Homeless people are paid to give street-level tours of the city that weave its history with their own stories.
Editor’s note: The svalka was closed in 2007. A smaller dump was opened on the same landfill site where people continued to live.
At age 10, Yula had just one dream: to lead a normal life.
I first met Yula in 2000. She was one of the inhabitants of the “svalka” outside Moscow. This svalka, known simply by its Russian term for rubbish dump, was the largest landfill in Europe. It lay only 20km from the Kremlin, in Putin’s Russia, on the outskirts of the Russian capital – the city with the world’s third largest number of billionaires.
In 2000, I had been working with a volunteer group helping Moscow’s homeless children. Some of the young people that I met took me to the svalka for the first time.
I didn’t have a permit to visit the rubbish dump (it would have been impossible to obtain one anyway), so they taught me how to enter undetected.
Inside, I discovered a dystopian place where hazardous waste was dumped, heavy machinery constantly operated, and hundreds of wild dogs roamed around. Although no one “officially” lived there, it was home to an estimated 1,000 people: the most destitute of Russia’s underclass. This community was exploited by a local mafia, which ran illegal recycling centres. The landfill was like a country within a country: hidden from the external world, lawless, but with its own rules and codes.
Few organisations or people helped Moscow’s homeless children. Virtually no one came to the landfill to help its inhabitants. For the outside world, these people didn’t exist.
I wanted to help the landfill’s inhabitants – through medical assistance, for instance, which I have brought to them over the years – but also by chronicling their lives.
Yula’s parents had brought her to the landfill when she was 10, after their home was demolished. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother, Tania, had lost her job. Their neighbours told them about the dump, where food could be found and pennies earned.
Shortly after the family arrived, Yula’s father was detained in a prison for the homeless where he contracted tuberculosis. He died soon after his release. Tania became an alcoholic and Yula looked after her mother. Yula grew up quickly, in a world rife with poverty, despair and decay.
Although Yula was shy and didn’t speak often – not an easy protagonist to film – I was drawn to her. She was feisty, stubborn and fun; she was different from the other children.
Her home, this huge mountain of trash, almost 100 metres high and nearly two kilometres long on one side, was surrounded by a tall fence. Guards monitored it closely to keep intruders out.
The people who lived there worked as scavengers, sorting the rubbish which came from Moscow, collecting recyclable materials, such as bottles, metal, paper and plastic, for the “waste mafia”.
The workers earned just two rubles ($.03) per kilogramme of metal sorted, not the 78 rubles ($1.27) per kilo they could’ve earned outside. A bottle of fake vodka – a grain alcohol manufactured for industrial use – was the most common form of currency. The mafia paid the dump’s denizens with vodka.
This mafia posed a constant threat to the waste-pickers’ lives: if the dump’s inhabitants tried to work for a different trash overlord, they risked being beaten or killed. If they tried to remove goods from the landfill they risked execution. If they were killed, they disappeared into the rubbish for ever.
Bulldozers sometimes buried people alive. Women were frequently raped. Yet the police were never called; it was common knowledge that criminal investigations or ambulances weren’t welcome there. Corrupt police officers kept charity workers and ambulances out. On the rare occasions that the federal police did come, they burnt down huts and arrested people for living there illegally.
For most of the people who came to the svalka, this was their last stop before death. Most deaths occurred during the cold Russian winter, when storms swept across this mountain of waste. One winter, Yula counted almost 30 deaths in a week.
There, everyone was a doctor. People got sick, gave birth, and sometimes cut off their own limbs or toes when they froze in order to avoid gangrene.
Although life was grim, it also often brought out the best in people.
The landfill’s denizens generously shared their vodka with each other and opened their ramshackle sheds to shelter those who needed it.
Despite the misery that life had to offer, people strived for normality in the dump.
