Afghan government's test site

Wardak: The province is the most affected by efforts to disarm militias and destroy poppy crops.

July 11, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PULADKHAN, Afghanistan - First, Isa Khail turned over his gun. Then he registered to vote. Five days later, his poppy fields were ripped up.

In many ways, Khail is a success story in the new Afghanistan, a living example of the government's push to disarm the countryside, hold the nation's first elections and destroy the ever-blossoming poppies, which now produce most of the world's heroin.

"We don't want weapons," said Khail, 32, a former militia member, sitting on the side of his village's former poppy fields. "We don't want poppies. We want water. We want nice vegetables to grow."

He lives in Wardak province, a test tube near Kabul for all the government's new programs.

Government officials see disarming the militias and eliminating the drug trade as the only ways to make Afghanistan safe. The two issues are connected: Poppy profits go to warlords and terrorists, government officials say. With guns, warlords can pressure voters into supporting their candidates in the coming elections.

"If weapons are weakened, drugs and terrorists will be weakened," said Hilaluddin Hilal, the deputy interior minister.

The government has started disarming militias and ripping up poppies nationwide, but Wardak is the most affected province. It is the first province in Afghanistan that aims to eradicate poppy fields entirely; officials said recently that about 3,300 acres of crops had been destroyed.

Defense Ministry officials say they disarmed the province's militias in the spring. The 233 soldiers of the Brigade 42 militia had all turned in their weapons. An additional 271 guns and 72 heavy weapons were recovered from local militia commanders, who volunteered to disarm their men June 5, said Gen. Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the ministry.

At last count, more than 70,000 people in Wardak province had registered for national elections, scheduled for the fall and spring.

Feeling pressure

But against this backdrop of social progress, some residents are feeling pressure. No more guns, no more poppies, and now they are expected to vote?

Khail and the others in his village of 400 families are not sure what to do. They are much more concerned about the loss of their poppies than their guns.

"We are very dissatisfied, very unhappy," said Haji Khomari, the chieftain of Puladkhan, or Nomads' Village, who emphasized his words by waving an empty Fanta bottle. "They destroyed our fields. They didn't help us. Now we have nothing."

Many are upset. In a nearby village, someone planted land mines in the poppy fields during the eradication. One of the mines blew up, right in front of the Afghans who are paid $10 a day by the government to cut down poppies with scythes. Three people were injured.

Other workers said they feared the poppy farmers.

"If they could, they would peel us, peel our skins off," said Hakim, 22, who like many Afghans uses one name. "They would kill us."

In Puladkhan, a land mine was planted alongside the road, villagers say, adding that they had nothing to do with that or the rocket launcher set up in a nearby graveyard and pointed at the provincial capital.

Drought

Like the rest of Wardak province, this village started to grow poppies for the first time last year.

The Taliban banned poppies. Back then, these Wardak farmers say, they had plenty of water. They fondly recalled their gardens and their crops of potatoes, beans, onions, watermelons, apples, apricots and cherries.

Now this seems a fantasy. All the fields are beige, full of stunted wheat and tangled leftovers of poppy plants.

The men also had their weapons, leftovers from the 1980s war against the Soviet occupation. They still followed their local commander.

But drought hit the region after the Taliban fled. Nothing would grow. People began to talk about poppies, known for their ability to survive on little water.

Last year, families bought seeds. Isa Khail drove about 140 miles east to Jalalabad, and while he bought seeds for tomatoes and okra that failed to grow, he picked up a 2-pound bag of poppy seeds for a dollar and change.

This village experiment was unlike many poppy operations in Afghanistan. The fields were not protected by warlords and were out in the open, not in the crannies of nearby canyons where other poppies grew. But soon, buyers appeared.

"People came on motorcycles, Land Cruisers, bicycles," Khail recalled. "They asked, `Do you have opium? Do you have opium?' And we said, `Yes.'"

Last year, poppies grew on about 6,760 acres in Wardak province - not much in the Afghan scheme of things but still important. The country accounted for three-quarters of the world's illegal opium supply, according to a recent U.N. report.

Symbolically, at least, the poppy farmers here demonstrated that the Kabul-based government had little control over the rest of the country - even over the small-time farmers of the village.

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