Inside an office of a local NGO, they sit in a semi-circle. Their bodies are hunched and their eyes are glued to a television screen playing a Bollywood movie. After watching it for a good minutes, one of them gets up and presses a button on the television set. The picture changes, a cartoon show is playing now. Excited, they giggle.
These children are Mirdaat, Pirdaat, Sanaullah, Azizullah and Jinara. They are all Afghans, between the ages of four and six. They hunt garbage — paper, metal and plastic — for a living. They are on a break right now, they say, “to pass some time until the heat subsides,” referring to the glaring sun outside.
But for these children, to watch television is to indulge in a guilty pleasure. Despite this, they leave their rug sacks on the ground floor of the building, so that the Seth — their employer — thinks they are busy working. Meanwhile, they sneak up to the third floor, where the ‘magic box’ sits.
“This is the work of Satan. It is Haram,” exclaims a wide-eyed Mirdaat. “Where there is television one cannot pray,” he says, without much glancing away from the screen.
Their Seth has fed them this information: aside from being their employer he is also their guardian away from home. Their families, who live at Khyber Chowk, only visit them once in 15 days. They live at the ‘Dera’: a place where there are no washing facilities and cardboard sheets are used as makeshift beds.
Television, however, is not the only thing Haram for them; blood screening and polio drops come in the same league.
“Pashtun blood is honourable. We do not give our blood to anyone. You will just give it to America,” one of them says.
Another strongly believes that “polio drops will cause our generation to be wiped out. It is an American conspiracy, you see!”
One cannot help but link these beliefs to the May 2 raid, in which a polio campaign funded by the CIA was used as a front to capture Osama bin Laden, the CIA’s “most wanted man”.
Regardless of what motivates these judgments, one thing is for certain: the repercussions of such beliefs can be extremely dangerous.
In the absence of safety masks or gloves, the children stay exposed to potentially harmful medical waste such as used syringes. Any cuts or abrasions that they receive during scavenging usually go ignored and are, at best, tied up with strings that they find in the garbage.
“You take a string, you tie it around the area where it is bleeding and you unwind it till the bleeding stops,” says one.
As he explains his self-taught remedy, he shakes his right hand with a jerk as if he is unwinding a chord in thin air.
Studies by WHO indicate that a person who experiences one needle stick injury from a needle used on an infected source patient has risks of 30 percent, 1.8 percent, and 0.3 percent of being infected with Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, respectively.
Fortunately, there are elements in the Afghan community that are working with civil society to create awareness about this problem.
Abdullah Bukhari, an elder at an Afghan camp near Sabzi Mandi, denies that this attitude is prevalent within the local Afghan community.
“We are well aware of the health concerns of our people. If a polio drive faces any kind of restrictions their health workers are free to contact me. I will personally accompany them to ensure that their campaign proceeds unhindered,” he explains.
However, he says that the prevalence of diseases that spread via contact with medical waste is a grim reality of their life to which there is no alternative.
“There are no schools the children can go to. No parent will send his son to pick garbage willingly; it is abject poverty and hopelessness that causes this.”
Though they live without even basic necessities, these children still have dreams and hopes for their future. They fantasise of “flying a fighter jet one day and killing the Seth at their Dera”.