Sunday, July 3, 2022

Once a soldier, now sleeping rough on the streets of Kuala Lumpur

Ruslan was released from the army's military reserve force after contracting pneumonia, and now spends his days trying to scrape together enough to get off the streets.

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For Ruslan (not his real name), each day begins with the noise and clatter of workers arriving and shutters being rolled up at the shops along Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin in Kuala Lumpur.

This is his cue to get out of bed – or at least it would be, if he had a bed to get out of.

For the past few years, Ruslan has lived on the streets, curling up to sleep at night on the hard floor of the five-foot way outside the busy row of shops.

Life wasn’t always like this for him. Not too long ago, Ruslan was a member of the army’s military reserve force, stationed in Taiping, Perak.

That was in 2002. Two years later, he was transferred to the army camp in Section 16, Shah Alam, where he remained until 2014.

It was then that he was diagnosed with third stage pneumonia. His services were immediately terminated, and for the first time in years, he found himself at a loss over what to do.

Carrying a small bag filled with his few belongings, Ruslan makes his way through the streets of Kuala Lumpur on foot.

He eventually found work as an assistant at a restaurant in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. But he worried about whether his disability pension would be stopped if the government discovered that he was earning a monthly salary at another job.

At the time, he rented a small room in Setapak – just enough to provide him with a roof over his head.

All too soon, though, even that became impossible to sustain. His disability pension of RM450 a month was not enough to keep him afloat amid the high cost of living and soaring prices in the capital city.

“I couldn’t afford to pay the rent of RM400,” he said. “What would I have to eat?”

Yet, the thought that he might eventually wind up homeless never crossed his mind.

Ruslan had dreamed of being a soldier since he was a child. At the army reserve camp, he rose through the ranks until, in 2010, he was given the title of lance corporal.

Even after he fell sick, he hoped he would be able to continue serving in an administrative or clerical position.

Homeless people settle down for the night in a five-foot way in Kuala Lumpur.

These days, he receives treatment at the Tanglin health clinic in Jalan Cenderasari, Kuala Lumpur. In order to get there, he takes the public bus.

While the treatment is free, he must scrape together the money needed for the bus fare, as well as his food and drink for the day.

He tried applying for zakat aid but his application was rejected. Any help he gets today is through the compassion of the public and activists from NGOs, who give him basic items such as soap, shampoo, mosquito coil and mineral water.

But such aid isn’t distributed every day, and Ruslan tries to ration out his meagre hoard to make sure he will have enough to get by in case of a rainy day.

His most difficult patch was during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw most of the country shut down on and off throughout the past two years.

None of his friends or acquaintances know that he is homeless – not even his family members back in his home town.

A small piece of mosquito coil burns in an empty mineral water bottle, the one defence of the homeless against the mosquitoes that come at night.

The twelfth of 15 siblings, Ruslan has lost touch with his mother and cannot bring himself to tell the rest of his family that he is now living on the streets, fearing that they will disown him out of shame.

“If I am given a chance, I want to turn my life around,” he said. “I want to live a normal life like other people, with a job and a monthly salary and a place to live.

“I am sad about my situation, but I have accepted it.”

Ruslan has tried looking for odd jobs around the city – anything that will allow him to save enough each month to get off the streets. But he is still dogged by the fear of losing his pension.

“If the government knows that I have work, I will lose my disability pension,” he said. “Then how would I live?”

His pneumonia prevents him from doing heavy labour, so he earns what he can as and when he finds work. But the money is never very much.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ruslan has no idea what to do next.

“If I lose my pension, I will end up in greater difficulty,” he said. “But if I depend on my pension alone, it is not enough for me to live a normal life.”

Holding a bag filled with his few belongings, Ruslan wanders through the city each day, watching the people and traffic go by.

He likes it when it rains because it helps him feel better about missing his mother back in his village.

When asked how he had lost touch with her, Ruslan was evasive. He would only say that his greatest wish is to be able to earn enough for a bus ticket back to Taiping.

He dreams about eating a meal with his mother and gathering with his siblings for Hari Raya.

“I might return to Kuala Lumpur after that,” he added. “Live here like this until I get an opportunity to live like normal people once more.”

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