One Man’s Rubbish: Basra’s Poor Fight for Wealthy Neighbours’ Garbage
Gangs of poor people in Basra are making a living sifting through rubbish in the oil boomtown’s affluent neighbourhoods. Often they’ll make more in a day than social welfare pays them in a month. Which is why the rubbish business is rife with different gangs claiming turf and competing with official garbage trucks.
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.