Knee deep in garbage,Kong Siehar, 14, combs through giant mounds of rubbish for tin cans, plastic bags and other recyclable goods. It is one of the saddest sights in Phnom Penh, a sprawling 100-acre garbage dump where trash fires burn and plumes of black smoke choke the air with toxic gases.
'I'm looking for something good, something I can sell,'' the boy said one day as he poked his stick in a small mound, strewn with crushed milk cartons, detergent and condoms. ''I know it's difficult work, but I want to help my family. I need to help my family.''
Children toil for about 50 cents a day here at the Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump. It is perilous work. The waste is soggy, and huge bulldozers rumble through here, dumping pile upon pile. The children show up at local health clinics with rashes, infections, cuts and bruises.
Trudging through Stung Meanchey I come to realize, ''This is the closest thing to hell on earth I've ever seen."
When a vehicle -- any vehicle -- crosses into the dump site, the children fling their bags of tin cans in front of the wheels, hoping to crush their cans to increase the bag space.
Many of the children here were born into impoverished families that moved to the area from the countryside after the end of Pol Pot's murderous rule. Instead of finding urban fortunes, many of them settled in a slum that was erected along the rim of Stung Meanchey, a dump infested with flies that gravitate to the leeching refuse, the dregs of a nation.
About 10,000 people live in the slum that borders Stung Meanchey. Their village, Preak Torl, a cluster of plywood shacks, clings to the dump's edge. Fumes from sewage and burning garbage fill the air. Pigs forage in the village's dirt lanes.
Rith Preun, a girl of 12 who still works at the dump, is trying to earn money to pay off her parents' debt.
She wears a stained white blouse and a pair of soiled long pants. Her sandals are too big, and her hair, which bobs down to her shoulders, is tucked under a dusty, purple knit hat that protects her eyes from the scorching sun.
She carries a metal pick to help her poke through the garbage, and a white burlap sack that she uses to collect her recyclable goods. ''I've been working here for three years,'' she said. Stitched to her pants waszap a Winnie-the-Pooh patch.My other Cambodia posts