Najaf, Asharq Al-Awsat- As you leave Najaf city centre and travel westward you will see a dozen tents scattered around a garbage dump, in the area near Howly Street. This area is suffering from a severe shortage of services, making it more of a landfill than a residential area. The garbage dump has become a shelter and a source of livelihood for a population of displaced Iraqis with nowhere else to go. They scavenge the garbage dump in search of anything useful to sell on.
Noor Sajjit, a 16-year-old girl dressed all in black with striking green eyes, agreed to meet with Asharq Al-Awsat to discuss her situation. She said, “Most of the families who live here used to squat in abandoned or makeshift settlements in the city. But the government outlawed this practice and began demolishing our homes in front of our eyes. We could do nothing but pray to God Almighty.”
As tears streamed down her face, Noor continued to say, “I cannot bear to remember the night that our house was demolished. It was a difficult night for us as we had no shelter apart from the walls of our destroyed house to protect us from the bitter cold. I collected whatever cardboard and wood I could find to make a fire for my father, mother, and seven siblings. After this we eventually settled in the garbage dump.”
She added, “My father suffers from an incurable disease, and my mother is old and cannot work. Therefore, I, along with my younger brothers and sisters, have taken on the task of scavenging the dump looking for useful items that we could sell on so that our family can survive in this barren desert.”
As for the future and the fate of her siblings, Noor said, “Our fate is unknown. I am now 16 years old, but if you look at me you would think that I am old. This is because of the work that I do and the concerns that I have. It is a burden that I have had to shoulder and even our hopes of marriage were dashed a long time ago as marriage is not something that happens in the garbage dump. Who would want to marry a woman who cannot read or write, and whose family live on a landfill? My remaining siblings despair of life, and now life can only be enjoyed by affluent children whose thrown away clothes we search for.”
Saad Sadiq, 14 years old, is one of the children forced into this exile after the demolition of his home in the city of Kufa, ten kilometres north of Najaf. He said, “My friends here cannot read or write, and their sole concern is how they will get hold of some food for the day as our work begins at dawn and ends at sunset. At lunchtime we always think about the way we are living our lives and why we cannot be like other young people with a house in the city and living like ordinary people…but I don’t think that this dream will ever come true.”
Saad added, “When we become infected with skin diseases this brings some relief as it forces us to leave the area and go into the city where we can witness ordinary daily life.”
Saad went on to say that the Iraqi government should “listen to the people of the region, especially the youth, so that we can learn to read and write, and so that it can find solutions to our suffering.”
Jumar Haraj, 54 years old, was very emotional regarding the tragic situation faced by the people of this area who live in approximately 30 tents scattered around the landfill. He said, “Cooking utensils, mattresses, and anything else that we need on a daily basis comes from the garbage dump. We were even occasionally reduced to eating discarded expired canned goods, but our preferred food is rice and beans which are distributed as rations.”
Jumar added, “Every family is made up of between eight and eleven members, and these large figures force us to travel to the market that is far away every five days to fetch tomatoes and other vegetables.” Haraj asked, “Are we not Iraqis? And if we are not Iraqis then surely the government should inform us so that we can leave for another country. A country like Iraq, which has oil and two great rivers, should be able to secure even the most basic of services for us.”
Nouri Hussein Tabour, who is 59 years old said, “Our work is limited to scavenging the landfills in search of useful items such as aluminium, soft drink bottles, and empty water bottles, as well as old clothes that can be sold or that can be washed and worn ourselves.” He added, “There are traders who buy these materials from us, and then sell them on to plastic factories or other factories that melt down the materials to re-use them.”
On his part, the director of the public health department in Najaf said, “These people show a lack of awareness by scavenging through fly-infested garbage exposing themselves to illnesses such as cholera, tetanus, typhoid, and rabies.”
While Aqeel Majid Najam, who runs Bi’a Anajaf [Najaf Environment] warned that “the existence of waste dumps close to residential areas poses a serious threat to the environment and public health where the spread of disease and pollution results in undesirable consequences.”
Vice President of the Najaf Municipal Council, Sheikh Khaled al Numani, promised to look into tackling the problems that these families face and to form a committee to visit the region and create appropriate solutions to their problems such as their incorporation into the field of healthcare.