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Kyrgyzstan: Scavengers Die in Tragic Accident

Bishkek rubbish tip tragedy highlights impoverishment and desperation of unemployed.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

While rummaging for precious metals in a narrow ditch at a Bishkek rubbish tip earlier this month, nine locals lost their lives, after the walls of the trench collapsed on top of them.

Rescuers dug non-stop for 17 hours aided by distraught relatives. "The work would have gone faster if we had used an excavator," said the head of Bishkek emergency services, Colonel Akjol Isaev. "But the relatives asked us not to damage the bodies. So we had to dig by hand."

All the victims of the December 2 tragedy were in their twenties - men who had come to the capital from the southern Jalal-Abad and Osh regions in search of a better life.

Poverty would plague the victims in death as it had in life. Following the tragedy, relatives scrabbled to find transport to carry the remains of their loved ones to their native villages.

In the hostel of an old brick factory, where many of the victims and their families lived, Zamira Akmatova lay unconscious, having in one fateful day lost both her husband and her son.

By her side, her son's wife, cried hysterically. According to neighbours, these two widows didn't even have enough money to transport the bodies of their loved ones from the morgue.

Marat and Meilikan, a married couple, have been "working" the rubbish tip for a year. Meilikan gathers bottles while Marat looks for metal. They came from Jalal-Abad in a vain attempt to find work.

Marat says there are many places that accept the copper and aluminium he finds. But more often than not his potential customers come to the tip themselves to obtain the metals more cheaply. People dig deep pits to get down to rubbish left over from the Soviet era when there was more metal. "I know of cases where 'prospectors' hire bulldozers to do the digging," said Meilikan.

The city tip is serviced by the Meenet-Service enterprise. Its trucks bring rubbish here from all over the capital. "We're always driving these people away, but they literally climb under our wheels when a new load of rubbish is brought in," said one company employee.

The head of Meenet-Service, Bakyt Duishenbaev, commented, "I think my staff carry out their duties conscientiously. But it's not easy guarding such a big area with only four men? "

A criminal inquiry has opened into the rubbish tip tragedy. Officials from the office of internal affairs are questioning all those concerned.

At the same time, there is a heated debate over just why locals resort to scavenging at such places. Tursunbai Bakir, a Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy, said, "digging through rubbish tips in search of metal is an extreme step undertaken by desperate people."

Another deputy Orozbek Dyuisheev said, "Even if they find anyone guilty and punish him nothing will change. The unemployed will continue to earn a living any way they can."

An official at the local employment office, who did not wish to reveal his name, agreed that economic problems forced people to start digging through rubbish but he said the state should not be blamed for this. "We try to provide work for all those who need it," he said. "We often offer jobs on construction sites, but the pay is so small many refuse it."

A social survey carried out by the independent M-VECTOR agency in 2001 reported that living standards for the overwhelming majority of Kyrgyz people have significantly decreased. Over 80 per cent of those questioned said their families could barely afford the most basic necessities.

In the coming three years, Kyrgyzstan will receive 93 million US dollars from

the International Monetary Fund for programmes to cut poverty and assist economic growth. According to the prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiev, this aid will help raise living standards.

For the time being, the city rubbish tip is empty with only crows left to scavenge. But soon the pain of that December afternoon will be forgotten and the unemployed will be back to earn a living from the garbage.

Cholpon Orozobekova is an IWPR contributor

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