In Kabul, scav­eng­ing for sur­vival

Groups of young boys scour the city’s streets to find trea­sure among trash and help their fam­i­lies

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­[email protected]­post.com

On an early win­ter morn­ing, the city is still dark when the boys gather at their reg­u­lar spot, a garbage dump where a bony dog is al­ready nos­ing for food. Each one car­ries an empty jute sack that will be bulging by night­fall. It is bit­ter cold, but they are dressed in thin, grimy jack­ets and pants. Most wear no gloves. Some wear no socks.

When the last strag­gler ar­rives, the band of a dozen scav­engers sets off, look­ing for trea­sures in the trash.

The boys walk fast, pok­ing into bins and bar­rels and drain ditches, stuff­ing soda cans and plas­tic bot­tles into their sacks. They fan out among icy al­leys, whistling and shout­ing to keep in touch.

Man­sour, 15, is the old­est and sharpest. He keeps an eye out for the oth­ers, and car­ries an old cell­phone to call home in emer­gen­cies. Every day, he wears the same smudged pink sweat­shirt with a perky kit­ten logo. But he is un­smil­ing and stern.

“Our par­ents are not happy to send us out here, but there are no jobs and no money,” Man­sour said one re­cent morn­ing. “They say it is hon­or­able work, not like beg­ging or steal­ing. Even if we only bring home 10 afgha­nis [7 cents] from what we sell, it is bet­ter than do­ing wrong work.”

Afghanistan’s cap­i­tal of 6 mil­lion is full of new apart­ments and shop­ping malls, but it is also densely over­crowded and full of des­per­ately poor peo­ple. There are few steady jobs for adults with­out skills, and even day­la­bor work is scarce. No so­cial wel­fare sys­tem ex­ists for the poor, and only mea­ger sub­si­dies are avail­able for dis­abled war vic­tims and wid­ows.

Vir­tu­ally all char­ity comes from in­ter­na­tional agen­cies, and most of that goes to re­turned refugees from Pak­istan and Iran, or to ru­ral fam­i­lies dis­placed by fight­ing or drought. This win­ter, the World Food Pro­gram has pro­vided food and cash to about 70,000 needy peo­ple in Kabul, many of them dis­placed fam­i­lies in tent set­tle­ments who have reg­is­tered to re­ceive aid.

“We do what we can, but we are only putting our fin­ger in the dike,” said Zla­tan Mil­isic, the pro­gram’s di­rec­tor here. “We pro­vide hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to the dis­placed, and sea­sonal sup­port to iden­ti­fied ur­ban poor, but a lot of peo­ple who may need help don’t fit into any cat­e­gory.”

In 2018, WFP as­sisted more than 5 mil­lion Afghans, but with 13 mil­lion lack­ing suf­fi­cient food, Mil­isic said, “where can you even start?”

Those on the mar­gins of city life sur­vive any way they can. Some are beg­gars, old men with crutches and women in burqas who hud­dle out­side mosques and mar­kets. Some are boys with wiz­ened faces who wash car win­dows, ped­dle toys, or blow smoke from tiny pots at strangers in a rit­ual bless­ing and hope for spare change in re­turn.

The scav­engers are a different breed.

Tightknit bands of broth­ers, cousins and neigh­bors, mostly be­tween ages 8 and 14, they roam the back streets like small armies, each group with its own in­for­mal turf, find­ing value in items oth­ers have dis­carded — and a cer­tain amount of pride in an oc­cu­pa­tion from which oth­ers would re­coil.

They avoid traf­fic cops and keep stones handy to ward off men­ac­ing dogs. A few shop­keep­ers and se­cu­rity guards reg­u­larly save items for them. The boys of­ten joke and rough­house as they trudge along, but there are con­stant re­minders of war and dan­ger: A con­voy of troops rum­bles past; a strange metal ob­ject in a garbage bin looks like an un­ex­ploded mine.

Two sum­mers ago, Man­sour was scav­eng­ing down­town when a mas­sive truck bomb ex­ploded nearby, killing 80 peo­ple and wound­ing more than 400. His mother heard the blast and was wor­ried. “I didn’t have a phone then, and she came all the way down­town, look­ing for me,” he re­counted.

