They are everywhere and nowhere: Going about their filthy business mostly unseen, completely disregarded and expect little – perhaps a cuff on the ear – from the extremely few people who do, for one reason or another, happen to notice their existence. And, sadly, to the vast majority of them, a smile from a stranger means trouble with a capital ‘T’.

They are the legions of children struggling to survive by scavenging through any rubbish - be it toxic or otherwise dangerous. And mostly they are filthy, ragged, tatterdemalion little creatures with the weight of a very nasty world engrained. Deeply, in the dirt on their faces and engrained in the obnoxious filth packed tightly beneath their broken fingernails they don’t turn and flee on well intentioned contact with another human being. The smiles which suddenly light up their older than old young faces brighten up even the darkest of days. 

The vast majority of these children appear, from personal research, to be of Afghan decent: Some have parents, some don’t and some scavenge alone, others in ‘packs’ all depending on whether they are fighting to exist in rural or urban areas.

Some of them migrate to cooler northern areas during the summer months, following the tourist trail and, quite literally, doing much to clean up the garbage, edible and otherwise, carelessly thrown away by visitors who think absolutely nothing of ‘desecrating’ natural places and, when temperatures begin to drop in the autumn and the number of tourists declines, the scavenger children migrate down to the plains where the huge population creates thoughtless mountains of garbage on a daily basis.

These children, there are literally millions of them and, as mentioned, many are Afghan, others Pathans displaced by a variety of ‘events’ and others just simply ‘are’ as they have no idea to which ethnic background they ‘belong’ – if any. They really are the disposed of this world. And, right here in Pakistan, where at least 423,000 die before they reach the age of just 5 years, they are legion and very few people give them a second thought people would certainly never stoop to help them in any way at all although, it is true to say, some private philanthropists and NGO’s (None Governmental Organizations), do try. 

Naim, 13 years old and lucky enough to have a father – although he rarely sees him, is one such child and, although he claims to be from Logar province in Afghanistan, the only place he has ever lived in is Pakistan where – miracles do happen. He does, occasionally, attend a small school in Kashmiri Bazaar a few miles outside Murree.

His life is largely spent combing the surrounding countryside for saleable, recyclable, wearable or edible ‘stuff’ that others have thrown away. He has to sort through sacks of gunge on the rooftop where, in a cobbled together ‘hut’ he lives around the year, simply piling on more clothes and more grubby bedding when winter temperatures bite – as they most certainly do. His father spends much of his time down in Rawalpindi, selling on whatever he can, the meager amount, rarely being sufficient to make ends meet. Despite this, Naim does, on the odd days that he does go to school, wear a reasonably clean uniform which he got from goodness knows where.

He was dour, suspicious and unfriendly when, just yesterday, I climbed the filthy stairs to ‘his’ rooftop in search of recyclable glass jars. Once he understood that I wasn’t a threat – after I addressed him with the traditional Dari greeting, his eyes first widened in disbelief and then he quite spontaneously smiled and the sight was beautiful to see.

Naim would, he says, like more out of life than this which is why, when he can and with his illiterate fathers blessing, he attends school if he can. This is difficult when his father is down in ‘Pindi on ‘business’ but still he tries and dreams of an improved life. A life in which he and his father can live in a real house, or at least in a room which is warm in the winter, cool in summer, contains more than heaped up garbage and in which there is ample to eat at least once each and every single day. He places his trust in ‘Allah’ and hard work that this dream will come true and, the determined look on his face, tells me that, in time, it will.

For now though, with snow already forecast, he will burn un-saleable, combustible garbage, to keep warm, not yet understanding the toxicity of the fumes he inevitably breathes and will, when he can, eat cheaply, whatever one of the local ‘restaurants’ can, either at reduced price or free if possible, supply as all he can make for himself is tea.

Luckier than most scavenger children – he is, at least way past 5 years old and still alive. His future, bleak as it may seem, will, due to sheer determination and a little help along the way, be an improvement on the now that this boy-man exists in right now.

When you next open your eyes wide enough to acknowledge that such children are human beings not just ‘things’ to be derided and treated like filth – smile at them too – it can change their day.

The writer has authored two books titled The Gun Tree:  One Woman’s War, The Parwan Wind - Dust Motes and lives  in Bhurban.

Emalil : zahrahnasir@hotmail.com