Even Picking Up Trash Is a High Risk in Baghdad

Even Picking Up Trash Is a High Risk in Baghdad
October 13th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Even Picking Up Trash Is a High Risk in Baghdad

Even Picking Up Trash Is a High Risk in Baghdad
Media: The New York Times
Byline: Michael Luo
Date: 13 October 2006

Sabah al-Atia sometimes calls home every 10 minutes when he is working to
let his wife know he is still alive. After all, his job is one of the most
dangerous in the city.

Mr. Atia is a trash collector.

In a city where a bomb could be lurking beneath any heap of refuse, and
where insurgents are willing to kill to prevent them from being discovered,
an occupation that pays only a few dollars a day has become one of the
deadliest. Most of the 500 municipal workers who have been killed here since
2005 have been trash collectors, said Naeem al-Kaabi, the city's deputy

"When we are working, we are working nervously," said Mr. Atia, 29, who
started collecting trash during Saddam Hussein's rule. "We are carrying our
souls in our hands."

The danger to trash collectors is at the root of one of the most visible
symptoms of collapse in Baghdad. Garbage is ubiquitous, especially in
dangerous neighborhoods, blanketing street medians, alleys and vacant lots
in stinking, fly-infested quilts. Trash collection has joined a long list of
basic services, including electricity, water and sewerage, that have slipped
badly in many places since the American-led invasion.

Trash collectors have frequently refused to venture into especially
problem-plagued Baghdad neighborhoods, including Dora, Adhamiya, Jamiya and
Ghazaliya, where spasms of violence have often been the norm. Or they have
dashed in and out when the danger ebbed, hauling away what they could.

Insurgents have taken to hiding roadside bombs amid the refuse. Trash
collectors sometimes stumble upon them and notify the police, but other
times they are not so lucky.

To protect the bombs set for American and Iraqi convoys, insurgents have
killed scores of trash collectors.

Most of the workers are Shiites, Mr. Atia said. They usually have few other
options because of their limited schooling. Because they work in the open,
he said, they are easy targets for Sunni extremists. Mr. Atia used to
decorate the inside of his trash van with the images of Shiite clerics, but
he took them down.

"We are afraid," he said.

Beyond the challenges posed by the violence, the city is woefully ill
equipped to deal with the waste of six million people. It has just 380
working trash compacting trucks, compared with 1,200 before the fall of the
Hussein government, Mr. Kaabi said. Most of the vehicles were destroyed or
lost in the looting that seized this capital after the invasion. He
estimated that Baghdad needed 1,500 garbage trucks.

With help from the Iraqi government and private organizations, the city is
looking to acquire several hundred trucks, he said, and substantially
upgrade its facilities for processing waste.

"We want to make Baghdad a civilized and bright city," Mr. Kaabi said.

But any tour of the capital demonstrates it has a long way to go to reach
that goal. In Arasat, an upscale neighborhood, trash heaps are piled waist
high in front of an electronics store in a street off the main road. In
Saidiya, a middle-class neighborhood in western Baghdad, 10 piles of random
garbage dot an area barely a quarter-mile square.

"I never see the trash collectors," said Aimen Amjad, 30, a shop owner in
Saidiya. "If they do come, they come once in a blue moon."

Ola Sami, whose third-floor apartment balcony overlooks a large neighborhood
dumping ground, said she was worried about the spread of disease.

"Forget about how badly it smells," she said. "My son got infected because
of the piles. The area is like a barn."

Even in Masbah, a wealthy central Baghdad neighborhood that was once home to
many of the foreign embassies in Iraq, mounds of refuse have accumulated in
front of elegant homes and gardens.

"If we try to sit in the garden, we cannot because of flies and mosquitoes,"
said Muhammad Amin, 45, who lives next to one of the larger heaps of trash
on his block. "We cannot even sit in the garden to enjoy the weather."

It had been months since trash collectors, who went door to door during Mr.
Hussein's rule, had come down his street, he said, because of concrete
barriers blocking the road.

In Mansour, the troubled western Baghdad district where municipal officials
have struggled to keep trash from accumulating, a district councilman who
would give only his last name, Naji, said he had fewer than half the trucks
he needed. As a result, each garbage crew has to handle a much larger area
than it should, which means the trucks make fewer trips through each
neighborhood and the trash heaps grow.

Meanwhile, side streets are often ignored because the district does not have
enough small garbage trucks that can squeeze down the alleys.

But security is by far the larger issue, Mr. Naji said. In dangerous areas
in the district, the main roads, where many people have taken to dumping
their trash, cannot be cleaned because roadside bombs are often hidden

Sadr City, the Shiite slum that was once notorious for its trash-strewn
streets, is one place where conditions have improved. In the past, residents
would often use the mounds of trash that dotted street medians as landmarks.
(Turn right at the fourth trash pile.)

But over the last few months, the area, which has been relatively free of
violence because it is dominated by the Mahdi Army, Moktada al-Sadr's
militia, has become cleaner. Municipal work crews now go daily to shovel
away trash dumped on the main roads. A median across a street from a busy
food market that used to be piled high with garbage was closed off by a
barbed-wire fence.

Still, it is hardly pristine. On a recent afternoon, children picked through
an expanse of trash off the main road leading into the neighborhood. Deeper
into the slum, near a fruit stand, rancid garbage lay in a wide ditch.

Usually just one garbage truck, with a driver and a worker, serves 20,000 to
30,000 people, said Satar Jabar, a district council member.

"It is not enough," he said.

In many places, a more profound change is needed, said Ali Hasan, a Mansour
District Council member who represents Washash, a poor neighborhood where
trash is a major blight. The fall of the government brought freedom, he
said, which some interpret to mean freedom to dispose their trash as they

"During the time of Saddam, people were afraid of authorities," Mr. Hasan
said. "But now people are not under anyone's control, and they don't have
the awareness to keep their neighborhood clean."

Mr. Hasan said he had became so exasperated that people were not throwing
their trash in bins, he assigned a person to each one, ordering them to
carry trash from every home to the metal bin. But the police later took away
the bins because of fears they could be hiding places for explosives, so the
idea collapsed.

The city government has tried educational campaigns, posters, even seminars
in schools and mosques to promote cleanliness. But in certain areas, only an
armed presence has helped. Since August, the American military, with its
Iraqi counterpart, has been conducting neighborhood sweeps of troubled
sections of Baghdad. Once areas are secured, trash removal by Iraqi crews is
among the first priorities.

The most recent statistics on the campaign contained a startling figure,
alongside others on houses searched and weapons seized: 7,107,536 cubic feet
of trash removed, about the size of the Hindenburg.

Muhammad Hasan was in charge of a crew of 40 working recently in Dora, one
of the first neighborhoods secured.

"As you can see, the workers are working without any threat from
insurgents," he said.

Before the Americans came through, trash collectors had not showed up for
months in some places, several Dora residents said. The situation has begun
to improve. At first, the main roads were cleared but the side streets
remained repugnant. Now even those are being shoveled clean.

Elsewhere in the city, however, the piles continue to grow.

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