Frontline: Hatgal, Mongolia - Wasteland village saved by its women

Life is tough for Dolgin (above) and her neighbours (right) in Hatgal but the outlook is not all bleak
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IT WAS one of those Hatgal mornings for 77-year-old Dolgin. "My eldest son works as a nightwatchman guarding a small store. Last night he was drunk with some other people, so the police arrested them and kept them in the police-station." Leaning wearily on her two crutches at 7.30am, she had just been to the lock-up. "The police say they have to investigate," she said.

Crime is hardly a problem in Hatgal, because there is nothing much to steal. Unemployment and excessive drinking, on the other hand, certainly are. And it is the women of the village who are picking up the pieces, trying fast to reinvent a raison d'etre for this shrinking community on Mongolia's far-flung northern border with Russia.

In her office, Hatgal's elected woman governor, Togtohnyam, sat with her two female senior colleagues, reflecting on how far Hatgal has sunk. The deputy governor, Hishigsuren (who like most Mongolians uses one name), said: "In the old days, there was discipline and principles which were followed. People have become more inactive. Before 1990, the consumption of alcohol was not at the same level as now."

The old days must seem like another world for the residents who are clinging on. Hatgal's heyday was the late 1980s when its remoteness was its strength. Sitting at the southern tip of Lake Hovsgol, the world's second largest freshwater lake, Hatgal was a busy trading town with a population of 6,500. Wandering the deserted desolate village and surrounding grasslands, now home to just 2,800, it seems unimaginable that transport trucks used to have to queue for two days to pick up goods from the lakeside port.

Lake Hovsgol was Hatgal's lifeline to the world. The lake stretches 85 miles to the north, almost to the border. For seven decades, Mongolia was a satellite Communist state of the USSR, and Soviet-traded goods and raw materials trundled down this route. In the brief summer, there were non-stop cargo ferries. During the winter, when temperatures drop to -40C, the frozen lake was a highway for trucks.

The good life stopped abruptly in 1989, when Ulan Bator banned transportation on the increasingly polluted lake on environmental grounds. The next year, Mongolia peacefully abandoned Communism, and the Soviet Union abandoned Mongolia, cutting off subsidies equivalent to 30 per cent of gross domestic product. Hatgal suddenly found itself at the end of a long road which no longer went anywhere.

During the early 1990s, it was bad everywhere in Mongolia, but it was worse in Hatgal. The 10 factories all closed, thirsty for subsidised Soviet oil and bereft of markets. "Only 250 people are now employed in Hatgal, out of a labour force of 1,600," said Togtohnyam.

It is a bleak, windswept settlement. Low houses and traditional gers tents sit behind stockade fences, with empty wasteground in between. In summer, groups of men sit around on the streets, while Hatgal's two policemen keep the peace. There is no electricity, because Hatgal has no money for diesel to fuel the Japanese-donated generator. On the outskirts of the village sit the carcasses of abandoned buildings, stripped years ago for scrap. The number of secondary school students collapsed from 1,700 to 560 as people moved away. The only bright development is that Hatgal, not previously a herding centre, now boasts 20,000 private livestock - for food.

So the women are trying to rescue Hatgal. "Most of the administration people here are women. We top three are all women," said 44-year-old Togtohnyam. It was in 1994 that the Hatgal villagers requested that she run for governor. Born and raised in Hatgal, she had left for Ulan Bator at the age of 18. Her career as Communist Party member and top official at the national Youth Federation saw her rise to the ranking of a deputy minister. But when Communism gave way to democracy and free market capitalism in 1990, she was unceremoniously dumped.

Unemployed, Togtohnyam started trading privately with China and Russia, and Hatgal heard about her success. In the 1994 local polls, she was elected Hatgal's governor, the first woman in the post. She ran as a Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) member, the old Communist Party. "The party made some mistakes, of course, in its history but there were a lot of achievements."

Tragedy then struck. In 1995, her businessman husband drowned, leaving her with a son, now eight, and a village still near collapse. Improving the lives of the women became a priority. "Sometimes when I started as governor, women just came into my office, put their babies on my table and told me their children needed to eat." At the end of 1997, some 78 per cent of Hatgal's under-18s were classified as malnourished.

Togtohnyam is up for re-election in October this year. "Things have started to get better in the past two years," she said. Hatgal now officially has 11 private-sector workers, operating small shops and restaurants. "The psychology of the people has changed. Now they are trying to make money by themselves. They used to see the government just as something to depend on."

The shops are almost all run by women, selling simple foodstuffs and clothes brought in from Ulan Bator, a 25-hour drive away.

Togtohnyam has been offering small, low-interest loans to encourage business start-ups, and seeking aid money from overseas funders. Tourism is Hatgal's big hope, with 1,000 visitors in 1997. The water in the lake is now so clean that locals claim they can see to depths of 150 feet. The problem is the difficulty getting to Hatgal, and the short summer season.

In the meantime, the governor is surrounded by problems she cannot solve, and her best electoral strategy probably lies in persuading Japan to donate diesel for the generator before the October poll.

The election is expected to be fiercely contested by many candidates. "Hatgal is politically a very active place. Maybe because of unemployment they have nothing to do, or maybe it's because they have poor living standards, the people are actively participating in the political affairs," she said. As elsewhere in Mongolia, democracy is proving a quicker success than capitalism. But Togtohnyam is fighting on: "I want to prove to local people that women can do a lot for the area."