Small wonders in Afghanistan

February 07, 2006|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

ROZALANG, AFGHANISTAN -- It doesn't take much to make a difference in this primitive village: a sewing machine, a carpet loom, some seeds, a little fertilizer, improvement of a narrow donkey path so a vehicle can travel on it.

In Rozalang, nestled on a hillside in the foothills of the Sefid Kuh mountain range, where the snow-capped mountains loom over the river valleys like impregnable walls, they can make the difference between survival and failure.

For Rozalang is in Afghanistan's Ghor Province, the poorest province of the country, which itself is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Behind the scenes of the American-led coalition's war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, these small changes in living standards can be the stuff of enduring importance.

Because of money from America, the old narrow track to the village of about 25 families has been improved enough for the people who live here to get to the nearby town of Dar-e-Takht, where they can do some trading.

Recently, money from the U.S. government and from American private donors was used to hand out $70 vouchers to each family to buy what they wanted to help them survive. This is where they got the money for the sewing machine, carpet looms, yarn, seed and tools.

"My life has changed," says Ghulafruz, the 34-year-old mother of four who bought a sewing machine. "People bring me cloth and I make clothes for them. Now I can buy food for my children."

The people of Rozalang are of the Tajik-Malmanjee tribe. They live today much as their ancestors must have lived hundreds of years ago. Their dwellings are built of mud and wood. In the bitter cold that sometimes grips this area, they warm themselves from small stoves fueled mostly by sagebrush collected from the hillsides. Men and women wrap themselves in thick woolen cloaks. They have no electricity. They have no running water.

The men cultivate what they can - wheat and barley mostly, sometimes even melons. They make bread on large, pizza-size slabs, baked in a crude mud oven.

"In the morning, we eat tea and bread," says Abdel Salam, a leader in the village who is lean, weathered and missing a few teeth. "In the middle of the day, we have some dry yogurt and soup, and at night we eat rice."

The other similarity between the families of Rozalang and their ancestors exists in the reason they are living high on this hillside. Like those centuries before them who fled a succession of rampaging conquerors dating to Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane - to mention only a few - these people fled recent conquerors.

They used to live in Dar-e-Takht and would come here to cultivate their land on the hillside, above the river that flows through the valley to the ancient city of Herat, about 120 miles east. But they fled from the Russians 25 years ago.

Jumagul, a 45-year-old mother of five, recalls that time.

"We moved during the Russian time," she says. "There was much fighting between the Russians and the mujahedeen. The Russians were taking men to fight in the army. They took our goats. They attacked our women."

Later came the struggle between the mujahedeen and the Taliban. Then came the rule of the Taliban. And finally came the Americans and their allies. Since then, there has been a four-year drought, followed by last year's heavy snowfalls that cut off parts of Ghor Province.

Since the Taliban were driven out, the villagers have gotten help, they say, from the new government of President Hamid Karzai and from many international voluntary humanitarian organizations.

In Rozalang and in many communities around the area, humanitarian agencies have helped to establish women's councils, known as shuras, a small step toward better representation on issues that matter to them, and no small achievement in a land where women are traditionally unseen and unheard.

All these small steps matter enormously. The question is, how long will this last? The Bush administration says it will increase Afghan aid back to $1.1 billion from the $560 million to which it had been cut.

But when you consider the vastly greater amount being spent to rebuild Iraq - the country the United States invaded in part because of something that came from Afghanistan - it seems a pretty paltry amount. Iraq was rich and will be again. Afghanistan hasn't been rich for centuries.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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