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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 15:24 GMT
Starving Afghan villagers eat grass
Men hold up bread made of grass in the town of Zari, northern Afghanistan
Some families are eating bread made of grass
Tens of thousands of Afghans are facing starvation and surviving only by eating grass, aid officials say.

Years of war, drought and Taleban rule have left many dead and even more sick and starving, and aid has not reached many remote areas.

Wheat grew on the hills before the drought
In the northern mountainous region of Abdullah Gan, a former front line between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance, the situation is desperate.

About 10,000 people in that region, and tens of thousands in other frontline areas, are living on little more than grass, according to the International Rescue Committee.

"It's true, there's a real crisis there," Ken Burslem, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, told BBC News Online.

He said the IRC and World Food Programme were taking food to another 10,000 starving people in the mountainous Badghis district, near the western city of Herat.

Grass porridge

In Bonavash, the most accessible village in the Abdullah Gan region, the only available food is bread made of crushed grass and a bit of barley or grass porridge.

Nearly everyone in the village suffers from diarrhoea or a hacking cough, according to the Associated Press, whose reporters visited the village.

A woman and a child with a stomach bloated from hunger in the northern Afghan village of Bonavash
Urgently needed food has been delayed
"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.

The villagers say they are better off than those deeper in the mountains, days away by donkey. They do not even have any barley to mix with their grass.

Mr Burslem said aid was on the way, with 1,400 metric tonnes of flour being distributed in the Zari district, "but it is only going to the villages that can be reached - which are in walking distance," including Bonavash.

Natural obstacles

He said there was a problem reaching the villages deeper in the mountains, because of rough weather conditions, so the IRC has asked the Northern Alliance for a helicopter.

If they get it, they will be able to airdrop another 2,000 metric tonnes of food, including wheat, beans, fortified biscuits and cooking oil, Mr Burslem said.

But the task of distributing food is plagued with logistical problems.

One thousand tonnes of flour from the World Food Programme, which took two weeks to deliver by truck to Zari - four and a half hours by donkey from Bonavash - lay in storage and was not distributed, due to a "communication problem," according to Christiane Berthiaume, the WFP spokeswoman in Geneva.

A mother feeds her children grass bread and porridge in the northern Afghan village of Bonavash
The lucky ones have a bit of barley to mix with the grass
"There was a misunderstanding," Mr Burslem of the IRC said. "[The WFP] arrived there with the wheat, but they didn't realise the problem was distribution."

Ms Berthiaume said that before Christmas, the WFP signed agreements with some 70 non-governmental organisations who would handle the distribution of the aid, including the IRC, but that communication is difficult in Afghanistan.

"We have brought in a record amount of 118,000 tonnes of food in December alone," Ms Berthiaume told BBC News Online. "It's well over our target of 50,000 tonnes."

Security problems

"We have the staff and food to feed six million hungry people in Afghanistan, but we're still faced with security problems," she said.

"There are bandits and warlords," she said. "It's not the easiest place to work."

She said as far as she knew airdrops were not being considered because of the fighting.

A man in the northern Afghan village of Bonavash
Nearly half of the villagers have fled
This leaves regions like Abdullah Gan, Baghdis and other remote areas hungry.

"We have been working very hard to prevent a widespread famine, and while we are confident that we have managed to do this, there are still isolated pockets where there is little access or communication," Ms Berthiaume said.

Nearly half of the villagers of Bonavash, Shiite Muslims who resisted Sunni Taleban control, have fled, and many of the mud and straw houses stand empty.

Before the three-year-old drought, the villagers, mostly farmers, grew wheat. Now the hills are parched with cracked mud.

The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby
"A lack of aid in the south has driven many people to flee"
See also:

08 Jan 02 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghans face starvation
08 Jan 02 | South Asia
Taleban law chief 'surrenders'
27 Dec 01 | South Asia
Kandahar 'no go' for aid convoys
22 Dec 01 | South Asia
Karzai pledges peace and stability
19 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghan aid resumes from Uzbekistan
08 Jan 02 | South Asia
UN food aid for Herat
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