Kids of the dump: Cambodia’s scavengers scrap out a livelihood

PHNOM PENH – Hauv Sokhon wears his blue baseball cap low over his eyes as he pokes through the stinking refuse of Cambodia’s most notorious rubbish dump. If he finds enough plastic and aluminium amid the oozing debris, he’ll earn a dollar today.

Wielding a metal hook, the 13-year-old has eked out a living at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump for three years, competing with some 500 others desperate to trawl through the raw discardings of a city of 1.2 million people.

"I don’t have any money so I come here to make some," Hauv Sokhon says matter-of-factly, then deftly plucks a pair of running shoes from the chassis of a truck roaring past.

As black smoke billows and flies mass over the stenching waste, he explains how he moved near the dump with his parents from southeastern Cambodia as they sought a better life.

"I don’t want to be working here. I’m very exhausted," he says.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of aluminium fetches 200 riel (five US cents) and one kilogram of rubber earns 100 riel.

The figure is attractive enough in impoverished Cambodia, which is still recovering from decades of conflict that only ended in 1998, to lure scavengers who endure headaches, dizziness and infections.

Hauv Sokhon reckons the work is better than roaming city streets.

"I used to collect rubbish in the city and this is better work. Here at least I don’t have to walk so far."

Sor Phary, a 37-year-old who scavenged here for more than a decade before setting up as a buyer — and an occasional interest-free moneylender — estimates half the waste pickers are children. Injuries are frequent.

"Almost every day someone gets hurt," she says, weighing a load of plastic on her scales. "Just yesterday someone was injured when they were buried under a falling pile."

Stung Meanchey dump, where household, industrial, medical and other hazardous waste has been indiscriminately tossed since 1965, is slated to close in less than two years, when its 6.8 hectares (16.8 acres) are finally full.

A new dump proposed by the Japanese aid agency as part of a city-wide, 13.5-million-dollar waste management strategy released in March will provide jobs for an uncertain number. The remainder are likely to scavenge on the streets.

The most fortunate will be those who secure schooling or training with Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (For the Smile of a Child, or PSE), a non-government organisation set up in 1995 to give child scavengers a better life.

In a gleaming kitchen a world away from the fetid dump, a dozen white-uniformed youths peel potatoes, dice vegetables and chop meat as they prepare lunch to be served in their stylish, terra cotta-floored restaurant.

Like Hauv Sokhon, the teenagers once trudged through Stung Meanchey. Now, as they complete one of PSE’s courses, they eye jobs in Cambodia’s top hotels — which have already snapped up some graduates as the tourism industry takes off on the back of Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples.

Bou Sophoan, 20 and wearing a crisp white chef’s hat, says back when he spent a year as a waste picker with his siblings he dreamed about working in a restaurant.

"People working in restaurants and hotels always have nice clothes. I used to think often about that," the student says.

Bou Sophoan is among thousands who have been given a chance to escape the dump by PSE, founded by a French couple horrified by the conditions the children were working under.

PSE’s vocational training centre director Pin Sarapich says at first the couple — currently fund-raising in France — provided breakfasts at the dump for the children. They still provide about 400 breakfasts daily there.

"They then asked what the children wanted and they said they wanted a school, so we adapted," he says. That meant evolving into an organisation employing nearly 300, including fewer than 10 expatriates.

A "catch-up school" today allows about 1,000 children who have fallen behind to study two years’ curriculum in one. Families of those who can attend public schools are given rice in lieu of lost scavenging income.

"We realised that when they got to grade 12, however, they couldn’t get jobs. What they need for the job market is real professional training," says the director.

In 2002 the first of several training programs was launched, with the latest a mechanics course due to begin in September. About 360 students have graduated and 250 have jobs with good conditions, Pin Sarapich says.

Meanwhile a medical team provides treatment to those at PSE and surrounding schools attended by child scavengers, a kindergarten cares for babies of women at the dump, and parents of the children are employed to help sew school uniforms, cook meals and drive trucks.

Even with the dump shutting down, their work will go on, says French volunteer Marie du Boisgueheneuc.

"If the garbage dump closes, the scavengers will be on the streets, looking through garbage. It’s not finished," she says.

