Afghanistan's three-year drought is scorching the earth and killing its children. Now millions of refugees are pouring into camps that offer little food, water or medical aid. Will the world help?
Survival is precarious in rugged Afghanistan, even in the best of times. And this is the worst. For months, Hawaneen, a hollow-cheeked Afghan farmer from northwest Badghis province, watched as his village slowly succumbed to the country's worst drought in three decades. The communal well dried up. Hawaneen's goats and sheep died of starvation. After he fed his family his last grains of wheat, Hawaneen decided they had to flee. Word had circulated that foreign aid agencies were giving out food and medicine near Herat, an ancient, sandstorm-swept caravansery of broken minarets in western Afghanistan. A month ago, the 43-year-old patriarch ripped the tin roof off his house, sold that and his plow, and loaded his family onto a passing truck.
Now, in the sand-blown Herat camp, Hawaneen crouches against the biting winter wind and watches in dumb agony as a cleric lays the bony, malnourished corpse of his eight-year-old son on a plastic sheet and washes him in preparation for burial. Hawaneen has been misled: the camp near Herat has virtually nothing for him or any of the other 80,000 refugees now living there in total hopelessness. In the past four weeks, Hawaneen and his family have received 7 kg of wheat and a handful of moldy dates. When his son, Sayed Mohamad, took ill with pneumonia, Hawaneen waited outside the camp clinic from dawn to dusk, along with hundreds of others stricken with tuberculosis, measles and bronchitis. "All they gave me for my son was this," he says, helplessly, clutching a depleted plastic strip that once held 12 aspirin.
War. A three-year drought. United Nations sanctions. Puritanical fundamentalists running the country with a gleeful zeal for enforcing medieval values. If Afghans seem to live in the worst of all possible worlds, add one more major woe: a world weary with donor fatigue. Says one relief official in Islamabad, the capital of neighboring Pakistan: "Afghanistan is going through its worst crisis since the 1979 Soviet invasion, and nobody seems to care." The United
Nations estimates more than 1 million Afghans may be at immediate risk of starvation, but few donors are willing to step forward with emergency aid. The timing couldn't be worse: a few weeks ago, several hundred people, mainly children, froze to death in three refugee camps near Herat during a freak blizzard. Plastic sheets and a few blankets were their sole protection against the icy elements.
Wracked by 20 years of war-first between the Afghans and the Soviets, and now between the Taliban forces and the rebellious Northern Alliance that includes Tadjik, Uzbek and Hazara tribes-the country was ill-prepared for a three-year stretch in which nothing but dust seemed to fall from the sparse clouds. Afghans need a minimum of 400 million tons of grain to feed themselves; the country is now capable of producing just 2 million tons. Agricultural experts saw the famine coming as early as last spring, but urgent appeals for donors have only scooped up a million tons of grain. Nobody has been willing to make up the massive shortfall. The same miserliness has applied to funds. Late last year, the United Nations requested $229 million for its various Afghan programs, but its members have pledged only $18 million-and far less has actually been delivered.
The squeeze on Afghanistan has been tightened by U.N. sanctions against the ruling Taliban regime, which are aimed at pressuring Afghanistan into surrendering or ejecting Osama bin Laden, the Saudi multimillionaire accused of waging an anti-U.S. terrorist war. Two rounds of embargos, the first in November 1999 and the second on Jan. 19 this year, reduced the traffic of goods to Afghanistan by air and road, making essentials such as gas and kerosene more expensive. For the Taliban, customs tariffs were a major source of revenue for their war against the Northern Alliance. When revenues dried up, the Taliban raised taxes on farmers from 10% to a punishing 60%. Says Sayeed Raz Mohammed, a Herat Taliban leader in charge of the refugee camps: "The Taliban can always find money for their needs, but it's the poor people who are suffering most from these sanctions."
The Taliban are often their own worst enemy. Few donors want to give to a government whose troops were accused last month of slaughtering more than 100 civilians, including local relief workers, in the central mountain town of Yakawlong. In retaliation against the U.N. closure of the Taliban's New York office, Kabul is threatening to shut down all U.N. operations in Afghanistan, including relief efforts to war and famine victims.
The Taliban are relaxing last year's edict that banned Afghan women from working, but their commanders are still highly capable of bizarre zealotry. In Kabul, barbers were arrested for giving too many young Afghans haircuts in the style of Leonardo DiCaprio. And during a recent soccer match, religious police charged onto the field and arrested visiting Pakistani players because they wore un-Islamic shorts. The Taliban shaved the players' heads as punishment.
Those displays baffle and disgust the outside world. But for the rural warrior-clerics of the Taliban, Washington's behavior can seem equally mysterious. "We don't understand why the Americans are killing the Afghan people with these sanctions just to get one man-Osama bin Laden," says one Taliban leader in Herat. The Taliban insist that if the U.S. turns over proof of bin Laden's involvement in terrorist attacks such as the August 1998 Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam bombings, they will gladly hand him over. The U.S. claims they provided the evidence, but the Taliban denies this.
The Taliban are also irritated, with justification, that the world refuses to re-cognize one of its very good deeds. Last July, Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar dictated a ban on the cultivation of Afghan poppies, the source of 75% of the world's heroin. At first, anti-drug officials were highly skeptical: taxes on the crop were a mainstay of Taliban revenue. But earlier this month, U.N. drug control officials surveyed four main opium-growing areas and found the land virtually cleared of opium poppies. So far, neither the U.S. nor any other country has offered to help Afghan farmers with crop substitution programs. Says one aid worker in Islamabad: "The Taliban know all about the millions spent on Plan Colombia (to eradicate coca growing). Here, they've completely eradicated opium cultivation, and they're wondering why nobody's helping them out."
Poppy farmers are joining the famine victims swarming into relief camps near Herat and across the border in Pakistan, which has accommodated nearly 2 million refugees over the past 20 years and can barely handle more. The Khyber Pass border was recently closed, but Afghans willing to pay $300 in bribes gain entrance and about 175,000 have made it through. Since mid-January, more than 80,000 Afghans have poured into Jallozai, a tent city with few latrines and no wells. To discourage these hungry, desperate people from staying, Pakistan isn't allowing international donors to bring food to Jallozai, but several medical clinics have been set up to attend to the refugees.
Outside the Jallozai camp, there's a market where refugee children wander in a daze, gazing at oranges arranged in pyramids and kebabs sizzling on open grills. "All we can do is look," says one Afghan grimly as he drags his son away. Inside the camp, one vendor is selling potatoes at 17 cents a kilo. Yet throughout the day, he has only three buyers. "I've had an infinity of people who ask me to give them a potato or two, and they'll pay me back," says Mohamed Khan. "But I know they can't."
Back in Herat, Hawaneen and his family are ready to say goodbye to their son. Among Afghans, preparing a corpse for burial is up to the men. But Hawaneen's wife, shrouded in a rust-colored burqaa, is allowed to kneel beside the emaciated corpse. She quivers with sorrow and weeps quietly as her young daughter lifts aside a white covering cloth and kisses her brother's forehead. Then Hawaneen and his clansmen, taking the long strides of Afghan mountainmen, set off to a rocky cemetery. There, Hawaneen, like a father tucking a child into bed, tenderly arranges a pile of stones and dirt on his boy's grave. "My two other children are also sick, but what's the point of taking them to the clinic? They can't help," he grieves. The empty aspirin strip falls from his hand and along with hopes and dreams, it blows away in the wind.
With reporting by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad
For donations to Afghan drought victims, contact the international rescue committee: ; Tel: 1-877-733-8433