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Afghanistan: In Central Provinces, Residents Fear Hunger First, Taliban Second

By J.M. Ledgard

An RFE/RL correspondent recently traveled to Saigan, a remote district in Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan. In the villages there, he listened to residents speak of hunger and thirst, as well as of concern over the regrouping remnants of the ousted Taliban regime, allegedly with arms and men coming from Pakistan.

Do Ab, Afghanistan; 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A lantern lights the simple room. Mohammed Fazel, a 22-year-old from the central Afghan village of Do Ab, plays love songs on the tambura, a simple, two-stringed mandolin made from mulberry wood.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor around the room are men from the local Hazara militia, as well as elders from Saigan, an impoverished valley of 40,000 or so close to the border between Bamiyan and Baghlan provinces.

Outside, all is quiet. A militia soldier adjusts his machine-gun position near the riverbank by starlight. Inside, the talk is impassioned. Much of it concerns hunger and the regrouping of former Taliban in the area, something the Hazara militia say they will never again accept.

Mohammed Fitrat, a 35-year-old commander, is the evening's host. He controls security up and down the Saigan Valley. The valley is disarmed, he says. Ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks live together in peace. There are tensions, he concedes, but they do not amount to much.

The main problem, he emphasizes, is hunger. Wells have gone dry from a seven-year drought. Crops of wheat and maize have failed. In some places, poppies are being grown in their place. The poor have only enough for one meal a day. Some local residents are dying from hunger.

Fitrat is desperate for more help from international aid agencies. He says the foreigners come but they do nothing to alleviate the suffering.

"The problem of people in Saigan is a problem of water. The drought came, and now nearly 400 families have become refugees in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul and other cities. They are working there as porters in the bazaars to find food for their families. The poorest are those families whose men were killed in Taliban times. Now, the obligation of a whole family of 20 people are on the shoulders of one man. People here are really suffering and dying of hunger," Fitrat said.

An intelligence officer, Mahram Ali, sits at the other end of the room. He takes his turn singing songs in praise of Hazara heroes, accompanied by Fazel on the tambura. When the mutton and beans comes, he breaks off to describe for the commander and the guests the latest news from Do Ab, just north of the Saigan Valley.

The news is not good. Ali believes there is a major regrouping of Taliban in the area, extending up to the border with neighboring Samangan Province. At the center of the resurgence, he claims, is a former Afghan provincial governor.

According to Ali's sources, the ex-governor is receiving arms and support from former Taliban commanders based in Pakistan. The aim is to set up a pocket of self-rule in the center of the country and to once again impose the Taliban's strict religious code.

The former Talibs are not be underestimated, Ali says. He believes they have amassed a decent number of weapons.

"They have 600 guns, Kalashnikovs, Zikoyak" -- a heavy Russian gun "and 30 trucks of ammunition. Besides this, they have hidden stores of weapons that they collected during the years of war from Bamiyan and brought to the Do Ab district," Ali said.

Ali continues, "This is really tense for us. It is like a cancer in the area. They have a big plan. It should be prevented. If not, you will witness big disorder in this area. Four days ago, the Americans spent a night with us. We told them the whole story of what is happening here, and [the Americans] went at night to Sargoli, near Do Ab, to look for the Taliban. We sent two policemen with them. After they saw the area and interviewed the people, they left for Bamiyan. They told us they would come back after four days, but there hasn't been any sign of them. We want them back. There isn't complete security around here. Everyone is still armed. At the minimum, each house has two guns. And because of this lack of security, people can't work."

Ali claims the arms are passing through the district of Do Ab. He says his agents followed a former Taliban commander now based in Pakistan, who traveled north to meet with and allegedly advise the former provincial governor.

Not everyone is sure what the gathering of arms and political advice from Pakistan means. Elders from Saigan, stroking their beards at the other end of the room, think the deposed Talibs are only maneuvering for a better life.

The next day, in secret meetings in Do Ab, locals give mixed views on the possible return of the Taliban. Most say that while the former Taliban could agitate and cause bloodshed, they are no longer a serious threat.

Mohammed Amar is a 32-year-old government official in Do Ab charged with preventing smuggling from local coal mines.

"I can't say what they want," he says. "Maybe instigating insecurity and getting benefits from such insecurity. Maybe a government which favors them. If Talibs are in power, then they would have power, too. Of course, now the Talibs are out of power, so they have no power."

International officials in Afghanistan -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- say they are concerned about what would amount to the brazen shipping of arms deep into the center of the country and about links with former Taliban commanders in Pakistan. But they say they do not believe these activities constitute a significant threat, at least for the moment.