Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan: Scavengers Mourn Loss of US Rubbish

Impoverished city dwellers found rich pickings in leftovers from the US airbase until Bishkek's sanitary inspectors stepped in.
By Kubat Otorbaev

At dawn, hundreds of people head for a rubbish-dump outside Bishkek and work until dusk, sifting through the refuse, in spite of the dirt and the stench.

For many years, the unemployed and the desperately poor have come to depend on the dump's piles of food waste. The number is growing all the time. Some have moved their entire families to the site, building shanty huts to save commuting time.

After the dump began receiving truckloads of refuse from the international airbase at Manas, set up in the aftermath of the US-led war against the Taleban, the number of scavengers shot up.

The place began to resemble a beehive. When they had eaten their fill of discarded western food products, they sell what's left in the Bishkek markets. "This created a danger of a mass outbreak of poisoning and the spread of infectious diseases," said Cholpon Botbaeva, of Bishkek's sanitation and epidemic department.

For many of the rubbish sifters, waiting for the vehicles transporting the refuse from Manas airbase, home to 1,800 mainly US servicemen, became an important part of their daily routine.

Every day, three or four trucks of rubbish arrived from the airbase, each carrying more than one and a half tons of refuse.

The manager of the rubbish dump, Tolosun Alymkulov, said fights became frequent between competing armies of children, pregnant women and elderly people. "The competition for western rubbish grew, as a result of which the concept of the 'survival of the fittest' developed among the scavengers," he said.

"The strongest and fastest not only managed to get the tastiest morsels as the vehicles were being unloaded, but also stole from the weakest."

However, the great days of the scavengers now seem to be over. After the city sanitation and epidemic station carried out checks on the rubbish being taken from Manas to the dump, it was decided to call a halt to the traffic.

According to Dr Botbaev, his department instructed the Oktyabrsky regional authorities to ban the disposal of perishable foods from the airbase at the dump. This decision has pleased the city's sanitation services but does not suit those who survived on what they found at the dump.

But despite the fact that the tastiest products have disappeared, this correspondent found around a hundred people of various ages literally attacking vehicles arriving with refuse.

"It was good when the Americans brought their rubbish," a thin, dirty teenager, who gave his name as Marat, recalled. "There were delicious things there. I was trying pate, preserves, powders you could mix with water...

"They may have been past their sell-by date, but they were just what the doctor ordered. There was delicious sausage and various delicacies which I'd never seen the like of before."

"The authorities would not even let us have American rubbish," a young man named Almaz said indignantly. Calming down, he asked conspiratorially, "You don't know, by any chance, where they're taking their rubbish now?"

While the scavengers are forlorn, workers at the dump do not hide their satisfaction that the coalition forces have stopped dumping their waste here. "People were literally diving under the wheels of the vehicles," Tolosun Alymkulov said. "It was nightmare that lasted for over two months."

The furore over the dump has increased public fears over American use of the land at the airbase.

Shaigul Asylbaev, of the Aleyne ecological organisation, said specialists needed to establish what types of wastes the foreign military forces are producing.

Tashbolot Baltabaev, a parliamentary deputy, said the troops should be assigned an extra plot of land to dispose of their own waste. "The foreign military personnel should carefully look after their waste themselves and dispose of it all in a proper manner," he said.

A spokesman for the coalition forces at Manas airport, Richard Isery, said most of these fears were disproportionate. "There's nothing dangerous in the waste. For the most part it is just food," he said. "We're currently working out where and how to dispose of it."

Another parliamentary deputy, Iskhak Masaliev, said the root of the problem lay in the failure of the two sides to work out a complete agreement on the terms of the deployment of foreign troops in the country.

"When they decided to provide territory in Kyrgyzstan for the coalition forces, our government did not agree numerous points relating to their staying here and their everyday existence. This is why various problems arise," he said.

Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist