Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Saturday, 18 October 2008 12:27 UK

Winter hardship in Afghanistan

A harsh winter is in store for the people of Afghanistan where many are affected by poverty and drought, reports Damian Grammaticas from the Saighan Valley.

Syed Shah: "In alSyed Shah
In all my life, I have never seen anything as bad as this
Syed Shah

Syed Shah is a man with a proud, striking profile: a thick, black turban perched above a long, high forehead; fierce, hooded eyes, a mouth drawn down slightly at the corners, and a thick white beard.

His face is almost as worn and weathered as the stark mountains that surround his fields.

At 80 years old, Syed Shah has lived through all Afghanistan's turmoil. He has seen foreign invaders come and a royal dynasty go, Afghan armies plunder and murder, his nation wrecked by wars.

"In all my life, I have never seen anything as bad as this," he told me, his arm sweeping round in a gesture that took in the high mountain valley that is his home.

We were standing in the middle of Syed's fields. The earth was rock solid, dry, riddled with deep cracks.

Just a few sad and withered stalks poked out of the ground, some sheep trying to chew on them.

Harvest decimated

Syed's younger brother Abdul stepped forward. "We should have harvested over a ton of wheat," he told me, "but we've only managed to get a tenth of that this year."

The brothers have 30 mouths in their family to feed.

Abdul Mukin (left) and Syed Shah (right)
Abdul Mukin and Syed Shah say their village has received little aid
Already they know that they only have enough grain to last two months of the coming winter, which could be six months long.

They will need food aid to survive. Afghanistan is in the grip of one of the worst droughts many can remember.

The Saighan Valley, high in the central highlands, has been hit particularly hard. All around it is like a moonscape, bare, brown fields, dry gullies, and jagged mountains stripped of vegetation.

Erosion means you can see clearly how the rocks have been formed in layers over millions of years, stripes of pinks, greys, browns and oranges running through the mountains.

Up here Afghans rely on the winter snows to recharge the ground water. But for six of the past seven years there has not been enough snow. This year was the worst of all.

Some villages do not even have drinking water. Since nine out of every 10 Afghans rely on farming for survival, the drought means a serious food crisis is looming for millions.

Bamiyan map
Of course, seven years is exactly the length of time US-led forces have been in Afghanistan, since they drove the Taleban from power.

Up in the Saighan Valley, they see the drought almost as a metaphor for the failure of the international community to bring change to Afghanistan.

Syed Shah told me that in seven years, his village has had almost no aid or assistance whatsoever.

The brothers warned us not to travel any further down the valley, as the Taleban have spread back into the next district. Just two days earlier, they had set off a sophisticated roadside bomb, in an attempt to blow up some Nato soldiers.

Like most people in Bamiyan Province, Syed and Abdul are ethnic Hazaras, no friends of the Taleban. But the Taleban are slowly encircling Bamiyan.

Taleban incursions

The two main roads linking the province to the capital have, in the last six months, become too unsafe to drive down.

Even Afghans get stopped at checkpoints, and questioned by fighters looking for anyone working with the foreigners.

It took us a bone-shaking, three-hour drive over a high mountain pass to reach the provincial capital.

There we met Habiba Saraby, the Governor of Bamiyan. She has a kind, smiling face, but her frustrations rise to the surface quickly.

She told me she has been asking the government to build a dam in Saighan for the past three years so the valley could have water.

Nothing was done even though there were millions of unused dollars in the ministry of water's budget.

The Taleban have now appointed their own rival governor of Bamiyan.

"I know," Ms Saraby said, smiling. "I've asked the Americans to put some troops in the area where he operates. They could finish this problem quickly, but nothing has been done."

Her biggest frustration of all is over food aid. She has asked for 10,000 tonnes of grain to feed people through the winter. She has been told the government can only spare half that amount.

One of Afghanistan's poorest regions, Bamiyan has also long been considered one of the safest too.

Governor Saraby said all the foreign attention goes to provinces with worse security problems, so areas like hers get no reward for their loyalty to the central government.

But it means that Syed Shah and his brother Abdul face a bitter winter.

When the snow comes and the mountain passes are blocked, their food will dwindle, but Bamiyan won't have enough aid stockpiled to feed them.

So the brothers and their family will probably question what good the foreign involvement in Afghanistan is really bringing.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 October, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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