And back at Stung Meanchey, a new arrival indicates the tough road ahead.

Six-year-old Rong Chean, wearing sandals and a T-shirt with a cuddly teddy bear, is spending her first day here helping her big sister.

"I want to earn money for my mother because she owes money," she says, smiling to reveal tiny teeth browned by decay. She complains of the stench but doesn’t let it deter her.

"I’ll come tomorrow and the next day too. I want to come back because I want to earn money."

Cambodia school siege underlines kingdom’s struggle to recover from war

PHNOM PENH – A school siege which led hostage-takers to kill a Canadian toddler has underlined the struggle Cambodia still faces in recovering from decades of war.

Sucked into the Indochinese conflict of the 1960s and early ’70s, wracked by civil war and then devastated by the 1975-1979 genocidal Khmer Rouge regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million, Cambodia suffered unrest until 1998.

Today an undercurrent of violence simmers in the Southeast Asian kingdom. Mob killings of thieves are not unusual, sexual assaults have reached epidemic levels and other violent crime is relentlessly showcased in the local press.

"Here in Cambodia since the 1970s war, violence has been a part of our daily lives," Kek Galabru, head of local rights group the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, told AFP.

"For even the smallest things, we solve problems with violence."

Local kidnappings used to be frequent in the kingdom but dwindled about three years ago when the government tried harder to attract tourists, she said.

Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries, where the gap is growing between a flamboyant but tiny rich elite and the desperately poor, who mostly work in agriculture. The kingdom has virtually no industrial base.

"In Cambodia now, you don’t have much of a middle class. You have the new rich — the very rich — and with their cars and houses, they show that they are rich," Galabru said.

Expatriate aid workers and those in the expanding tourism industry centred in Siem Reap — the location of the siege and the gateway to tourist magnet Angkor Wat — also typically earn many times the salaries of Cambodians.

Foreigners are rarely targeted for attack, but that changed last Thursday when at least four men armed with a gun stormed an international school, taking about 30 young children from at least 14 countries hostage.

Police are still investigating the motive. Witnesses were baffled by how the violence unfolded and said the men seemed to lack a coherent plan when they entered the school.

During initial interrogation, Chea Sokhon, 23, told police he had been infuriated when the South Korean for whom he worked as a driver slapped him.

In revenge, police say he told them he wanted to murder the children. He had picked up a gun in Phnom Penh — where weapons are easy to obtain — but the plan went haywire when they could not find the children at the school.

The attackers were quickly surrounded by police, and seeking a quick getaway, demanded money, more weapons and a car, killing two-year-old Canadian Maxim Michalik to show they meant business.

As they attempted to leave the school with children in the van, police overpowered the vehicle and the angry crowd severely beat the four, ending a seven-hour stand-off which grabbed world headlines.

"This shows the problems we have in society. You don’t solve problems with violence like this. If he was unhappy, he should have talked with his employer," said Galabru, who conceded that abuse of home-workers was another problem the poor often endure.

More than a third of Cambodia’s 13 million people survive on less than a dollar a day, meaning that working for the rich as maids, drivers and guards for around 60 US dollars a month is an attractive prospect for many.

The human rights worker said the hostage crisis also highlighted the need for Cambodian police to be better trained in handling intense situations, reflecting the complaint of one father of a child at the school.

"It could happen anywhere in the world," the father said a day after the tragedy.

"The thing is here, you cannot trust the police to deal with it properly. I think in a modern country, there wouldn’t have been any injuries."

Nevertheless, Hong Kong-based political and economic risk consultant Robert Broadfoot told AFP he did not expect the siege tragedy to have an impact on expatriates coming to Cambodia.

"Fortunately the types of people who go to Cambodia for postings are people who can put this kind of tragedy into the proper perspective," he said, speaking by telephone.

"This is just a reminder that security is something you’ve got to look at. You can’t take it for granted."

A Phnom Penh-based diplomat told AFP that Cambodia has moved ahead since the war years, and violence can happen anywhere.

"But the siege does highlight that there are various issues that Cambodia has yet to fully grapple with," the diplomat said. "These include things such as unemployment, poverty and how it deals with the outside world," he said, warning that such incidents were "likely to again crop up in the future".