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Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American from Brooklyn in the holiest of Buddhist temples and watch the racial harmony flow.

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The Children of the Garbage Fields in Phnom Penh

by Antonio Graceffo

The air was hot, thick and sickeningly sweet, with countless odors of decay. Smoke rose up from the putrid waste. Sameth, my Khmer stringer, and I stepped off the motorcycle, and sank several inches into foul mud. Garbage was piled stories high, covering the kilometers long dump site. People, the wretchedly poor, clad only in rags, swarmed over the heaps of refuse, like ants, searching out the saleable morsels, that would keep them alive, to pick trash another day.

"I told you they were poor." Said Sameth, as if I hadn't believed him. And, in a way, I hadn't. We've all read about the desperate poor who comb the trash heaps of Sao Paolo and Rio. But somehow, the depth, the sheer magnitude of human suffering could only be appreciated when experience at first hand.

We had only been in the dump a few minutes, and I was already nauseous. Sameth was choking back bile. We would be leaving soon. But to the dwellers of the trash dump at Stung Meanchey, this was their home. And, like prisoners on a life sentence, they would never be leaving. Trying to imagine what depths of poverty would drive human beings to such a desperate existence, it seemed ironic that we were only 7 km from the posh hotels and foreigner hangouts of Phnom Penh.

As often happens, I was shy about taking photos of the disadvantaged as they went about their grizzly work. I didn't want to be another tourist, coming to gawk at human misfortune. But there was a story here that needed to be told. As a journalist you are taught to disassociate yourself from the story. At best, you should become an extension of your camera, recording, but not feeling the dramas which pass through your lens. No one teaches you to lose your optimism. But that goes too, as you realize that nothing you write will make a difference. It is more likely that a reader will use this story as a coaster, to keep rings of the coffee table, than that someone would step in and help these people.

"Man holds in his mortal hands, the power to annihilate all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." - JFK

My words and my photos seemed a weak medicine against the virus of poverty. But it was all I had. I had to try.

Anonymous suffering can be tolerated. But thanks to Sameth, I was able to communicate with the real people toiling in the garbage dump. They had names and they had stories. Nearly everyone we spoke with came from the rural provinces, with the exception of one young lad, named Sopee, who was born in the dumps. He was a second generation trash picker and knew no other life. Most explained that they were driven to the deepest slum of Phnom Penh because there was no work in the province. Their land or their water had been encroached, making it impossible for them to farm. Almost all of the families in the dump were incomplete, with a father or mother, or some loving family member left behind to try and eek out some type of existence on barren or non-existent farmland. Many were trying to send money home from their meager earnings.

Somai Chun, the mother of four children, looked to be in her seventies, but was only in her late forties. Her tiny body was wracked with pains and fever. Since the seizure of their land, her husband remained in the province, seeking what work he could find while she and the children all worked full time gathering trash. Neither she nor her children could read or write. Together they could earn about 3,000 to 4,000 riel per day (just about $1.00 US).

The people working the dumps lived in small shacks, made of scrap tin and irregular bits of wood and plastic. Rent on a shack, with a single electric light bulb, ran 30,000 Riels per month. If the tenants couldn't afford to pay monthly, the daily rate was 1,500 Riels, with no electricity. The water available to them came directly from the garbage fields. It was greasy and emitted a nauseous odor. The food was no better. Anything that came in contact with the fetid air of the garbage dump was instantly contaminated.

A man named Yan invited us to his small hut, where eight people slept in a space about one meter by one and a half meters. He told me that he had moved to the dumps five years ago, brining his four children and his wife with him. With the whole family working, they could earn 4,000 to 5,000 Riels per day. He hated for his family to drink the filthy dump water so he bought bottled water when he could. But at 2,000 Riels per bottle, it was too expensive to drink all of the time.

Neighbors gathered around to see the rich well-fed foreigner and his well-off driver, who had come to photograph their suffering. I asked Yan what sort of health problems he and his family had experienced and suddenly the entire crowd burst out in rapid fire Khmer, rattling off symptoms, including diarrhea, headaches, joint pains, skin lesions, eye infections, fever, heart problems, respiratory ailments...The list went on and on.

