She was 17 years old and the main source of income for her family. But last week Chantha Sreymao was killed in an accident on Stung Meanchey – Phnom Penh’s garbage dump.
Always eager to make money for her family, she ran too close to the garbage truck. Suddenly a large garbage bin fell off the truck and hit her head.
She would have survived if her parents could afford medicine. But they had no money. Three hospitals refused to treat her.
I attended her funeral today.
Hardly anytime in my life have I seen as much human suffering as on Stung Meanchey, Phnom Penh’s main garbage dump.
A few hundred families make their living from sorting through the fresh garbage. It is extremely dangerous work. Garbage is continuously burning, spreading poisonous gases, hygiene is non-existent, diseases are spreading rapidly and the smell of course is very unpleasant, to put it mildly.
- But we have no choice, Kim Khorn, Chantha Sreymao’s mother, told me. They own no land they can use for farming and know of no other source of income.
But last Wednesday ended in a tragedy.
17 year old Sreymao had always be the best garbage scavenger among them. On average she managed to bring in almost 2 dollars every day, more than half of the family’s total income.
- She wanted to continue working so that her younger brother and sisters could go to school, the mother said.
Always eager to get to the best pieces of garbage first she ran too close to a garbage truck. Suddenly a garbage bin fell off the truck and hit Sreymao in the head. Parts of her skull was broken.
She was immediately rushed to the nearest hospital by the truck driver.
- The doctor said she would survice if given the right treatment. But that would cost USD 250. We did not have that money, the mother said.
They enquired at two other hospitals as well, but noone would treat Sreymao for free.
The next day she died.
Today was the ceremony marking the seventh day after her death. Monks had been invited to say prayers and the nearest family were kneeling in front of them to take part. Friends and neighbors appeared to show their solidarity.
For Kim Khorn and Seng Chantha it is a double tragedy. Not only have they lost one of their six children, but also half the income of the family is gone.
- It will be very tough for us now, and I don’t even know how I will pay for the funeral, the mother said.
She told me of a depressing life, to a large extent connected to the difficult work they have. Her husband is suffering from memory loss and she has stomach problems. All the children are experiencing diarrhea on a regular basis.
The family lives in a small hut of about 3 by 3 meters built by garbage found on the dump. It is located just a few meters from Stung Meanchey. They have no electricity and no water. Neither does the small scavenger village have a toilet – people do their necessary errands wherever they find a suitable spot.
After the funeral I went over to a nearby school run by a NGO. The supervisor, So Phalla, cried when she talked about Sreymao and how she had died.
- She was such a gentle and obedient girl, Phalla said.
Sreymao was not the first child to duy. During the last 10 years So Phalla know of at least 5-6 children who have died in similar accidents on the garbage dump.
- The living conditions for the scavengers are terrible, and they have numerous health problems. We are talking about diarhea, malria, dengue, sore throats and lung problems. There is no sense of hygiene. As you have seen there are flies all over and people go for toilet everywhere. Diseases are spreading very easily, she said.
I will write more from Stung Meanchey in Cambodia Tales later.