At the very city limits of Lahore, where entry taxes are collected in tollbooths at the Ravi River crossing, some of the most polluted land in Pakistan is unofficially home to approximately 17,000 Afghan refugees. Beside the Saggian Bridge, a sprawling slum of ramshackle shelters blends with a landscape of dust covered rubbish. Pitching camp next to the city garbage dump in 1999, the marginalized community who escaped war in Eastern Afghanistan eat, sleep and pray on the landfill site. Bordered by water blackened with effluent from the factories upriver, the residents of Saggian have nowhere else to turn and no other means to survive outside the filth they live in.
At the heart of the squalor, camp elder Haji Asal Khan sits in the shade of a mud built hut, entertaining complaints one by one that he can do nothing about. From outside, the loud crashing of glass makes it hard to talk as a group of teenagers work away, picking out colored fragments from a deep pile of broken bottles with their cut, bare hands. As his eight year old son Hamidullah returns from home with his satchel, Haji Asal strokes his frizzy beard he looks down towards the floor, “We have a school here in the camp but it’s in danger of closing. There are only two teachers for three classes and one of them is an eighth grade student himself so the pupils will not progress much. Before the children used to study in six rooms but now the rent has not been paid so they have to sit out on the rooftop of a local factory. There is a complete lack of money, books and pencils and almost no incentive anymore for the parents to even send their children to school”.
“Two generations have grown up at Saggian Pul (bridge). When a child is born here they have only one destiny in life and that is to be in the rubbish. Whenever they reach the age when they can sling a sack over their shoulder, they start work in the dump collecting garbage. When they get a little older they are promoted to separating glass or laboring in the go-downs (depots). What they earn depends on how hard they work and what they can sell to the scrap dealers who come here”.
On the dirt road that skirts the bridge on its way to the landfill site, children chase after trucks, running in the path of their belching exhaust fumes. Heading down to the steep riverbank at dawn each morning, boys and girls as young as four years old trail oversized hessian sacks behind them on the ground. Standing back for a few minutes as the dumpsters shed their load, they compete with the flies to dive into the lorry’s stinking cargo. Small hands pick out scrap metal, paper, leather, drinks containers and anything plastic. Ignoring the whirring of machinery, the children risk their lives, darting around the machines as they grab feverishly at the best of what the city residents of Lahore have thrown away.Their infections and insect bites concealed under a layer of dirt, most of the children at Saggian’s dump have remained unwashed for days. With just a few points from which to access the unsafe ground water supply, no latrines and their shacks full of the rubbish they bring home each evening, disease at the refugee camp is rampant. Mothers complain of diarrhea and hepatitis, unable to seek even basic help for the ailments their children suffer from. Some have even watched their children die. “Children of ten years old here have paralysis. We don’t know why because we can’t identify the sickness and can’t afford to visit doctors. Accidents are of course frequent and many boys and girls get injured doing their work but we just have to get used to it”. Flattening cartons that her daughter collected yesterday, Gul Bibi sits out under a thick plume of toxic smoke in the harsh winter sun. Beyond the ragged purda that surrounds her tent, a five hundred meter high hill of garbage tumbles down with the wind into a pool of now rancid stagnant water. Working away quietly with her sisters-in-law, Gul Bibi is in mourning. Ten days after the death of her eldest child, she can do little else but to keep on sorting through bags of rubbish to distract her mind. “My fourteen year old son Baz Gul became really sick two weeks ago. He was complaining of pains in his stomach and abdomen and couldn’t stop vomiting. In the end we had to take him to hospital and he spent two nights there. The doctors tried really hard to save him but there was nothing they could do. Sixteen people have died altogether of dengue fever in the camp lately, both adults and children. We are surrounded by dirty water and although many people have come here and promised us help, it seems we Afghan people are forgotten”.
In each of the 1,200 households at Saggian, the residents dream of escape. Evicted over a decade ago from then official camps on the frontier, their status and rights as refugees have become increasingly eroded. No longer in a position to make choices, life under the bridge is still considered a better option than their home country.Young Afghans such as Khudadad continue to arrive in Lahore, hoping to find a better future. In a dingy shed at the go-down where he has spent the past year sleeping with twelve other boys, the fifteen year old stops to eat the lunch he has bought with his wages from a nearby canteen. Sent to Pakistan following successive droughts in northern Afghanistan, Khudadad is doing his best to support his family who have been plunged further into poverty, “My family desperately needs money. Several other boys from my village in Takhar have tried going to Iran but they’ve been deported from the border. If we could go to Europe we all would. There are no opportunities for us in Afghanistan or in Pakistan because there is constant insecurity. I can’t seem to get rid of death but I wish I could get away from this rubbish”.
Back at his hujra, Haji Asal sends his son out to work now that the school day has finished. Sipping weak green tea, he dreams of a way out for Hamidullah, “There is a trend in Afghanistan of sending our boys away to countries such as London or Europe but not from here. We can barely feed ourselves and so it’s impossible to pay the agents. In this camp if the youth had a way out they would leave but this place is just for helpless people”.