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Afghans Starve in Siege From Within

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each day, news of starvation comes down from the villages, carried on foot across mountain passes still deep in springtime snow.

Two children dead from hunger in Naito. Twenty-five people in the villages around Jawqul Lal. Six in Shenia, where the villagers are eating grass.

The high, rugged region of central Afghanistan known as the Hazarajat, home to 1.5 million people with a distinct culture dating to the days of Genghis Khan, is teetering on the edge of famine.

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Sealed off by the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic army that lords over two-thirds of Afghanistan, thousands of Hazaras are running out of food.

Since July, the Taliban has blocked supply routes in hopes of starving the forces that control the region. The result, according to villagers and international agencies, is that civilians are starving instead.

U.N. officials say the situation--a government blocking efforts to feed its own people--is extraordinary.

“My baby was crying for food, and I didn’t have any food to give her,” said Ghulam Nabi, a shepherd’s helper in Shenia, a collection of primitive flat-roofed mud huts without electricity and running water. Since December, residents say, six people have starved to death, four of them children.

Nabi, who spoke while sitting cross-legged on the floor of his neighbor’s home, worried that the whole village might suffer the fate of his 8-year-old daughter, Tahera. She died in January.

“All of us will die unless things change,” Nabi said.

The winter that still wreathes the rugged earth here has prevented a full accounting of the misery. U.N. officials say they have so far received reports of 106 hunger deaths--and they fear that the actual total is much higher.

Villages across the region, which encompasses all or part of six provinces, report that families are down to their last days of food and have no seeds to plant. People in several hamlets, such as Shenia and Neali, say they have begun to boil and eat mountain grasses for lack of anything else. A hospital in Yakawlang run by the Red Crescent relief agency says the town is on the verge of a measles epidemic, spurred in part by the malnutrition that has degraded the immune systems of so many children.

Some people have left their villages to wander across the mountains in search of food.

Although signs of acute malnutrition--distended stomachs, extreme thinness--are not yet very common, Anis Haider, the director of the U.N. World Food Program for Afghanistan, said that as many as 160,000 Hazaras face starvation--one in every 10.

“Unless we get food in there very soon, you are going to see many people starve,” Haider said.

Teams of relief workers--on horseback, on donkeys, aboard old Soviet troop carriers--are setting out over the mountains to the remote villages to find out how bad things are. The workers have little food to deliver to these areas because the Taliban has blocked all U.N. attempts to ferry in supplies.

The Taliban’s refusal to lift the siege caused the Afghan peace talks in Islamabad, Pakistan, to break down Sunday. The talks have been suspended indefinitely.

Taliban leaders contend that any food that gets into the region could end up feeding the soldiers of the Hezb-i-Wahdat, the main Hazara army resisting the government. Former government soldiers and guerrillas throughout the country have been fighting the Taliban since it took up arms in 1994. In September 1996, the militia captured Kabul, the capital.

“We will not lift the blockade until we have a guarantee that the food will not get into the hands of the rebels,” Taliban spokesman Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel said.

In December, when the U.N. launched an airlift to bring food to the Hazara city of Bamian, Taliban planes bombed the runway.

The planes stopped coming.

Last month, at the urging of Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the Taliban’s leader agreed to end the blockade. Yet as soon as Richardson’s plane left the runway, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani changed his line, and the blockade stuck.

“We think the problems are being exaggerated,” said Habibullah Fouzi of the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad.

The Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan said Wednesday at a news conference that his government is willing to allow 1,000 tons of food into the area.

Abby Spring, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said Thursday that the organization had received no word from the Taliban. She said the region needs between 10,000 and 20,000 tons of emergency food supplies.

The handful of roads leading into the region not controlled by the Taliban--those in the north--are too dangerous to travel, the U.N. says. Truckers trying to haul sacks of wheat over those roads have been looted and robbed by renegade commanders. In October, Kalashnikov-toting bandits sacked a U.N. warehouse in northern Afghanistan of 2,300 tons of food.

“It’s anarchy there,” said Georges Dubin, logistics coordinator for the World Food Program.

The Hazarajat siege seems likely to further besmirch the reputation of the Taliban, whose draconian interpretations of Islamic law have already drawn criticism around the world.

