Life and Death on a Mountain of Garbage

MANILA, The Philippines, JULY 18, 2000: Maria Luz Ochondra ran for her life, pursued by an erupting volcano of garbage that roared like a wounded giant, heaved like a tidal wave, then burst into flames as it buried the shantytown where she lived, along with her little boys Raymond, Ruel and Ryan.

''I thought it was the end of the world,'' she said. ''The smell was horrible. I thought I was going to choke. Everywhere it was mud and flames. Everything got dark.

''And I passed out. When I came to, there was light, and I thought, 'Thank God, I'm alive.' But then I realized that I only had one of my children, Bryan, the youngest. The others were dead.''

Loosened by a week of monsoon rains, the huge garbage mountain here -- the symbol of the nation's poverty -- had collapsed and smothered hundreds of squatters who made their livings picking through it with metal hooks for scraps of refuse.

Today, one week later, rescuers still dug through hundreds of tons of muck, working in one-hour shifts because of the rot of the soaking garbage, the poisonous gasses it emits and the stench of the decomposing bodies.


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About 200 bodies have been recovered. Residents estimate that up to four times that number may have died, though a complete toll will probably never be known.

The people here knew that they were living in danger. This was not the first garbage landslide that they had seen. But they say they had nowhere else to go, homeless migrants who shift from village to city, from one squatter colony to another, nibbling at the edges of society.

In a message of condolence, Pope John Paul II called the people here ''among the poorest in the world.''They are a living metaphor, the local parish priest said, the product of the overpopulation and urban migration that is a growing disaster for poor countries around the world.

''They are the waste of the waste, they are the leftovers,'' said the priest, the Rev. Joel Bernardo, who lives among them in this shantytown with the tragic name Promised Land. ''The next day after the avalanche they were back to work in the garbage. They had no choice. They had to live.''

One-third of the 74 million people in the Philippines fall below the poverty line, earning no more than $1 a day. For people like Mrs. Ochondra, life at the edge of the dump, with its steady income, can be considered success.

''All my children were born here,'' she said, all boys, from 7 to 1 1/2. The filth and the stench and the millions of flies that cover everything was the only life that they had known.

Today Mrs. Ochondra, 35, joined a group of survivors who arrive each day to watch the creaking backhoes in the hope that their relatives' bodies might be found. They still tremble when they tell their stories, and the sound of the collapsing garbage mountain echoes in their minds.

Like a plane landing, they say, like a clap of thunder, ''like a big wave of surf crashing over you, only it's not water -- it's garbage.''

People were running and screaming, ''Landslide, landslide!'' Some walked in circles in a daze. Cries for help could be heard from under the shifting muck. The methane in the garbage exploded into flame, ignited by cooking fires or broken electric lines.

Mrs. Ochondra's husband, Rogelio, 36, who was out buying bread, ran to look for his family. But his house, he said, was already ''embraced by garbage.''

''I saw my wife,'' he recalled, ''and I asked her, 'Where are our kids?' And she said, 'I wasn't able to save them, only Bryan.' ''

''Not even one more?'' he asked her.

The Promised Land is a real mountain, 50 feet high and covering 74 acres, the main dump for 10,000 tons of garbage produced in Manila every day. It began as a ravine, and the garbage was meant as landfill for a planned housing project.

But in 1994, when the government closed a famous dump known as Smoky Mountain as part of a beautification campaign, the garbage kept coming, and a new mountain began to grow here. Many Smoky Mountain scavengers moved here, too, skilled at their work and ready to accept its unpleasantness.

''There's always smoke, there's always fire, even when it rains,'' said Paz Calopez, who lives at the edge of the mountain. ''The garbage is always glowing, even at night, and you hear popping sounds. We think it's batteries exploding. It smells worse than a bathroom, especially when the bulldozers come through. Then you really smell the smoke. You cannot breathe. Your eyes water.''

And as the new mountain grew, a whole economy developed around it, with middlemen buying and reselling the salvaged scraps and shanty shops springing up to sell soap and shoes and bicycle parts and school supplies and ice cream.

''It's raw capitalism working here,'' Father Bernardo said. ''And it really generates money. Millions of pesos revolve through here every day.''

In a complex system, he said, the owners of junk shops specialize in particular commodities -- plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, copper wire, aluminum, glass, broken toys and bits and pieces of machinery. At the top of the hierarchy are those shops that have contracts with large enterprises, particularly hotels, to claim and recycle their garbage. The contractors prepay for those truckloads and control the scavengers who pick through them.

Most scavengers are poor farmers who have moved to the city for survival. ''Now they are like peasants in the cities,'' Father Bernardo said. ''Pockets of peasants in the slum. Urban peasants. And similarly they work for landlords, the middlemen who support them with cash advances and then put them in bondage, just the way they were in bondage to their landlords in the countryside.''

But as in the countryside, an even lower rung exists -- freelance scavengers who cannot pay or do not have the connections to work for the junk shops. They make their livings as gleaners, picking through what is left when the choice material is gone.

Some bold youngsters leap onto the trucks before they dump, snatching what they can and often suffering serious injury. They are known, Father Bernardo said, as ''jumpers.''

The trucks dump garbage around the clock, and it is in the deepest hours before dawn that the gleaners and the jumpers are most active.

Robert Gil C. Calopez, 15, has been a gleaner for five years, and he is proud of his ability to earn money.

''There's all sorts of stuff in there,'' he said. ''A lot of times, we find watches, and all they need is a battery and they start right up.''

The best thing he ever found, Roberto said, was an ink roller from an Epson printer. It earned him $3 at a junk shop, though he is sure that he could have gotten more.

Mr. Ochondra and his wife are both migrants from the island of Samar, one of the poorest areas in the country, and in their own way, they had lived a charmed life until now.

But now, he said, all he has in his life is his missing sons.

The bodies of Raymond and Ruel have been recovered and reburied. The body of Ryan is still somewhere under the garbage.

''I went back to where our house used to be,'' he said, ''and I promised my children: 'Don't worry. I'll try to get the three of you so you can be together.'

''I cannot sleep now. It's like I hear my sons calling: 'Papa, help me! Papa, help me!' You know, they used to play the Pokemon cards. What fun they had!''

Mrs. Ochondra said she could not stop worrying about her lost children. ''I know my sons miss me,'' she said. ''They can't really sleep well at night unless they're beside me.''

Looking back now, she said, her life seemed to be filled with premonitions of tragedy. She would wake at night and gaze at the faces of her children and smooth their pillows.

''At night during the summer, the mountain of garbage would just light up, and I would say to my husband: 'Look, it's like candles are burning,'' she said. ''It's like we are living in a cemetery.' ''

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