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Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Tajiks stare starvation in the face
By BBC world affairs correspondent David Shukman in southern Tajikistan
Until recently, you would have had quite a job finding anyone who could locate Tajikistan on a map.
The poorest of the former Soviet republics, lost in the mountains and deserts of central Asia, is a country that never wanted independence back in 1991 and has slipped further from the public mind ever since. Now it is staring disaster in the face.
With the prospect of American-led military action against targets in Afghanistan, military planners, diplomats and others are scurrying for their atlases.
For reasons that no one could predict, this forgotten territory, known as the "roof of the world" for its spectacular Pamir mountains, a land that once straddled the famous Silk Route from China, finds itself in the international spotlight.
But having the Afghan war zone for a neighbour is not the best of reasons for getting attention from the outside world.
Tajikistan's position has caught the eye of the Pentagon as a possible launch-pad for air strikes or special forces missions. And if the crisis escalates into a wider regional conflict, Tajikistan will find itself on the front line.
Yet what is happening inside Tajikistan is already catastrophic. This country of six million people is sliding towards economic collapse.
Starved of investment, only just recovering from a vicious civil war, and crippled by a lack of international help, this is a nation that has slid from being part of a superpower to resembling the worst of Africa.
Add to that the devastating effects of a drought - for the second year running - and you have the ingredients for what the Red Cross is calling a disaster.
Until I visited the barren wheatfields of southern Tajikistan, I never really knew what the term "dustbowl" meant.
But around the town of Kulyab, I saw mile after mile of desert landscape. Clods of earth looked like rubble. Huge swirling clouds of dust powered through the valleys. The dust-devils looked nothing less than evil.
I first heard the phrase "negative harvest" - which means that whatever quantity of grain you plant as seed, you get back less than you sow.
Malnutrition and disease
For a farmer like Karim Shapirov, the effect is devastating. His seven children were barefoot and hungry. They only eat once a day. I could tell from their listlessness that they were sliding into a vortex of malnutrition and disease.
Karim told me how he had planted 500 kilogrammes of wheat, but had only managed to harvest 200kg.
His sons showed me how they search for extra rations - by stealing from the rats. This was a truly depressing sight.
Fazhudin and Abdurahman took it in turns to dig down into the holes that rats dig in the wheatfields, and then reach into them through the crumbling soil to pick out the hoarded grain.
The rats need stores for the coming winter - but so do the people. As much as one-third of Karim's food supply grain comes from the rats.
As an image of the collapse of the old Soviet empire, nothing could be more stark. Here on a collective farm, once trumpeted by communist propaganda as the answer to all peasants' problems, the people are literally starving.
The head of the Red Cross delegation in Tajikistan, Charlotte Relander, says: "It's critically important that the international community responds immediately to stave off catastrophe."
The charity Action Against Hunger has set up special feeding centres for severely malnourished children. At first the authorities - schooled in the old Soviet tradition of pride and denial - refused to admit there was a need for this assistance.
But chief nurse Cecille Versavel showed me the tiny emaciated figures recently arrived from the barren farms. She cares for about 20 children at a time - but there could be many thousands of others beyond the reach of help.
Corrupt and incompetent
The drought is not the only problem. Tajikistan is cursed by an administration that is not only corrupt but also incompetent.
Water pipes lie broken and abandoned. A newly-laid railway line connects the capital Dushanbe with - guess where - the president's home town. The international airport has only a handful of international flights every week.
The civil war may be over, but huge tracts of the country are still marred by instability.
Massive cargoes of Afghan heroin make their way to Europe with the help of Tajik gangs - and a blind eye from senior Tajik officials.
No wonder only a few brave aid agencies are operating there. Many international organisations shun the place as too difficult and too unstable.
Ordinary Tajiks are left with precious little help and the sense that the outside world simply ignores them.
This crisis may conceivably change that. It could raise the profile of the Tajiks' problems - or leave them hungrier than ever.
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