An aged woman named Yosee Mon barely parted the crowd and spoke right to my face. "If you want to see something, come to my house." As wretchedly as the others lived, Yosee Mon was even worse off. Apparently, when land near the dump was encroached, flood pumps were redirected to be used as irrigation for commercial farming projects. Now, when it rained, which was every day, at this time of year, the dump flooded. Yosee Mon's shack was underwater three months of the year. A small boy waded out into the water, as if to show me the way to the shack. But try as I might, I couldn't follow. The thought of stepping into that putrid water made my stomach queazy. And I was wearing hiking boots. Most of the garbage dwellers were bare foot or wearing cheap flip flops.

Yosee Mon told us that she was all alone. Her children and her husband had long since died. She was often too ill to work, but had to, or there would be no food at all. Each day she earned enough for her rent, plus one thousand riels. Of this excess, she used 500 for food, and saved the other 500 to buy medicine at the end of each month. "Medicine is expensive," she complained. "And in Cambodia, most of it is fake."

That human beings are entitled to a certain standard of living is an axiom to us who come from the land of plenty. We take it as given that people have the right to clean water and clean food and air. We also believe that they are entitled to a fair wage for their labor. But beyond these material needs, human beings have a right to dream, to hope and pray for a better future. In the black cloud of despair, which clung to the garbage dumps of Stung Meanchey, I had just about given up hope of finding a silver lining. Thank God, I stumbled onto a bright, thirteen year old boy named Soah, who was the leader of a group of eight children who only worked half days in the dumps, so they could pay their school tuition. They were all small for their age, and still in the second grade, but each day at 12:30 they stopped work to attend school. Soah and his friends were the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, one of them will make it all of the way through school, find a decent job, and end the cycle of suffering for his family.

Soah, one child from hundreds, has some minimal chance of survival. If this is what passes for good news, then where are we as a society?

Sameth gave notebooks and pens to Soah and his friends to aid their studies. We handed out as many 1,000 riel notes as we could. But in the end, what good had we done? They would eat for a day. But people are entitled to eat for a lifetime.

Writer Bio, Antonio Graceffo

Originally from New York City, Antonio spent much of his childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. He spent seven years in the United States Military, in both the Army NG and the US Merchant Marines. Antonio is fluent in German, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese. He holds diplomas from Tennessee State University, University of Mainz, Germany, Trinity College, England, Heriot Watt University, Scotland, Universidad Latina, Costa Rica, as well as advanced degrees in business and Taxation from various universities in the United States. Antonio has studied and competed in martial arts and boxing for over twenty-five years, and has studied at the Shaolin Temple, in Mainland China. He works as a full time adventurer and writer, and currently lives in Taiwan.

Antonio's writing has appeared in the following publications: Escape Artist, Travel in Taiwan, Taiwan Ho, Travelmag (UK), Good Morning Chiang Mai, Travellers Impressions, The Chiang Mai Mail, Marco Polo, The Huahin Observer, Centered on Taipei, The Pattaya Trader, Life Style Taiwan, Canoe (Canada), Views Unplugged, Kung Fu Magazine, Yellow Times, Bike China, Small Boat Forum, Holiday Times (Thailand), Writing World, All Things Global, The Write Market, The Rose and Thorn, Blueberry Press, The Elizabethton Star, Go Nomad, Close Quarters Combat, Hack Writers, Go World, Bike League of America, Martial Arts Planet, The Travel Rag, Black Belt Magazine, The Bristol Herald Courier, Radical Adventures, The Investment Advisor, I Soldi, America Oggi, The Italian Tribune, Pagina Uno, The Italian Voice, Tales of Asia, Buddha Fist, and Canoe (CA)

Antonio's book about his studies at the Shaolin Temple, "The Monk From Brooklyn," has been accepted by GOM Publishing, and will be available in 2004.

His book, "The Desert of Death on Three Wheels" is currently under review for publication, in 2004.

His book, "Adventures in Formosa," will be published in Taiwan, in June of 2004.

Contact the author at: antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

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