Letter from Prague

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Unless you've been living in a cave for the past week, you probably know that Prague recently hosted the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. For three days, thousands of men and women in suits sat and listened to speeches about debt relief, globalisation and pro-poor growth, while outside thousands of people thronged the streets to highlight the problem of world poverty, watched by thousands more policemen.

But it wasn't crowds of rock-throwing anarchists or impassioned speeches by charity organisations which brought home to me the reality of poverty: instead it was a simple human tragedy unfolding on my doorstep.

Every day of the week, standing at the bus stop waiting for the 7.30 bus into town, I witness a rather odd spectacle. Every morning, a man and a woman walk down the road and disappear around the corner. The woman is dumpy and squat, swathed in layers of grubby cardigans and wearing a headscarf. The man follows about 10 paces behind her. He looks 70 but could be in his early 40s. He's dressed in threadbare trousers which flap like sails around his spindly legs, and wears a cloth cap which only seems to make his appearance even more pathetic. They carry bags--many bags--sports bags bursting with clothes, supermarket bags crammed with rags and bits of paper, and little plastic bags containing crusts of bread. They plod past me as I wait for the bus, oblivious to the billboards and new houses around them, their faces glued to the pavement as they pass me by.

Where are they going? Where have they been? These are questions I ask myself every morning. Now, it seems, they're going nowhere.

Opposite my apartment building is a tiny patch of grass, bordered by a handful of trees and some scrubby bushes. On Saturday, they set up camp, and have been there ever since. They sleep on sodden mattresses in a little copse of bushes, and hang out their clothes on a little brick wall. They still embark on their daily journey past the bus stop, but their trips seem less regular. When I looked out of the kitchen window on Monday, the man was lying on the grass. The woman was waving her hands around wildly, and several minutes later the police arrived. A couple of bored-looking policemen took down her details, and then drove off again. Last night, as I was walking home from the pub, the man was asleep on a bench. It was raining.

Where they'll be tonight is anyone's guess. How many days will they spend in the bushes before they're arrested by the police or chased off by my neighbours? How many days can they survive sleeping in the rain and eating dry bread? Who knows. But one thing has been brought home to me with awful clarity, something which escaped me as I watched people march through the streets of Prague and anarchists throw petrol bombs at police: the absolute misery of poverty.