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Afghan path: self-sufficient to hand-out dependent

Internal refugees fleeing drought and war may number as many as 800,000.

By Scott Baldauf Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2001


Over the past two years, drought has steadily killed off Muhammad Sharif's herd of goats and fields of wheat. Nine months ago, mortar shells destroyed his simple home. And over the past four months, hunger and illness have taken three of his children in a squalid aid camp in northern Afghanistan.

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Now, Mr. Sharif's oldest remaining son is quite ill, and this farmer can't bear the thought of mourning again. "One morning I went off to town to beg for food, and when I came back, two of my children were dead," says Sharif, breaking into tears in a cramped, concrete-floored room his family shares with two others. "We had animals and wheat and plenty of water in the streams. Now I've lost everything."

Once a self-sufficient nation, Afghanistan is steadily turning into a land that cannot survive without a helping hand. It's a tragedy fueled by human and natural forces - including some 23 years of Soviet invasion and civil war, international isolation because of human rights abuses and alleged support of terrorism, and a continuing drought that is the worst in 30 years.

Over the short term, these woes hit hardest at rural Afghans, forcing migration both internally and outside of the country. But long term, Afghanistan's dependency may irreparably fray the proud tradition of mutual-reliance, charity, and hospitality that held it together for centuries.

"We're facing a widespread disaster ... and a breakdown in the social fabric," says Barbara Rodey, acting regional director of Habitat, also known as the UN Center for Human Settlement in Mazar-i-Sharif.

"What has enabled Afghans to survive in these harsh conditions is their society of mutuality," adds Mrs. Rodey. "If a neighbor does something for you, you have an obligation to repay. Even if you don't, you have an obligation to do something good for someone else who is in need.... The resources of the Afghan people have been getting lower ... they don't have anything to give, or to sell."

This charity and hospitality, common in many cultures where natural conditions force humans to help each other survive, has long been a mark of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. Even today, it's hard for a visitor to turn down dozens of dinner invitations - or even to pay a restaurant bill - when they are in the company of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, or Afghanistan's ethnic majority Pashtuns.

But the past three decades have steadily eroded that culture of mutual sharing and self-help. Twenty-five years ago, Afghanistan was self-sufficient in food; dried fruits and nuts generated 40 percent of the nation's export revenue. Today, it is dependent on the outside world for 95 percent of its food. Even so, what it receives is often not enough.

The drought seems to have eased in the eastern valleys from Kabul to Jalalabad to Peshawar, as snows and rains replenish streams and watersheds. But in the north, south, and far west, the drought continues with little sign of reprieve.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that even if the drought ended tomorrow, food assistance would have to be sustained until at least July 2002.

"The number of needy people is so large that the coping mechanisms of sharing are no longer viable," says Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in Afghanistan, in Islamabad. With warmer weather coming, she adds darkly, "All we're waiting for now is for the fighting to start again."

Targeting Afghans who hit the road doesn't fully address the problem, aid workers say. "If you ask the internally displaced persons their situation and ask the local population their situation, you get the same answer," says Apostolos Veizi, medical coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres - Belgium, based in Mazar-i-Sharif. "It's bad everywhere, after 20 years of war."