War, drought bring starvation


Afghanistan: After 22 years of conflict and four years with little rain, millions of people face the threat of starvation and scant hope of relief.

October 06, 2001

EJAN, AFGHANISTAN — This week, the United States pledged to send $320 million worth of food and medicine to the people of Afghanistan. For some, it will come too late. Robyn Dixon, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, filed this dispatch from northern Afghanistan, a sliver of territory controlled by anti-Taliban forces.

EJAN, Afghanistan - His name, Shirin, means "sweetie." He is about 3 years old and weighs less than 6 1/2 pounds. He lies, with flies crawling around his eyes, in a room with mud floors and walls in mountainous Afghanistan, and the local doctor says he will die soon of hunger.

But there is no money here. In fact, his family is in debt for what to its members seems a large sum: 50 cents.

He lolls on a rough wool blanket like a small baby, his tiny fists clenched, his legs curled up, and he starts to cry. But even that effort seems to exhaust him, and he simply stares at strange visitors with his big dark eyes.

Twenty-two years of war and four years of drought have devastated Afghanistan, leaving millions facing hunger and the threat of starvation.

With the United States targeting Afghanistan in its campaign against international terrorism, and tens of thousands fleeing cities for fear of bomb strikes, international aid agencies are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe here.

Last week, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, called Afghanistan the site of the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Shirin's mother has already lost three children, all of whom died in infancy from the combined effects of hunger and illness. One of Shirin's grandmothers lost five of her nine children for the same reason.

The child's father is away on the front line fighting the Taliban, Afghanistan's radical Islamic regime.

"Many children in this village have died," says Shirin's 15-year-old uncle, Asef. "We don't count them."

But ask other families in Ejan, 70 miles northwest of the capital, Kabul, and they count their own dead. At the other end of the village, Mohammed Agram, 65, buried his granddaughter, Soleha, age 1, six weeks ago. She died from starvation and dysentery. He has had 12 sons and daughters, but six of them died in infancy.

Majestic peaks loom imperiously above the Salang Gorge, where Ejan sits. A burbling river races over white boulders, and golden trees glitter in the sun. This gorge was the scene of some of the fiercest battles between Soviet soldiers and Muslim resistance fighters, or mujahedeen, in the Afghanistan war of 1979-1989.

Now, when children such as Soleha and Shirin get sick, their parents go to a local clinic run by Emergency, an aid agency based in Milan, Italy, that assists civilian victims of war. But the doctor there, Mohammed Najib, says that he cannot do anything to save starving children.

"That is not our duty. Our role is to help only those wounded by mines or bullet wounds or shrapnel," he explains blandly. The clinic takes in about one case involving wounds every month, while about 150 to 200 children have died of hunger and related illness in the region this year, he says.

Najib says there are 6,000 people living in the region, 2,000 of whom do not have enough food. Many families have nothing to live on but dried mulberries.

"We don't have the means to help them. So far, no one helps the hungry children," he says.

The life expectancy in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations, is 46 years. The nation also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

The United Nations has just launched an appeal for $584 million to feed 7.5 million Afghans suffering from hunger and displacement because of war and drought.

Life in this valley has always been harsh, but according to Agram, this year has been the worst. Ahead lies the toughest time of year, winter. In some parts of the country, the United Nations reports, people are eating grass and locusts to survive.

Hardship and hunger have gnawed down Ejan's population. It has shrunk from about 500 families to 50 or 60.

"Life is difficult. There are no doctors, no medicines, no food," Agram says. When his family approached Najib for help, the doctor did visit their home, but it was too late to save Soleha.

At the top of a steep, slippery, rocky track lies the crude mud hut where Shirin's family lives. The other day, a child's plastic shoe lay abandoned at the door.

His relatives feed the dying boy the only food they have - one daily meal of flat bread. He fell ill with dysentery and began vomiting six months ago.

The family sold its stocks of winter food - dried mulberries - and borrowed 50 cents to scrape together $4.60 for treatment.

"We spent our money trying to save him, but it did no good," says his mother, Zergul, 32, covering her mouth with a delicate shawl as she speaks. The mud floor of the home's second room is bare. In one corner is a pile of shabby bedding.

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