Eid brings no joy for starving Afghans

AFP, December 27, 2000

KABUL, Dec 27 (AFP) - It is a bitter festive season for Afghans, who start their Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations Wednesday just a week after the United Nations announced more sanctions against the ruling Taliban militia.

The joyous family feasts that should mark the end of the Ramadan fasting month are a thing of the past in this ruined capital, where a quarter of the population live on foreign aid and the majority on hand-to-mouth subsistance.

Large groups of women, men and children roamed from dawn to dusk through the well-off area of Wazir Akbar Khan during the Islamic holy month, begging for charity.

In other parts of the city, two-thirds of which remain in rubble from the factional fighting of the early 1990s, war widows beg on pavements or wait for handouts in front of shops and houses.

"There is an increase of almost 40 percent in the number of beggars" during the religious season, resident Abdul Qayum estimated.

Banned from most work by the Taliban, the radical Sunni movement of "Islamic students" who ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani from Kabul in 1996, women now have few options but to beg.

The majority of people here are so poor that Eid-ul-Fitr, if not for its religious value, has lost its meaning.

"The city people have to sit on the streets (to beg). Eid is for those who are driving Pajeros and Datsun pick-ups," said a traffic police officer.

"Eighty percent of the people fall in this category," he said, pointing to several heavily veiled women, their eyes and faces hidden behind the mandatory mesh of cloth, begging on the main road.

"We are suffering but we forget our condition when we see others' problems," another policeman said, adding that he had shared his family's meagre food with his widowed neighbour during Ramadan.

In the Wazir Akbar Khan area, a truck carrying charity wheat-flour from an Arab aid group recently had to speed away as it was mobbed by a desperate crowd of some 300 people.

Men started fighting while women, ignoring painful blows from stick-wielding Taliban police, swamped an aid worker.

"May God save us from this holocaust. We are even fighting for foreign charity," one woman was heard crying.

Afghanistan was a proud, forward looking nation before the Soviets invaded in December, 1979. Since then it has known nothing but war, mostly among rival Afghan political, religious and ethnic factions.

"Afraid we would be seen, before we did not even pick up bank notes from the street," said one old man who was among the mob that swamped the truck.

The aviation, diplomatic, travel and financial curbs announced by the UN Security Council last week are designed to hurt the puritanical Taliban for their alleged support of international terrorism.

Officials in Washington, which co-sponsored the resolution along with Russia, say they have been tailored to avoid any humanitarian impact, and have pointed out that the United States is among the biggest donors to Afghanistan.

But most Afghans, 1.5 million of whom died during the decade-long war against the Soviets, feel their efforts to help end the Cold War have been forgotten by their former allies in the West.

During the 1980s Washington pumped massive amounts of money and arms to the mujahideen resistance groups, but this year the United Nations could not even get half of its annual appeal for vital humanitarian projects here.

This despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Afghans are facing starvation as a result of the country's worst drought in at least 30 years, and some 300,000 were internally displaced by the ongoing war between the Taliban and opposition forces in the last half of the year.

Mohammad Daud, an army major turned street vendor, said he did not have basic staples to put on his family's table during Eid, let alone traditional delicacies like cookies and sweets. "I have nothing for Eid," he said.

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