The International Writers Magazine: Cambodia
Children of the Garbage Fields in Phnom Penh
air was hot, thick and sickeningly sweet, with countless odors of
Smoke rose up from the putrid waste. Sameth, my Khmer stringer,
and I stepped off the motorcycle, and sank several inches into foul
mud. Garbage was piled stories high, covering the kilometers long
dump site. People, the wretchedly poor, clad only in rags, swarmed
over the heaps of refuse, like ants, searching out the saleable
morsels, that would keep them alive, to pick trash another day.
"I told you
they were poor." Said Sameth, as if I hadn't believed him. And,
in a way, I hadn't. We've all read about the desperate poor who comb
the trash heaps of Sao Paolo and Rio. But somehow, the depth, the sheer
magnitude of human suffering could only be appreciated when experience
at first hand.
We had only been in the dump a few minutes, and I was already nauseous.
Sameth was choking back bile. We would be leaving soon. But to the dwellers
of the trash dump at Stung Mien Jai, this was their home. And, like
prisoners on a life sentence, they would never be leaving. Trying to
imagine what depths of poverty would drive human beings to such a desperate
existence, it seemed ironic, that we were only 70 Km from the posh hotels
and foreigner hangouts of Phnom Penh.
As often happens, I was shy about taking photos of the disadvantaged,
as they went about their grizzly work. I didn't want to be another tourist,
come to gawk at human misfortune. But there was a story here that needed
to be told. As a journalist you are taught to disassociate yourself
from the story. At best, you should become an extension of your camera,
recording, but not feeling the dramas which pass through your lens.
No one teaches you to loose your optimism. But that goes too, as you
realize that nothing you write will make a difference. It is more likely
that a reader will use this story as a coaster, to keep rings of the
coffee table, than that someone would step in and help these people.
"Man holds in his mortal hands, the power to eradicate all forms
of human poverty and all forms of human life." JFK. My words and
my photos seemed a weak medicine against the virus of poverty. But it
was all I had. I had to try.
Anonymous suffering can be tolerated. But thanks to Sameth, I was able
to communicate with the real people toiling in the garbage dump. They
had names, and they had stories. Nearly everyone we spoke with came
from the rural provinces, with the exception of one young lad, named
Sopee, who was born in the dumps. He was a second generation trash picker,
and knew no other life. Most explained that they were driven to the
deepest slum of Phnom Penh because there was no work in the province.
Their land or their water had been encroached, making it impossible
for them to farm. Almost all of the families in the dump were incomplete,
with a father or mother, or some loving family member left behind, to
try and eek out some type of existence, on barren or non-existent farmland.
Many were trying to send money home from their meager earnings.
Somai Chun, the mother of four children, looked to be in her seventies,
but was only in her late forties. Her tiny body was wracked with pains
and fever. Since the seizure of their land, her husband remained in
the province, seeking what work he could find, wile she and the children
all worked full time, gathering trash. Neither she, nor her children
could read or write. Together they could earn about 3,000 to 4,000 riel
per day (just about $1.00 US).
people working the dumps lived in small shacks, made of scrap tin
and irregular bits of wood and plastic. Rent on a shack, with a
single electric light bulb, ran 30,000 Riels per month. If the tenants
couldn't afford to pay monthly, the daily rate was 1,500 Riels,
with no electricity. The water available to them came directly from
the garbage fields. It was greasy and emitted a nauseous odor. The
food was no better. Anything that came in contact with the fetid
air of the garbage dump was instantly contaminated.
A man named Yan
invited us to his small hut, where eight people slept in a space about
one meter by one and a half meters. He told me that he had moved to
the dumps five years ago, brining his four children and his wife with
him. With the whole family working, they could earn 4,000 to 5,000 Riels
per day. He hated for his family to drink the filthy dump water. So,
he bought bottled water when he could. But at 2,000 Riels per bottle,
it was too expensive to drink all of the time. Neighbors gathered around,
to see the rich, well-fed foreigner and his well-off driver, who had
come to photograph their suffering. I asked Yan what sort of health
problems he and his family had experienced, and suddenly the entire
crowd burst out in rapid fire Khmer, rattling off symptoms, including
diarrhea, headaches, joint pains, skin legions, eye infections, fever,
heart problems, respiratory ailments...The list went on and on.
An aged woman, named Yosee Mon barely parted the crowd, and spoke right
to my face. "If you want to see something, come to my house."
As wretchedly as the others lived, Yosee Mon was even worse off. Apparently,
when land near the dump was encroached, flood pumps were redirected
to be used as irrigation for commercial farming projects. Now, when
it rained, which was every day, at this time of year, the dump flooded.
Yosee Mon's shack was underwater three months of the year. A small boy
waded out into the water, as if to show me the way to the shack. But
try as I might, I couldn't follow. The thought of stepping into that
putrid water made my stomach queazy. And, I was wearing hiking boots.
Most of the garbage dwellers were bare foot, or wearing cheap flip flops.
Yosee Mon told us that she was all alone. Her children and her husband
had long since died. She was often to ill to work, but had to, or there
would be no food at all. Each day she earned enough for her rent, plus
one thousand Riels. Of this excess, she used 500 for food, and saved
the other 500, to buy medicine at the end of each month. "Medicine
is expensive."She complained. "And in Cambodia, most of it
That human beings are entitled to a certain standard of living is an
axiom to us who come from the land of plenty. We take it as given that
people have the right to clean water and clean food and air. We also
believe that they are entitled to a fair wage for their labor. But beyond
these material needs, human beings have a right to dream, to hope and
pray for a better future. In the black cloud of despair, which clung
to the garbage dumps of Stung Mien Jay, I had just about given up hope
of finding a silver lining. Thank God, I stumbled onto a bright, thirteen
year old boy, named Soah, who was the leader of a group of eight children,
who only worked half days in the dumps, so they could pay their school
tuition. They were all small for their age, and still in the second
grade, but each day at 12:30, they stopped work, to attend school. Soah
and his friends were the light at the end of the tunnel. maybe, just
maybe, one of them will make it all of the way through school, find
a decent job, and end the cycle of suffering for his family.
Soah, one child from hundreds, has some minimal chance of survival.
If this is what passes for good news, then where are we as a society?
Sameth gave notebooks and pens to Soah and his friends, to aid their
studies. We handed out as many 1,00 Riel notes as we could. But in the
end, what good had we done? They would eat for a day. But people are
entitled to eat for a life time.
© Antonio Graceffo June 2004
Contact the author at: email@example.com
out for rocks!"
Paddling the Maekok River
The Roof of Taiwan
Taklamakan by Rickshaw
Antonio Graceffo on travelwriting and Hemingway
"Adventures in Formosa," will be published in Taiwan, in June
Stories in Hacktreks
all rights reserved