Dili, East Timor – Smouldering fires. Haphazard explosions. Malnourished children. The disintegration of law and order, and the absence of social services.

In 1999, images such as these sparked widespread public anger around the world and the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force to East Timor after anarchy erupted following the country’s independence referendum on leaving Indonesia.

But nearly two decades after peace was restored in East Timor nothing much has changed at the Tibar landfill near the capital Dili, where rubbish scavengers as young as eight years old eek out a living in unimaginable conditions.

The unregulated dumping ground for most of Dili’s garbage – including lethal asbestos and untreated hospital waste – the seven-acre site set in the belly of a steep valley is an environmental and public health catastrophe.

According to World Health Organization, “about 100 tonnes of hazardous wastes are produced every year in Dili from healthcare activities alone. As there is no centralised treatment or disposal facility available for such waste, they are quite often disposed [of] with municipal waste in Tibar”.

Smoke in your eyes
The first thing that strikes visitors at the Tibar landfill are wafts of acrid black smoke released by fires set by scavengers to melt plastic from products such as washing machines and chairs that can then be sold as scrap metal.

“The smoke really surprised me. It’s surreal – a 24-seven smouldering heap,” says Chris Kaley, a tourist from Australia who visited the landfill with Bruce Logan, the Australian co-owner of Dili’s Beachside Hotel.

“I come here once or twice a week to dump rubbish. I also bring any of our guests who are interested in seeing how the other half live,” Logan says. “I call it the ‘stop-your-winging tour’ because coming here gives you a reality check about the trivial things people complain about in Australia.”

The moment Logan parks his utility vehicle, a group of 20-odd scavengers dressed in torn filthy rags raid the bags of rubbish stacked on his vehicle’s tray.

Among them is Domingos, a 61-year-old man working at the landfill for six months. “The valuable things are bottles and cans,” he says. “If I collect a big pile of cans, I can sell it for $1.”

There are also a number of children in the group, including an eight-year-old girl named Vanya who lives just outside the dump. She says she has been working here all her life.

“I like it here because I can be with my parents and friends,” she says.

Vanya claims she attends school, but when asked why she isn’t there at that moment she does not reply.

Bio, an 11-year-old boy caked in filth and grime, also claims he studies “in the afternoon”, though it’s hard to imagine how he could attend class in such a filthy condition. At that very moment, an aerosol can concealed in a burning heap behind the two children explodes, emitting an ear-piercing roar. Translator Rosentina Borges de Araujo and this reporter flinch with fright, while Bio and Vanya only smile.

No outside help
On the edge of the valley, we speak to Magdalena, a 70-year-old woman working at the landfill since 2006, who sleeps under a corrugated iron sheet supported by four short posts.

Her shanty conflicts with information offered by an employee of the sanitation department working onsite who said on condition of anonymity, “it is not allowed for people to live inside” the landfill. He’s also the only individual interviewed at the site who claims to earn a living wage – albeit a paltry sum of US$150 per month.

On the other end of the spectrum, Magdalena claims to earn no income at all despite efforts to sell scrap metal for US$2 per pile. “I don’t make any money,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I sold anything.”

Magdalena says the government doesn’t offer any kind assistance to scavengers at Tibar, but that a number of NGOs have come here over the years to offer jobs on the outside. “I never got one,” she says. “Only some other people did.”

London-based Small Steps Project is among the many NGOs that have tried – and apparently failed – to make a difference at Tibar.

According to the group’s website, it previously distributed food, water and shoes to 130 children living in the area, and assisted “two large families who desperately needed food, cooking tools, cutlery and plates”. But the programme is “no longer active”.

The Ryder Cheshire Foundation, another NGO, previously provided “medical support for emergencies on the site”. But there is no evidence of healthcare at Tibar today.

“I am sick. We are all sick. We have coughs,” says rubbish scavenger Maria. “When it hurts we go to the hospital to get medicine. Then we come back to work.”

Adds Aliso, a 55-year-old man working at Tibar since 2004. “I am sick all of the time from the smoke. I have a cough. During the day it’s okay but it hurts more at night.”

Making the best of it
Despite the dangerous and unprofitable nature of rubbish scavenging at Tibar, many of those who work here claim they are satisfied with their lot.

“I like my job because no one bosses me around,” says the sanitation department employee.

The scavenger Domingos adds: “This is our place. We help each other. We collect food for pigs. Sometimes, we also find treasure buried here.”

“It may look like a war-zone but I did not feel an extreme sense that the people here were helpless,” says Chris Kaley from Australia. “Somehow they all survive.”

Masa Oki is a truck driver from Dili dumping rubbish at the site. “This is their habit. It’s not for us to say if it’s good or bad. I think it would be difficult to get them to leave this place.”

But the World Health Organization says improvements are required.

“Institutional arrangements for solid waste management in Dili need strengthening with necessary logistics and manpower support. Dumping site at Tibar needs an urgent upgrading from the current crude dumping to a controlled tipping situation.”