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Scratching an existence on a city street

Scratching an existence on a city street

A loosely-bonded group of about 15 poor families who scratch a living from trash

collection on the streets of Phnom Penh are about to experience a major upheaval.

During the day every able-bodied person heads out to find resellable trash. The kids get schooling when there's cash to spare.

They will soon be expelled from the area they have been using as a kitchen, dining

area and trash sorting depot, along a construction site fence, at one end of a block

formed by Streets 63, 184 and 200, in the Boeng Rang commune.

This piece of dirt, between the roadside kerb of one of the city's busiest streets,

and the corrugated steel fence at the rear, measures about two meters by 10 meters.

It has been "home, hearth, factory and rest area" to most of these people

for the last three years when drought forced them to abandon reliance on subsistence-level

farming at Svay Rieng.

Talk to virtually any of the hundreds of small groups camped anywhere on public land

around the capital where there is shelter and shade, and a way to sell something

to buy food and fuel, and you will hear a similar story.

"We didn't have enough to eat and we could not earn any money, so we piled into

shared taxis and came to Phnom Penh," said one of the group leaders, Thong Sokhon,

43. "Has it been worth it? It's not something we can think about; we had no

choice. But yes, we are better off. We are making enough riels per day from selling

trash to get us through the next day."

She doesn't know how many they number in total because people come and go, but thinks

about 15 families are represented, ranging from infants to grandmothers.

During the day every able-bodied person heads out to find resellable trash: cans,

glass, plastic bottles, cardboard, steel and any other metals. They have six two-wheeled

carts and these are used to bring bulk quantities back to the depot for sorting and

delivery to a nearby bulk trash dealer.

Individuals scour the area for treasure, concentrating on the big O'Russey Market

where the pickings are good. Aluminium cans are the most valuable: two are worth

100 riel. Every day they accumulate about 10kg of paper, about 4kg of rubber, plus

large numbers of cans and bottles.

The women cook food and mind the toddlers.

Most of the men find work on building sites, earning 7,000 to 8,000 riel a day.

While all this is happening the women are cooking food on their charcoal burners

and minding the toddlers. When it rains they put up plastic sheets and play card


At night they split into small groups and doss down at various sheltered sidewalk

locations around the suburb, sometimes under a roof, the lucky ones under mosquito

netting. Most sleep sitting up.

They've been here so long they no longer notice the roar of traffic, the fumes and

the dust, and the dirt-ingrained color of their skin and clothing.

People passing by (particularly foreigners) sometimes give them things, like bottles,

cans and maybe some food. The French school around the corner recently gave them

some women's clothing and 15 kg of rice. "We'd like to thank everyone for those

gifts," says Sokhon.

The only people who hassle them are the police. "Every few weeks they come along

and tell us to move, so we pack our stuff in the carts and go around the corner then

we just come back later. But at least we never pay bribes."

Some of the group returns to Svay Rieng for the rice harvest in January or February,

as they have a small plot of leased land. Others are able to find a little paid harvesting

work. But that is the only break they have from a miserable existence on the streets

of the capital.

The big apartment block has been rising behind the fence for about six months. "When

they are finished they will ask us to leave," says Sokhon. "We will look

for another place like this; everybody will go out to see what they can find."

Sokhon says they don't seem to suffer many health problems, except things like headaches

and colds and they buy medicines from a pharmacy when necessary. They try to keep

themselves clean but it's a losing battle against the environment they live in. They

wash when they have access to water. They say they don't defecate on the street,

but use the public toilets in the park corner in front of the National Museum (although

that is at least 2km away).

They collect paper, rubber, plastic bottles and aluminium cans (the most valuable, worth about 50 riel each).

Sokhon is one of the few who has had an education, but only to grade 3. She has become

the camp mother and is the main negotiator when it comes to selling to a dealer.

She was 14 when her parents were taken away by the Khmer Rouge, and she never saw

them again.

They need their kids for trash collection, but Sokhon tries to get them into school

whenever there's a little cash to spare.

"There is nothing good about this life; not enough sleep, never enough to eat,

just getting enough to survive the next day. Maybe the junk collector is a forever

job," Sokhon says. "If I had the choice I'd like to live in a small town,

get myself a bicycle and have a small business buying food from the market and reselling

it or cooking food for sale. That's what I'd like."

What has she learned about the human spirit?

"Families working together are a powerful force, and no matter what destiny

or life throws at you, our will to survive is stronger."

* Translation by Cheang Sokha


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