War has fol­lowed these boys since they were born. Some were raised in Pak­istan, where their fam­i­lies had fled from civil war and Tal­iban re­pres­sion. Some were driven from ru­ral Afghan vil­lages by con­flict, and their fam­i­lies landed in Kabul with no work, rel­a­tives or sources of help.

Mostly, they rely on each other, shar­ing tiny houses off dirt al­leys. Few of their fa­thers have for­mal jobs, though some go out with satchels of tools and wait for pickup con­struc­tion work that brings home $4 a day. But in cold weather, even a chance to load bricks is rare. Of­ten the only day’s in­come is from what the boys sell by the pound at junk­yards.

Man­sour’s fam­ily mi­grated from Lagh­man province four years ago af­ter their vil­lage was over­run by the Tal­iban. Now they rent a de­crepit house with two other fam­i­lies for $100 a month. Man­sour, who goes to pub­lic school ex­cept dur­ing the three­month win­ter break, said that he wants to be­come a doc­tor some­day but that his fam­ily comes first.

“It is hard to send a child into the streets, but Man­sour is a rock for us,” said his fa­ther, Wahidul­lah, 40, who has no job and has never been to school. “Our life has passed in hard times, and we want our chil­dren to have a nor­mal life, if peace ever comes. For now, we tell him, ‘Don’t steal, don’t fight, just find some­thing out there and come home early.’ ”

Once a week, Man­sour and sev­eral other boys stop at a junk­yard, where they dump out their sacks and the owner weighs the con­tents. De­pend­ing on the ma­te­rial, they get be­tween 20 and 50 cents per pound. Man­sour watches the scale care­fully. “Some­times they try to cheat us,” he says.

For 12-year-old Sami­ul­lah, life is even more pre­car­i­ous. His fam­ily of 13 lives in a walled dirt yard that was empty when they ar­rived a year ago, flee­ing from fight­ing in Takhar province. His fa­ther, Niaz Mo­hammed, has built a two-room hut and a shed for keep­ing goats, whose own­ers pay him a small monthly fee. The land­lord lets them live there free. A neigh­bor shares well wa­ter and lets them hook up a sin­gle light­bulb at night.

Al­most ev­ery­thing Sami­ul­lah’s fam­ily pos­sesses has been scav­enged. His dad col­lected bricks and wood in a wheel­bar­row to build their hut. The yard con­tains piles of plas­tic bot­tles and scrap metal. The goats eat limp car­rots and cab­bage his fa­ther has scrounged out­side restau­rants, and one of them has been draped in an old mil­i­tary jacket for warmth.

“I found this to­day. We’ll cook it for din­ner,” said Mo­hammed, 47, point­ing to a dish of egg­plants. His face has a per­ma­nent look of de­feat. He keeps an old doc­u­ment from the U.N. refugee agency, which gave him $1,000 when his fam­ily re­turned from Pak­istan five years ago. The money is long gone, and Mo­hammed said he had been to sev­eral of­fices seek­ing help but could not re­mem­ber their names.

Sami­ul­lah also has the fur­rowed brow of some­one with heavy re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. He wor­ries about his 7-year-old brother Ez­mat, who has been cough­ing lately when they go out scav­eng­ing. But one re­cent morn­ing, when the boys came upon a smooth frozen pa­tio in a park, their cares van­ished. Aban­don­ing their sacks, they be­gan slid­ing and tum­bling on the ice, shriek­ing with child­ish glee.

PHO­TOS BY AN­DREW QUILTY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Boys search for items to sell. “Our par­ents are not happy to send us out here, but there are no jobs and no money,” says Man­sour, who is 15.

Sami­ul­lah, cen­ter, warms his hands af­ter spend­ing a cold morn­ing scav­eng­ing. The 12-year-old’s fam­ily of 13 ar­rived in Kabul a year ago af­ter flee­ing vi­o­lence in Takhar province.

Sami­ul­lah uses a bi­cy­cle to carry a sack full of dis­carded items up a hill. Al­most ev­ery­thing his fam­ily owns has been scav­enged, in­clud­ing the bricks and wood his fa­ther used to build their hut.

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