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Junk and jewels - the people of the dump

Junk and jewels - the people of the dump

ON the outskirts of Phnom Penh, tucked discreetly off the road to Chung Ek, lies

the city's rubbish dump - and a supposed fortune for the many scavengers who pick

through it daily.

As each truck arrives, children leap on board and start rummaging for their livelihood

even before it stops to dump its precious load.

Hundreds of women and children brave the toxic smoke and insect-infested rubbish

to forge out a meager existence from discarded plastic, metal and anything else of

value.

Some even hope to find rubies or other precious stones rumored to be in the bottom

layer of the garbage.

"The Khmer Rouge threw all of the personal belongings left in Phnom Penh [after

the forced exodus] here" one woman said. "They didn't find all the jewels."

One man, who was sifting the dirt at the edge of the dump, said he heard there were

treasures to be found but had yet to find anything. It was his first day at the dump

and he remained optimistic.

A veteran garbage picker of over 30 years was sure there were jewels to be found

but said she would starve if she spent all of her time searching for them.

"Right now there are more people working at the dump than anytime during Sihanouk

or Lon Nol and the garbage was better then," she complained."I have to

be faster than the children to beat them to the good stuff."

Jewels aside, the scavengers said a good picker could find enough junk to earn up

to 2000 riels a day. Most children averaged only 500 riels.

Sabun and Khun, two sisters from Svay Rieng province, have been working at the dump

for two months.

Their father had heard there was money to be made picking garbage in the capital,

and moved their family to the big city.

The sisters, who live in squatter shelters on the edge of the dump with hundreds

of other families, compete with more experienced and aggressive children for items

they can keep or sell.

Sabun, aged 10, proudly showed off a half empty bottle of red nail polish which she

hoped to keep.

Another child seemed convinced that a discarded IV bag complete with needle he found

was worth a small fortune.

Like the other children working the dump, Sabun and Khun dream of attending school

someday but admitted that their family was too poor and it would probably never happen.

Every truck load from the city, and every layer of rubbish scraped off by bulldozers,

brings the children to their feet with the hope of finding their fortune.

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