New Internationalist

The real Afghanis

Issue 340

The richest country in the world has the poorest in its sights – and suddenly the world has discovered a disaster already long in the making. The NI reports from inside Afghanistan just before 11 September; and on the treatment of refugees outside the country.

A third of the population of Afghanistan, more than seven million people, face starvation. Dominic Nutt has just returned from a country where he found impoverished farmers, not fanatics.

The village of Kanghozi: failed crops and dried-up wells.

Arbab Mahammad, 65, is the village elder of Barkhol, a medieval-looking settlement high in the hills of the Ghok pass in central Afghanistan. He is the wealthiest man in the village, but his tattered shalwar kameez, worn-through and threadbare, hints at the desperate times that have befallen both him and his isolated community.

‘Our crops are in bad condition,’ he says. ‘Only about 10 per cent of our wheat has survived. Normally we would have stocks to last us through the winter and have enough left over to plant for the next year.’

But now, after three years of severe drought and three failed harvests, the 560 people who live in Barkhol are down to their last few weeks of food.

‘We want to stay here, but we need help, and if we don’t get help we don’t know what will happen,’ says Mahammad, with a calm fatalism. ‘Soon the winter snows will come and we will be cut off and we will not be able to escape. We will stay here and, if it is God’s will, we will die.’

As the Western allies gather their forces, this is the real voice and the real fear of most Afghani people.

The UN-run World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that by November 5.5 million Afghanis will be entirely dependent on food aid. Latest UN figures indicate that 2.5 million people face starvation as a result of the current crisis – because food aid has now been cut off. An additional five million face starvation as a result of drought. That makes a total of 7.5 million people – a third of the population.

Until 11 September the WFP was distributing 25,000 tonnes of wheat a month across Afghanistan. But on 13 September, as its expatriate staff flew out, the release of foodstuffs to isolated villages stopped suddenly. No-one is sure when it will start up again.

I have just returned from Afghanistan after spending a month in the west and central provinces working for Christian Aid. The reality of life there is dramatically different from the image that has been portrayed in the aftermath of the attacks in the US.

Some 85 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers, living in small villages like Barkhol. Most have no newspapers, television sets or radios. There isn’t even a postal service. Few, if any, would ever have heard of the World Trade Center.

No-one I spoke to mentioned Osama bin Laden and I saw no sympathy for the Taliban. Their overwhelming concern is to find enough food for themselves and their families.

A sprawling camp of perhaps 150,000 people has sprung up outside Herat, Afghanistan’s second city in the west of the country, for those trying to escape the drought. Set on stones and dust, the camp runs for two miles along a rutted dirt track backed by arid hills. Along the road hundreds of men, women and children hold out begging hands to passing traffic.

The camp is called Maslakh. It means ‘slaughter’.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international medical charity, runs a feeding clinic here for undernourished children, and before the pull-out was treating 1,500 under-fives. MSF says that the child death-rate has increased dramatically over the past few months. In April only one of these young children died. In May, the figure shot up to 34 – by August, it stood at around 20.

If food aid to isolated communities dries up, there is expected to be a huge flood of people to this and other camps from the rural areas, causing yet more problems. But many will not even have that option because they simply cannot afford the cost of hiring trucks to take them to the camps.

One such village is Musjed-e-Negar, in the mountainous province of Ghor. Abdul Aziz, 70, is its mullah, or Islamic priest. He explains the position there calmly, but starkly.

‘We have one month’s food left here. When that runs out we will have to go to the camps,’ he says. ‘But we don’t have any money to hire trucks, so we will have to walk. It could take between 20 days and a month to get there. We will have to beg food on the way, and many of us could die.’

All the village springs have dried up, he says. One well remains, but the water is contaminated – five children have caught diseases and died in the past month after drinking it. Many others are ill.

Aziz adds: ‘If I go to the camp at my age, I don’t think I’ll ever see my village again. I have lived here all my life. But I will have no choice if the food runs out.’

And that was before aid workers pulled out. Now the threat of military strikes has forced foreign aid workers to leave, bringing a halt to urgent humanitarian work. No food is getting into the country and stockpiles will be used up in a matter of weeks.

Behind these shocking statistics lie real people, like seven-year-old Samar Gula and her brother Jauma Gul, aged eight.

They live in the village of Kanghozi where 80 per cent of the community’s food crop has failed, leaving them only a few weeks’ reserves. All their wells have long since dried up and villagers have to trek for six kilometres over hilly terrain to fetch their daily water.

It was the infected drinking water in Kanghozi which killed Samar Gula and Jauma Gul’s father and brother. The children’s mother died shortly after, from a suspected heart problem. The orphans are small for their age and have swollen stomachs – a sign of malnutrition. They are being looked after by their father’s cousin Shiraqa, a 70-year-old agricultural labourer who also has to provide for his wife and their four daughters.

‘The children’s father got cholera and they took him to a clinic, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for treatment, so he died,’ Shiraqa explains. ‘He died a year ago. The children’s brother died six months ago, when he was seven.

‘The children are very young and they ask me: “Where is my mother and where is my brother?” I tell them directly: “Your father and mother have died and your brother also.” Sometimes they cry. When their brother died the villagers helped them make a funeral shroud for him and people came together for the funeral and to bury him. The whole village attended. I have no idea what to do. I will probably leave the village and find casual work so I can buy some food.

The children are very young and they ask me: "Where is my mother and where is my brother?"

‘Now I cut bushes and take them to the market to sell. From the money I make I buy food for all of us. I don’t have any land of my own. I make 50,000 to 100,000 afghanis, which is enough money to feed my family for about two days. But it takes up to 10 days to collect enough bushes to sell them. My neighbours look after the children when I’m away, they give them a little food when they can.’ The village of Kanghozi: failed crops and dried-up wells. Photo: Christian Aid

Around 85 per cent of the Afghani population are subsistence farmers like Shiraqa. And, like Shiraqa, they have no electricity, no telephones, no radios, televisions, newspapers or postal services. On the day the US was attacked they would have been carrying on working in their fields – hoping against hope that maybe some of their wheat crop would survive.

These people are not fanatics. They are farmers. They have a saying: ‘A guest comes before your brother.’ As a Westerner I was always welcome and people would take pleasure in sharing with me what little food or water they had. It was heartbreaking.

And, if anything, most Afghanis have a positive view of America, given that most food-aid they were receiving before the supply dried up came in US sacks with the Stars and Stripes stamped on the side.

In some ways I am less worried about air strikes against Afghanistan as it is such a sparsely populated country with no major infrastructure worth destroying. Of course I fear for those innocent Afghanis who are likely to be killed by military strikes. But far more relevant is the fact that many thousands of Afghanis are now stuck in their villages and in camps with no food, and many others are fleeing into the countryside or to the borders where there is no food either – and no means of escape.

Afghanistan is a huge graveyard. We have seen thousands of innocent Americans murdered. We do not need to hold hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghanis accountable.

Dominic Nutt is Emergencies Journalist at Christian Aid, London.

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