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 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.


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 Children’s prison camp in Salavatova. The gift will include a special Christmas celebration with a meal, food for one or more months, and a set of warm winter clothes for each boy. If you wish to know more about this special gesture of God’s love you may contact IRR-TV at

Note: You can also send a gift for this project to ASSIST Ministries. Just make your donation via the website –  – or send a check in US funds to ASSIST, PO Box 2126, Garden Grove, CA 92842-2126, USA. Make sure you mark your gift FOR RUSSIAN PRISON CHILDREN.

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