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For Iraqi family trash is treasure and home the city dump

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The 6-year-old girl with the Raggedy Ann red hair and the pink flowered dress is giggling madly.

Barefoot, she rolls an old truck tire up a small hill, eyes wide. She's chasing her 10-year-old brother, who's also rolling a big tire.

A few feet away, their mother glances over at them as she works, picking crushed blue Pepsi cans from the field of garbage that surrounds them as far as the eye can see. The stench of burning trash fills the hazy air.

This is home: a garbage dump.

"We've gotten used to this kind of life. That's why we look happy," said Naeyema Sa'ad, the children's mother.

"It's a hard life, but what can we do? It's the only way we can survive."

Sa'ad and her family are Marsh Arabs. They were born in Iraq's south, in the wetlands near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It's where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein began draining the wetlands, in part to punish the Marsh Arabs for joining a Shiite Muslim uprising. Ecologists call it one of the greatest environmental crimes in history.

The Sa'ads are refugees from that crime.

They came to the dump north of Baghdad about five years ago, when the marshes dried up. With no more water and no more food, they'd had to leave.

A relative knew of others who made a living scavenging bits of trash in the capital. So they moved here with their possessions and their animals: goats, sheep and a couple of cows.

They pitched a burlap tent in the middle of the garbage field, next to several dozen other tents. The settlement has about 30 families.

Sa'ad lives with her three children, her 75-year-old mother, her brother and a male cousin. She is married, but she is a second wife—polygamy is common among Marsh Arabs—so her husband comes only once a month. Jobless, he isn't much help.

She's a striking woman, although her weather-beaten face looks older than her 30 years. A green line is tattooed from her lower lip to the tip of her chin—a decoration, she said.

Her children are achingly beautiful. Along with her son, Thaeer, and her middle daughter, Halema, there is the youngest, Ibstam, 5. The girls' hair is dyed red with henna. Thaeer, in Western clothes and a ball cap, could blend in on any American street.

The arithmetic of their survival is simple. Each morning, they pick aluminum cans and plastic bottles out of the trash, put them in sacks and sell them for about 12 cents a bag. The money buys food for them and their animals, and pays trash-truck drivers to dump loads of refuse. Each family has its own sector of the dump.

If they don't make enough from the trash, sometimes they have to sell a sheep.

The turmoil gripping Iraq—the crime, the terrorism, the lack of basic services, the American occupation—is of no concern to the Marsh Arabs of the dump.

Life has always been hard for them. Now it's harder. It probably will stay that way, whoever's in charge.

They hated Saddam. After he destroyed their homeland, his men kicked them out of the dump just before the recent war, supposedly to make room for a football stadium. They lived in a Baghdad slum for a while, and returned to the dump as soon as Saddam's regime fell.

They have no love for Americans, either.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Sa'ad said. "The Americans have done nothing for us."

Well, that's not exactly true, she later admitted. Sometimes U.S. soldiers leave their trash at the dump, often filled with goodies—candy from packaged meals, electrical parts. It's amazing what the Americans throw away, she said. And the soldiers don't ask for payment.

The families who live in the dump get what seems to be clean water from a pipe in the city water system. Women and girls trek across twice a day with donkeys to fill the family water jugs—old diesel or bleach containers from the garbage.

But they have no electricity, which means no refrigerator, lights, radio or television. Their toilet is a hole in the ground. They bathe when they can.

Flies swarm through their tent, alighting on them as they eat or sleep.

Thaeer attended school briefly while the family lived in the city, but now, none of the children do.

How would they get there? their mother asks. How would they get home?

Their toys come from the trash.

"I find cars and all kinds of fun things," Thaeer said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+dump