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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 17:29 GMT
Life hanging by a thread
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Eyewitness

BBC's David Loyn
line

I have spent most of the past month in Badghis Province, the area most affected by Afghanistan's hunger crisis.

The American Government and the big UN agencies like the World Food Programme have claimed that famine has been averted and, in the usual technical definition of widespread excessive debt due to food shortages, famine has been avoided.


There are still huge problems in getting the aid through

David Loyn
But it was a close run thing.

Thousands have died of hunger and hunger-related disease. Hundreds more will inevitably die before the crisis is over.

More than seven million people have been kept alive by the aid effort this winter - by the hard work of dedicated individuals and a bit of luck.

Snow

But there are still huge problems in getting the aid through. Three trucks have fallen off the main delivery road at the treacherous Sabzak Pass in the past two weeks.

Food aid
Food aid - but how much of it will reach the most vulnerable areas?
And, apart from the death and injury to the drivers, this is a waste of precious food stocks. Yet, neither the civilian administration nor the international agencies have, so far, taken on the simple task of keeping the road open by alternating the direction of the traffic flow.

There have been two heavy falls of snow which have made things worse and, if things do not improve here, it will significantly delay the delivery of seed corn, which now needs to be planted, as well as immediate food and medical supplies.

No one quite knows how many people live in the largest refugee camp, Maslakh near Herat. The camp began on a modest scale almost two years ago and spread out of control during the fighting and food shortages this winter.

It is now the largest camp in the world for internally displaced persons. It is the size of a city and has many of the usual urban problems - crime, prostitution and a thriving black market. Grain is the one currency that really matters in this shattered economy.

Representation

The World Food Programme is feeding almost 300,000 people in Maslakh but few believe that that many live there, so there must be fraud on a wide scale.

But while some are registered more than once and receive double rations, there are thousands in Maslakh who have slipped through the net and are getting nothing.

Refugees at Maslakh
Some have slipped through the net and are not receiving rations
Free distribution of porridge in the mornings to children and a spreading network of bakeries are two mechanisms that now help to get food into the mouths of the hungry rather than onto the black market.

And now there is a new initiative to conduct the major task of re-registering everyone in the camp and closing Maslakh to new admissions.

Some community leaders among the refugees in Maslakh claim that they could have conducted the registration more quickly themselves.

Resilient

But their appeals for representation have been ignored by UN bureaucrats.

New shelters provided by the International Organisation of Migration - the IOM - are improving conditions in the camp.

Afghan child
Children's bodies are being stripped of essential nutrients
But the key work of the IOM is only now beginning as they set up forward bases in the mountains to begin the process of returning people from the camps to their homes.

After making several trips into the hardest-hit region, I can see why people made the desperate decision to leave.

The mountain communities are extraordinarily resilient. I met an orphan boy, Tahirshah, who is now being looked after by relatives after all of his family died.

Stripped of nutrients

But the long drought is sapping their strength so that after selling all their animals some are now selling their daughters - as young as seven - into marriage contracts for just a few sacks of wheat.

People who have to walk all day for water are too weak to do much else.

Afghan woman
Across the region, it is the women who are hardest hit
Some have died under the weight of sacks of grain as they carry them back to their villages and it has been hard to pump in enough food.

Once the food pipelines reopened after the bombing, much of the early distribution went straight to grain bankers in the bigger villages, who had lent food on credit in lean times.

The main product now being distributed - American grain - is attractive because it is cheap and available.

Life hangs by a thread

But children cannot live on bread alone and some who look superficially fit are extremely vulnerable to disease because the plain diet has stripped their bodies of essential nutrients.

Tuberculosis has now taken a firm hold. Malaria will return with the warm weather.

Across the region, it is the women who are hardest hit, especially if they lose their husbands. Those I saw eating only wild clover and roots were most often widows.

And, where the first healthcare for a generation is now reaching villages, it is bizarrely the men who bring their children to be weighed and then hang uselessly around hospitals in town if the children are admitted for intensive feeding, because the women are not allowed to go on their own.

Jenifer Kisingula, a nurse with World Vision, said that as she has gone from house to house in the villages, she has been surprised by how little people have to live on.

There are no store houses and life hangs by a slender thread.

In ultra-conservative village societies, women and small babies are dying behind the closed doors of their houses and these deaths are certainly a private, secret famine behind the big claim that famine in Afghanistan has been averted.

People are just clinging to life even in the valleys close to the main road.

I met Azizullah breaking the hard, barren ground next to an abandoned watermill, which has not ground any flour for three years.

He was skeletally thin and told me that he was just preparing the field in the hope that someone would give him seed.

There are main areas of real horror in Badghis, which belittle the efforts of mankind to cope with this calamity. It was easier to bomb Afghanistan than to save these lives.

See also:

06 Dec 01 | South Asia
UN concern over Pakistan refugees
27 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's fear of exclusion
07 Feb 02 | South Asia
First step for Afghan democracy
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