The real Afghanis
by Dominic Nutt
New Internationalist magazine, November 2001
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
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
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 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'.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (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
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-eNegar, 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
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.
'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.'
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
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.
Central Asia watch