Afghans eat grass as aid fails to arrive
The resurgence of rival warlords is stopping relief supplies reaching desperate communities in remote northern mountain settlements
The Guardian, January 9, 2002
Ravi Nessman in Bonavash, northern Afghanistan
The village of Bonavash is slowly starving. Besieged by the Taliban and crushed by years of drought, people in this remote mountain settlement have resorted to eating bread made from grass and traces of barley flour. Babies whose mothers' milk has dried up are fed grass porridge. The toothless elderly crush grass into a near powder.
Many have died. More are sick. Nearly everyone has diarrhoea or a hacking cough. Many are too weak to stand. Others cannot leave their homes. Some children have soft bloated bellies. When the pain becomes unbearable, their mothers tie rags around their stomachs to try to alleviate the pressure. One man has grown so weak he cannot move. Last week, he went blind.
"We are waiting to die. If food does not come, if the situation does not change, we will eat this... until we die," said Ghalam Raza, a 42-year-old man with a hacking cough, pain in his stomach and bleeding bowels.
Bonavash is the most accessible village in the remote northern mountain region of Abdullah Gan, where about 10,000 people live. People in even more distant reaches, days away by donkey, are worse off, according to aid workers and Bonavash residents who have been there.
They describe people who do not even have barley to mix with the grass, and who simply eat it straight from the ground. People whose stomachs are rock hard from hunger. People who died in front of them.
"If we cannot get aid within the month, we will be as bad as they are," said Dawood, the commander in Bonavash, who like many Afghans uses one name.
The Abdullah Gan region is "a humanitarian crisis," said Ahmed Idrees Rahmani, the International Rescue Committee's acting coordinator in northern Afghanistan.
Hundreds of thousands more are also living in desperate conditions in the mountain regions along the former front lines between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, Mr Rahmani said.
Cut off by war, they are completely dependent on rain for irrigation, and too far from any road for aid to be delivered easily. Thousands of bags of wheat flour meant to save the people of Abdullah Gan sit stacked in a compound in the small town of Zari, four and a half hours away by donkey along the mountain trails.
The World Food Programme spent two weeks trucking 1,000 tonnes of flour to Zari, the nearest outpost accessible by road, but never told the aid organisations that would distribute it.
Aid workers found out only because residents told them and rushed to the area to try to figure out the logistics of distribution. The wheat is improperly stored. If it rains or snows, much will be damaged.
A WFP spokeswoman, Abby Spring, said: "With different warlords controlling different roads, there are some areas where we just can't go. We have the food, the cash, the trucks, but what we don't have is the security, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to provide food to some communities."
Each family in Abdullah Gan is entitled to three bags of flour - a three-month supply - but aid groups cannot get the food to them. It would cost nearly $10 a bag to rent donkeys to haul the food into the mountains to the nearest villages, such as Bonavash. It would cost far more to reach those much further away.
Abdullah Gan is a proud region of Hazaras, the small ethnic group of Shiite Muslims who were particularly obstinate in their opposition to the hardline Sunni Taliban regime. Throughout the war, the Taliban laid siege to Abdullah Gan, refusing to allow aid through.
Now, Bonavash is a shell. Nearly half its 650 families fled the war, drought and hunger. Many houses of baked mud and straw stand empty. Before the drought, the brown hills of Bonavash swayed with wheat. Now they are parched with cracked mud.
Sitting outside her house, a woman named Fatima boiled grass in water to soften it. She then mixed it with a handful of barley flour, and formed it into a patty to bake as bread. Her family has been eating like this for more than a year. Two of her young children have died.
"We have nothing else. No cooking oil, no rice, no flour, no tea. This is it," said her husband, Mir Hossin.
Like many in the village, Mr Hossin is a farmer. "If we could just get seeds, they would grow," he said. If not, we will die."
Along the wall of a house sat 12 small children, several taking occasional bites from pieces of grass bread, green and brown hunks that resembled clods of mud.
"In the summer, when there are softer grasses, we feel a little better," said Khadabaksh, as he looked in despair at his four young daughters. Three weeks ago they had a mother and a baby sister. But the mother's milk dried up and the six-month-old baby had trouble eating grass. She got diarrhoea and her stomach ballooned.
"She was in her mother's arms and then she stopped breathing," he said. A few days later, the mother died. His nine-year-old daughter is now feeling sick and weak.
Once a farm labourer, Khadabaksh's work disappeared with the drought more than three years ago. To buy food, he slowly sold his animals - first, his three goats, then his family's precious donkey. Now there is nothing left to sell.
He begs his neighbours for pinches of barley so his family can make grass bread. His children get two pieces a day. He eats one.
Khadabaksh cannot move his family. The only possessions he has left are his kitchen utensils and an empty, lice-ridden one-room mud house. If they do leave, there is no guarantee of finding even that somewhere else.
"It is better to die in our house, not in some strange place with strange people," he said. -AP
h t t p : / / w w w . r a w a . o r g