It was dangerous to film at the landfill. I stepped on nails and was lucky not to get sick. Once, I was able to fend off attacking dogs with pepper spray. I was caught and arrested numerous times by the dump’s security guards and the local police and was warned many times never to return. Twice my materials were destroyed. I managed to escape the dump’s security forces a number of times. Another woman journalist who came to film there wasn’t so lucky – both her camera and nose were broken.
But the people living there welcomed me warmly.
“We are like flies, like dogs, we are like roaches of society,” Olga, another protagonist in the film, told me.
I think my presence as someone from the world which had rejected them signalled the possibility to them that society could one day accept them again.
As a child, Yula played innocent games with the other children and with the toys found in the rubbish. She cracked jokes, listened to music and read magazines plucked from the trash. She listened to the radio to keep up with what was going on in the outside world.
She dyed her hair pink and wore makeup to look beautiful and glamorous and to briefly escape the dreariness of her life. All this – toys, clothes, makeup and hair dye – she’d find at the dump.
Yula once told me that the landfill used to be a source of hope for her.
“[It was] like the Pinocchio story: a field of wonder. There’s a pile of cookies here, a toy there.”
She explained that people came there after having nowhere else to go, and hoped for a better life but only ended up in misery.
“I lost everything here. I lost my mother [to alcoholism], my father, I lost all normal life here. Before it was a field of wonder, but now I see it is a field of fools,” she said as a teenager.
At 13, Yula had started drinking.
“It helps you forget that you had something in the past, maybe a normal life, and now you simply don’t have anything,” she told me.
The worst horror in the svalka was the rampant lack of hope. The place was like quicksand, dragging people deeper and deeper into despair – those who are sucked into this vortex of homelessness almost never managed to escape it. But Yula refused to live and die like so many others there.
At 16, Yula realised that she would never be able to have a normal life outside the svalka unless she found the strength to leave this vicious cycle of poverty, addiction, and hopelessness.
The first step was to find work outside the svalka. She learnt how to cut metal parts and make fences for the cemetery. The work was hard and dirty and badly paid, but with this job, she took her first step outside the rubbish dump.
She and her boyfriend Andrey – who was brought to the dump by his mother, who ended up dying there – managed to find cheap accommodation. He and Yula supported each other as best as they could.
Yula stopped drinking. She found seasonal work despite her lack of formal education.
And, just as Yula turned 21, she got one lucky break: she discovered that she was eligible for a government subsidy for housing because her father’s apartment was demolished.
She got her own apartment and on April 25, 2014, she gave birth to a baby girl, Eva.
What once seemed like an impossibility to Yula had become a reality, albeit not an easy one.
The apartment Yula owns is 300km away from Moscow and both she and Andrey can only find small jobs in the city. They travel between work and home, leaving Eva in the care of Yula’s mother, who now lives with them. The economic sanctions on Russia don’t make it easier – there is less work than there used to be and their wages have dropped.
In July this year, Eva was diagnosed with a very serious disease – osteomyelitis – an extremely rare bone marrow infection, which has required several surgeries and constant medical attention. Eva now awaits more surgery and Yula has stopped working to care for her daughter full-time. Andrey struggles to find work.
The couple are barely able to pay the bills, let alone cover the mounting medical expenses for their daughter. Yula worries about losing her daughter, who remains seriously ill. She worries too about having to give up her apartment and being forced to return to the dump.
She told me she never thought “normal life would be so hard”.
As she faces another struggle, I think about what Yula told me when she just got her own apartment, when I asked her what she thought was unique about her.
“I don’t feel unique in any way …,” she had replied. “Well, perhaps in one way – if I am offered even the slightest opportunity, I will seize it and utilise it to the fullest.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
For more insights into Yula’s life please visit the film’s website.
Hanna Polak is a Polish documentary filmmaker. Her film The Children of Leningradsky (2004) was nominated for an Oscar and two Emmy Awards. She is an advocate for improving the lives of homeless and underprivileged children and is a found of the Russian NGO Active Child Aid.
Her film Something Better to Come is currently airing on Witness, Al Jazeera English.