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Afghanistan: International Aid Agencies Seek To Avert Famine Among Hazaras (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's Hazara community has long been the country's least privileged and poorest ethnic group. Today, their homeland in the central highlands is suffering severe food shortages as much of the population has been uprooted by past fighting with the Taliban. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from the central Afghan city of Bamiyan on the humanitarian crisis in the region and international aid agencies' efforts to cope with it.

Bamiyan, Afghanistan; 31 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The central highlands of Afghanistan offers some of the country's most spectacular scenery, as well as some of its harshest living conditions.

The roads wind along mountain streams flowing through narrow, fertile ravines dotted with small, tidy villages. Towering above the villages are cliffs as devoid of vegetation as a desert. Only 10 percent of the region can be cultivated, and beyond those areas even goats have difficulty finding something to eat.

Still, the region has always attracted settlers and at times even supported great civilizations. The largest town in the highlands, Bamiyan City, was long an important caravan stop along the ancient Silk Road and a major center of Buddhism. In the second century, monks carved two colossal statues of Buddha in the cliff face overlooking the town, along with hundreds of caves used for meditative retreats.

The statues of the Buddha -- one more than 50 meters high, the other 35 meters high -- were among the remaining wonders of the ancient world until they were blown to pieces in March by the fundamentalist Taliban as blasphemous idols. Today, all that remains are the giant grottoes in which the statues once sat -- still an astonishing site, though they now contain only rubble.

In recent centuries, the central highlands region has been home to Afghanistan's Hazara community, widely believed to be descendants of intermarriage between Ghengis Khan's Mongol warriors and indigenous Tajik and Turkic peoples. The Hazaras -- whose population is estimated today at 3-4 million -- are the largest Shiite community in predominately Sunni Muslim Afghanistan and remained virtually independent until 1893, when their region was conquered by a Pashtun king.

But if the central highlands -- known as the Hazarajat because of its inhabitants -- is rich in scenery and history, it also is bedeviled by poverty and conflict. The area is the poorest in Afghanistan and able to feed itself only when left in peace. But the sectarian enmity between the Sunni Pashtun and the Shiite Hazaras has made peace a rare commodity.

Today, evidence of the most recently broken peace in the Hazarajat is everywhere to be seen. The region is filled with displaced persons uprooted by the Sunni fundamentalist and Pashtun Taliban, who regarded all Shias as outside of Islam.

Over the past five years, thousands of Hazaras were driven from their villages by the Taliban and took refuge in the barren mountains. At the same time, the Taliban frequently barred international aid agencies from sending food assistance to them. The result is a region full of people who would now face famine except for a massive international effort to get them enough food to survive the winter.

Mohammad Ali is a man in his 30s who has walked three hours to reach the sole hospital functioning today in the central highlands. The hospital is in Bamiyan City and is supported by an Afghan charity, the Shuhada Organization, and staffed by doctors of the international organization Doctors Without Borders. Ali is carrying his son, who is two years old but who has the hollow-cheeked face of an elderly man. There is no expression in his eyes, and his hair is orange, the result of severe malnutrition.

Ali says his son has been sick for six months. The father is close to tears as he shows the skeletal form in his arms: "We have had only potatoes and bread to eat for six months. There is no economy to support the people. There are no doctors and no medicine."

The doctor who sees the child is Aziz Ahmad Safar, who arrived at the hospital only 10 days ago. Until he came, there was just one doctor on the staff. He says there is still such a desperate shortage of supplies that when he writes prescriptions for medicines, most of his patients cannot find them at the pharmacy.

The doctor says he and his colleague see 150 patients a day, including isolated cases of severe malnutrition. But he says most of the malnutrition cases can be reversed with the food distributions that international agencies have already begun or will begin soon in the region. He also says that while children have frequently died in past months in the mountains from the cold after being weakened by malnutrition, he is not seeing such deaths today -- a sign that famine is being averted despite the continuing scarcity of food.

