Every day, early in the morning when the sun is just rising and it is still cold, groups of people roam Basra’s streets. They search through the refuse and rubbish left by others and they always seem to be racing not just one another, but also the municipality’s garbage collectors, who are always late.
And they keep searching through the rubbish until dusk. The rubbish collectors also compete with one another to be the first to go through rubbish in the city’s more affluent areas – there, one finds Iraq’s new upper class in residence, the likes of government officials, MPs, doctors, contractors and expatriates from elsewhere who are working for foreign firms in Basra.
“There is a huge difference in the standards of living of the ordinary citizen and of Iraq’s elite,” says local human rights activist, Sami al-Maliki. “The elite produce huge amounts of rubbish, throwing out food and furniture. It’s all thrown into containers and these containers have become a kind of market for the local poor. A lot of families now see the garbage business as their way to make a living.”
The rubbish collectors have also formed gangs in the city, which is booming due to its proximity to some of the country’s biggest oil wells. Different families and gangs control different streets in a number of neighbourhoods and they don’t allow others to pick through the rubbish there.
Dressed all in black, Nazim is a member of one of these groups. She’s racing to find the best rubbish and she urges her two pre-pubescent sons to run ahead and check another two streets their family controls.
“What can we do?” she says. “This is our life. We’ve tried to find other jobs and to live in dignity but the amount we get on social welfare just isn’t enough. It barely covers our living expenses for one week.”
Social welfare payments in Iraq go from around IQD50,000 (around US$42) to IQD120,000 (around US$100) per month.
“We started digging in the garbage to find things that we could use. Then it was for things we could sell,” she explained to NIQASH. “Now we control this neighbourhood’s garbage; we no longer share this area with anyone else and we’re better off.”
To control the affluent neighbourhood, Nazim, her husband and the rest of their children form groups and occupy various streets in order to guard the best garbage. “We call it our daily treasure,” Nazim notes. “We always find delicious food as well as cans of food that we couldn’t even dream of buying in the malls. We’ve found clean clothes, perfume, gold and bottles of alcohol. One time we even found a Kalashnikov in the garbage.”
Another of the rubbish collectors, Sabbah, who is 25, explained the system of street ownership further: “Certain groups, or families, control certain streets through a kind of system of guardianship,” he told NIQASH. “They collect garbage only on that street. They may also sell the street to another family for money in the same way that sidewalk spaces used by stall holders are passed on. And the value of any neighbourhood or street is determined by the number of garbage containers in it and the kind of garbage there – whether it has been discarded by wealthy people or not.”
The competition for the garbage of wealthy families is not just limited to the families and gangs who control the neighbourhoods.
Sabbah explains how he and his brothers begin their foraging early in the morning so they can get to the good stuff before the municipal waste collectors arrive. “We don’t often see such a service in our own neighbourhoods,” Sabbah says, “but they come much more often in these wealthy neighbourhoods.”
Additionally the local authorities also charge the families and gangs a fee for turning a blind eye to the unofficial garbage collectors.
“I found these lovely blue pants that I’m wearing in the rubbish, and this shoe,” says another of the garbage collectors Hussein Abed – he was a soldier in the Iraqi army but his leg was amputated in the war against Kuwait; he’s riding a skinny donkey as he goes about his daily business and he says this is only way he can make money for his family. “The municipal authorities know that the things we find have value, which is why they tax us for their share.”
Interestingly because the local waste collection is always late, and sometimes never comes at all, the wealthy locals have even started to welcome their refuse-collecting guests.
After years of going through the rubbish bins and containers, the faces of many of the foragers have become familiar to the wealthy whose rubbish they search through. “Some of them now give us food or used clothes and sometimes they ask us to do jobs that nobody else wants to do,” Sabbah says, adding with some pride, “they trust us.”
“In garbage cans we find all sorts of things,” says Zara, 20, who is part of a family of displaced Iraqis living in the slums on the outskirts of Basra; she came here from Baghdad six years ago and now she and her sisters sift through Basra’s garbage for a living. “Bags of rice, flour and lentils, dry bread and cooking utensils. All of these things have helped us to survive. Also sometimes we’re lucky and we can make enough money from the garbage in one day, as much as we are paid by social welfare in a month.”
“What we get here is much better than what the government promises us,” she concludes, before getting back to her search for buried treasure in Basra’s piles of rubbish.