In the areas that they control, the bearded, turbaned clerics who lead the Taliban have forbidden girls from going to school and women from working and walking in public alone. They have banned such activities as kite flying, marble playing and dancing. On many Fridays in Kabul, the mullahs hold public executions, amputations and floggings.

The conflict between the Taliban and the Hazaras dates to 1989, when the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan after a decadelong occupation. Since then, the country’s ethnic Pushtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban, have squared off against Afghanistan’s minorities, of which the Hazaras are among the most numerous.

The Hazaras, clustered in the soaring, desolate Hindu Kush range, are set apart from the Taliban by language, looks and religion; they are descendants of the Mongolian tribes that swept the region more than 700 years ago. Adherents to the Shiite branch of Islam in a country dominated by Sunnis, the Hazaras maintain close links to neighboring Iran.

Ten months after it began, the Taliban blockade seems to be biting down hard into the Hazara people.

In Mindiak, a tiny village surrounded by vaulting valley walls, Shah Hassan displayed a small bag of flour and said he was lucky to have it. Last month, Hassan ran out of food for four days.

His 70-year-old mother, Durbibi, died.

“My mother looked at me but did not complain--she knew there was nothing I could do,” Hassan said. “We stared at each other in silence.”

Hassan knows that there is a blockade of the region, but he says he has never heard of the Taliban.

“I don’t know anything about the war,” he said.

In the best of times, the people here just manage to feed their families. The Hazarajat is a region of stunning, primordial beauty, but the land is harsh and the weather unforgiving, and the area does not grow enough food to meet its needs. In some villages in the Yakawlang valley, the only arable land stretches for five yards on each side of the river. The rest is rock and rubble.

Historically, the Hazaras have survived by raising sheep and selling them in cities such as Kabul and Ghazni. In most years, the shepherds walk their sheep into the towns to swap them for a months-long supply of staples such as wheat, which they use to bake flat, chewy disks of bread. Then they head back to their villages and prepare for the long winter. The stockpiled food might last them into the next year.

Villagers and U.N. officials say the Taliban blockade has shattered the fragile Hazara economy. The farmers complain that because they cannot take their sheep into the towns, they cannot get the wheat they need.

On top of the blockade, the winter this year arrived early, freezing much of the crops just before harvest.

And in the few parts of the Hazarajat where there is abundant food, it sits uneaten, because few people have any money to buy it.

In Shenia, villagers say economic activity has come to a standstill.

Mohammed Hassan, a shepherd and sharecropper, says he usually makes the 15-day walk to Ghazni each summer to sell his small flock of sheep. With the blockade, last summer he did not go. The early freeze took much of his wheat crop.

The result in Shenia is that the price of wheat has skyrocketed. Last year, Hassan said, he could get about 200 pounds of wheat for each of his sheep. This year, he received 70 pounds of wheat for each of his animals.

That’s not enough to feed his wife and five children, Hassan said. He is down to his last sack of wheat.

In a region where farm animals are considered currency, some farmers have begun doing the unthinkable: slaughtering their own sheep for food.

Qambar, 50, said he has so far killed 10 of his 15 sheep to feed his five children.

In another village, children already exhibit the signs of vitamin deficiencies--pale patches of skin on the face and neck.

U.N. officials predict that unless the blockade is lifted, many people will soon begin to leave their villages to look for food. The years of strife have already forced about 5 million Afghans to leave the country and about 3 million to seek refuge elsewhere in Afghanistan; 2.6 million remain displaced.

High atop the 12,000-foot Sagbaq Pass, which separates Bamian and Ghor provinces, a man--who gave his name only as Hussain--and the members of his family stopped for a rest recently. They were windburned and weak, having walked 12 days, they said, because their village, Qulbatoo, had run out of food.

U.N. officials say they fear that conditions are worse in the area that Hussain and his family left--on the western side of Sagbaq Pass. In Ghor province, the U.N. has received reports that as many as 65 people have starved to death.

With the efforts to find peace for Afghanistan stalled a country away, the U.N. is trying to get assurances from local commanders to let food trucks into the region.

But after 20 years of war, the farmers and shepherds of the Hazarajat are not very optimistic.

“The people want the war to end, but the commanders keep it going,” said Mohammed Jaffar, a town leader in Yakawlang. “If the war ended, no one would call them commander anymore.”


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