That scarcity is keenly felt not just by Ali -- who says food aid has not yet reached his village -- but by tens of thousands of displaced people who have returned to Bamiyan province in recent weeks. The inflow of people who had been hiding in the mountains began immediately after the Taliban abandoned Bamiyan and other main cities under the pressure of U.S. air strikes, which began on 7 October.

The displaced people now seeking food and shelter in Bamiyan City have no homes of their own to return to because the Taliban burned their villages in an effort to force Hazaras out of strategic areas in the highlands. The clearances came as fighting see-sawed in the region between the Taliban and the militia of the Hazaras' Hezb-i-Wahdat Party. During the fighting, many places changed hands several times.

Thousands of these homeless people are now sheltering in the same caves in Bamiyan that the Buddhist monks once carved in the cliffs beside the giant statues. They bring water and firewood up the steep escarpment to the small caves, whose entrances some people have walled off with mud and straw bricks to break the wind. Inside the caves, dozens of people huddle around fires for warmth, suffocating in the smoke and living on meager rations.

Many of the refugees, especially the most recent arrivals, say they have yet to receive any food aid. One is Mohammad Jawad, who has been in the caves for two weeks. He says he and his wife and five children left their home village three years ago when the Taliban began shooting people to clear it.

"When the Taliban came to Bamiyan province, the Taliban and the fighting forced the people to flee their homes," Jawad says. "We went to Besoud [another district in the region] and remained there about three years to work and make some money to live."

Jawad continues: "When Bamiyan became free of the Taliban, we came back to our house, but it had been burned and destroyed. Now we have been living in these caves for about 15 days."

Jawad can count himself lucky because he was able to flee to another part of the central highlands outside of the Taliban's control. But now, in his cave, his family has only a small supply of potatoes left -- enough for just 20 more days.

For others, the situation is much worse. Another new arrival, Gulam Heydar, shows a visitor a small supply of barley that his family scavenged from a basement in one of Bamiyan's destroyed houses. Heydar and the 24 other people who share his cave brought no food with them and have nothing else to eat. The barley will run out in two or three days.

As the winter in Afghanistan deepens, the temperature in Bamiyan City, which is at an altitude of 2,300 meters, is well below freezing at night. The cold, plus the shortage of food, spells a potentially fatal situation for much of the Hazarajat, which long ago lost the ability to feed itself.

United Nations officials say the Taliban sought to use food as a weapon to clear the Hazaras from the region and last winter allowed international agencies to send in just 10,000 tons of cereals. Fighting through last summer, plus a third year of drought in some areas, again disrupted the growing season, making the food needs for this winter much greater.

In Bamiyan, the food distribution is being handled by non-governmental organizations working with the UN's World Food Program (WFP). One of the biggest is the French-based Solidarites, which has been working in the central highlands since 1998.

The regional coordinator for Solidarites is Olivier Beaugrand, who has been in Bamiyan for three years. He says there have been some small-scale food distributions in the Bamiyan area since November, when the WFP began trucking wheat into the region after the U.S. air strikes. But he says large-scale distributions have had to await a population survey to identify the most vulnerable people. He says there is not enough food assistance for all those who want it, so the homeless and landless, as well as children or mothers, must be provided for first.

Beaugrand says the survey, which has taken a month, should be completed this week and that large food distributions will begin immediately. He says his local office already has on hand half of the total of some 2,000 tons of wheat it will distribute this winter. That is part of some 30,000 tons the WFP is sending to the central highlands, most of it already delivered or on the way.

The coordinator says he believes there will be enough food and shelter aid for the people in the Bamiyan region to get through the winter: "Right now, we have quite enough food for six months for all the families which have returned to the Bamiyan district and also winterization shelter kits, which will allow us to restart the economy of this district."

Beaugrand says that with the warmer weather in spring, people will be able to rebuild their homes with the mud and straw brick materials common to the region. With additional international assistance to obtain seed and livestock, they may finally also be able to restart the region's agriculture-based economy after years of constant warfare.