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Orphan boy lives in garbage dump

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  • Orphan boy eats discarded food to survive
  • Biological mother gave him away
  • Boy part of refugee community in Thai garbage dump
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By Dan Rivers
CNN
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Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind events. Dan Rivers, CNN's Bangkok, Thailand, correspondent, writes about an unforgettable encounter with a boy in Thailand.

(CNN)--He doesn't know how old he is, but he thinks he's 7. His name is Khin Zaw Lin. He's lived in a garbage dump virtually his entire life.

Khin Zaw Lin lives in a Thai garbage dump with only his adopted mother and his toy gun to protect him.

I find Lin walking in a festering landscape of rotting food, plastic bags and junk at the Mae Sot garbage dump in Thailand near the Thai-Myanmar border. His parents are long gone. His home is a makeshift shelter made from salvaged bags, cloth and wood.

Lin is one of about 300 refugees in the dump who survive on other people's trash. Many are children. Some are women with babies.

Their daily routine follows the same pattern: They mill about the dump, waiting for the next truck to arrive, hoping for enough discarded food to get them through the day.

Lin pokes through the rubbish with a machete. He says he collects bottles and plastic for three cents a sack. He shows me his feet, which were filthy and ribbed with cuts.

He tells me through an interpreter that he can't afford shoes. He walks barefoot through the treacherous landscape.

My assistant told me about Lin's home while he was researching another story on the border area in Myanmar, the country once known as Burma. I found it hard to believe at first, but I was curious. I persuaded my camera crew to make the six-hour drive from Bangkok.

When we arrive at the dump, people are afraid of us. We'd been told there are orphans living at the dump, but people are wary. They think we are there to take away the orphans or ask for bribes.

I tell them I want to help, and I am eventually directed to Lin. He greets me with a soft, hoarse voice. But he's all energy and purpose when he resumes plucking bottles from the mountain of trash.

A recycling firm offers the closest thing to steady employment for Lin and his family. It buys what bottles and plastics Lin and others salvage.

Lin gives the money to his adopted mother. She tells me that Lin's biological mother gave him to her in Myanmar when he was a baby because she couldn't cope with the responsibility.

Life under the military junta in Myanmar can be brutal. The country's economy is collapsing, and torture and rape under the country's military regime is commonplace. Lin's new mother decided to flee to Thailand in search of a better life. She found a garbage dump instead.

Still, she says scavenging for food in the dump is actually an improvement on her previous life.

As I listen to Lin's story, a question keeps going through my mind: How can a 7-year-old spend his entire childhood in this squalor? Video Watch as Lin and others root through the dump »

Perhaps it's because Lin is invisible -- he doesn't have a passport or papers. He is part of special group of refugees from Myanmar that don't officially exist.

The United Nations established refugee camps in Thailand for those who flee Myanmar, but the camps are reserved only for victims of political persecution. Refugees fear if they enter a refugee camp, they'll be classified as migrant workers and deported.

As a result, these refugees are trapped in the garbage dump -- not enough money to go elsewhere and no prospects back home.

I thought I had become accustomed to the grinding poverty I had encountered in parts of Asia. I've met my fair share of children who are denied the luxury of hope. But Lin's story angers me. I feel close to losing all objectivity.

Near the end of my meeting with Lin, I ask his adopted mother if she, and Lin, would ever escape the rubbish dump.

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Her answer is as hard as the world she and Lin inhabit.

"Never." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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