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Trash, flies, stench, mud. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, piles of rubbish stretch away into the distance. Noxious fumes rise in cloying columns from some of the piles of household waste and spew from the exhausts of the many refuse trucks, dampening the clarity of the warm spring sunshine and whitening some of the blue out of the sky. The flies rise in clouds, an audible marker for the location of dead sheep carcasses in varying states of decay. This is Kani Qirzhala. Municipal rubbish tip for the City of Erbil, Iraq. It does not smell good here. It does not feel good here. This is a place of decay, a gargantuan jumble of the broken, the dead, the unwanted, the done with. The end of the line.
The road with the trucks coming in to deposit their load snakes through continuously heaped plastic on both sides. Occasionally the figure of a person or two, picking through one of the piles, breaks the monotony of the view and a lone tree clings precariously to whatever it has found in lieu of nutrients in this uninspiring, depression of a landscape. This is no place for princesses, for happiness and smiles, no place for camaraderie, or for differences reconciled, no place for welcome and no place for a child. However...
Follow the trucks to the end of the road. Each new truck that arrives is enthusiastically greeted by a flour sack carrying, bent rebar wielding, crowd of mud clad figures. As the rear of the refuse truck hydraulically groans its way upwards, they rush in underneath, rebar hooks swinging, as several tons of trash and the percolated juices of a hundred dustbins worth of household waste come cascading out, around and at times onto them. These are the Dump People. They congregate here every day, a Last Chance Committee for all the broken, dead, unwanted, done with things. They sort through each new dump load, retrieving anything with the remotest of value. As with these end of the line things, they are end of the line people – no one comes to a place like this unless they have to. And as with the things they select to take out and send on to a new lease of life, they are taking their own rock bottom situations and using this place as a stepping stone to tomorrow.
Whole families, many victims of conflict, or badly bitten by the ongoing economic crisis, come here together. Children as young as seven work alongside grandparents. This isn’t child labour as often imagined, there is no clocking in or curtailment of high spirits and giggles, but child labour it nonetheless is. Families and individuals often band together, bringing one vehicle between them, to carry away their findings at the end of the day. Paper and cardboard fetch USD $50 per ton. Plastic gets USD $70 and Metal USD $90. Women struggle across the trash piles so laden with cardboard that their upper bodies and faces are totally obscured. Electrical cable is also popular, carefully coiled before being dropped into flour sacks with satisfaction. Some wrap their faces against the fumes, some wear gloves, most not. All are caked in mud from feet to waist, sometimes further.
Nor, her sister and her friend Hidjra are nine years old. They used to live in Mosul, but their families were displaced by the ongoing conflict. Working in a dump with their father and brother for up to ten hours a day has dampened their spirits not in the slightest. They beam and giggle and skip as they work, ripping open rubbish bags and comparing spoils. They get right in with the men when a new truck arrives – reaching up to hook a particularly fine looking tin can before the tipping has even begun. Mud smeared they may be, but that hasn’t stopped them from donning bangles and pretty hair bands. It’s not really possible to tell what colour some of their clothes started out, but the eyes of these Trash Princesses shine with plenty of colourful mischief.
At first each new refuse truck’s arrival resembles a total free-for-all. But a little observation yields a different story. The teenagers and men hold back and let the little ones through, a polite, if small, distance is maintained between bodies. There is no pushing or shoving. Friendly nods and smiles are frequently exchanged, as well as considerable banter between those who can speak the same tongue. Because this is not a homogenous bunch. Here we have Kurd, Sunni, Arab, Shia, Christian, old, young, male, female, happy, beautiful, miserable, tired, energetic, loud, silent. What we don’t have is conflict. So much not in fact, that Mohammed stops his perpetual pursuit of aluminium scraps to explain that this place brings everyone together. Here they are human first and human last, the rest doesn’t matter. There is, it turns out, something of value to be learned at the end of the line.
It’s currently spring at The Dump and the flowers blooming through the waste reflect the unlikely friendliness and grace with which these people exist together in such horrendous conditions. The face splitting smiles that light up the ancient eyes of these children who have seen too much, belie struggle and hardship it is hard to walk away from. And a tenacity it is impossible not to respect.