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Wednesday, 19 September, 2001, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Analysis: Inside Afghanistan
By BBC News Online's Gary Eason
"It's so bleak, it's unbelievable ... you feel like it's the worst in the world. It feels like a medieval country."
Cathy Mahoney of the British Red Cross recalls what she found inside Afghanistan earlier this year.
"It feels like the clocks all stopped there 20 years or so ago."
Communications taken for granted in the West are non-existent: No radio or television to keep people informed.
Those who have heard about what happened in New York are said to find it difficult to comprehend - because they have no concept of what a skyscraper is.
Last winter's rainy season was virtually non-existent - the third year of severe drought.
"I have no idea how they would cope if the infrastructure was allowed to decline any more than it already has," Cathy Mahoney said.
"There are very few roads, about 10% of the population have access to clean drinking water, there are no harvests for the third year running."
"So whereas people had the fallback of livestock or had some seeds in stock, all these had been exhausted.
"There's no more livestock to sell, there's no more seeds to eat themselves, let alone sow - and there was no water even if you did sow the seeds."
It is estimated that almost a third of all children do not make it to their fifth birthday.
So although the terrain makes it almost impossible to move from one area to another, people have been on the move.
'People are wandering'
A letter from an Afghan refugee stuck on the now closed border with Pakistan, smuggled to the BBC, said: "The people of Afghanistan, particularly those from the cities, are wandering hither and thither.
"All who have the ability to leave are migrating.
The plight of those in the largely subsistence economy worsened with the move last year by the Taleban authorities, bowing to international pressure, to enforce a ban on growing opium poppies.
Afghanistan has been one of the main sources of heroin.
But recent developments in the ongoing civil war are even more disturbing.
Reports from within the country indicate that the Taleban are pursuing a scorched earth policy to wipe out resistance in the centre, north and west of the country.
Film just smuggled out to the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent, Kate Clark - who is banned by the Taleban - backs up refugees' stories.
"They came to our area, burnt the mosque and the Korans inside. They call themselves Muslims, but look at their system," one man said.
"We're stuck here, just depending on God. Our house has been burned and we don't have any crops," said another villager.
"We're now staring winter in the face. We don't know what we're going to do. We've got nothing to go back to."
This internal displacement, as the jargon has it, will hit the efforts of aid agencies which have focused on trying to improve conditions for people in their home villages.
The main supplier of food aid to the country is the World Food Programme (WFP).
It said it was feeding about three million displaced people in rural Afghanistan when the latest crisis began and - in common with other aid agencies - it pulled out its foreign staff.
"We have enough food stocks inside Afghanistan to last normal operations for two to three weeks," said WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume in Geneva.
"We have stopped food shipments into the country due to the lack of commercial lorries in various parts of the country to move food."
In the area around the western city of Herat alone, about 370 Afghan WFP workers are trying to ensure food distribution amongst 200,000 displaced people.
Dependent on aid
A month ago, thousands of Afghan refugees on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan were reported to be facing a severe shortage of food and medicines.
Correspondents from the Russian Itar-Tass news agency who visited one of the centres there said the refugees had already used up most of their food supplies.
There were few medicines left to treat those suffering from diseases such as cholera and malaria.
The United Nations has predicted that by November, 5.5 million Afghans - about a quarter of the population - will be dependent on food supplies.
"If wheat isn't there by October, the snow will cause the roads to close and people will be in real trouble," he said.
Oxfam's Afghanistan programme manager, John Fairhurst, found families in the remote north of the country scavenging for wild grasses to eat with flour and water.
In the west, villagers had told him they would not leave their homes because they felt they had nowhere to go.
"Even if they thought there was an escape, they felt they had no way of getting there," he said.
"When asked what they would do, they said they expected to die."
Cathy Mahoney of the Red Cross is also gloomy about the prospects.
"It seems that what is already the worst in the world is going to take another turn for the worse, and it's incomprehensible to think what that would bring."
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