Getting food to Kabul's masses

Finding enough food to feed Afghanistan's deprived people is tough enough. But there's corruption, too.

Mohammed Yusef once was a farmer. And Nazir Ahmad was a tailor. But today, they have one thing in common. They have been reduced to waiting in the courtyard of a war-tattered high school for eight hours hoping to get a 50-kilogram portion of wheat to help their families through the winter.

Though they clasp little green cards marked "World Food Program" that gave them hope they wouldn't go home empty handed, it looked unlikely that all of the people lined up on the last day of the WFP's emergency food distribution for Kabul would get their share.

By 3 p.m., the bags of wheat had run out, and mild-mannered men grew agitated with a defeated anger that comes from hunger - and the fear of going home unable to put bread on the table.

"Right now, we're fed up, and no one is giving us anything!" cried Mr. Yusef, a man with a wavy silver beard, commanding eyebrows, and an otherwise grandfatherly demeanor, after an announcement over the loudspeaker suggested that the distribution was over for today and that people should go home.

This emergency operation was meant to reach about 200,000 of Kabul's neediest families, many of them internally displaced people and refugees who fled the fighting of recent months. Thousands of them are making their way back to the capital in search of food and shelter. And while the population of Kabul is expected to swell as the winter sets in, people are at far greater risk of not having enough food to survive the season in northern parts of the country, such as Mazar-e Sharif, where recent fighting wreaked destruction and made thousands homeless. Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, remains inaccessible to relief agencies because of the security situation: WFP food warehouses there were looted, possibly by Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, but in that region's state of lawlessness no one knows for sure. In western Afghanistan, refugees returning from Iran and other internally displaced people are flocking to a sprawling camp in search of food.

To be sure, the difficulties of distributing food in Afghanistan are many, and aid workers quickly grow exasperated when they see corruption making it harder to do a fair job. An air of hostility swirled around the front yard of the school, each of its windows left in jagged shards from shelling. Afghan government soldiers pushed frustrated people into line here, and gave a kick in the backside to a quarrelsome young man.

Arguments arose when WFP officials began confiscating and destroying cards it said were counterfeited. They had been forged in Pakistan, and were easily recognizable, since aid officials give each family a card with a number on it. Once the number has been checked off the list for this round of wheat, for example, it cannot be used again.

"See this card?" asks Laurent Saillard, a WFP consultant in charge of food distribution, taking away the green cards of a few men and women standing around him. "Sorry. It's a fake one," he pronounces, ripping the cards up before their eyes and causing cries of shock from people who thought they'd be going home with a bag of wheat.

"The idea was to cover the gap between when we came back in here after the airstrikes were over and for when we can restart our normal distribution programs," Saillard says. "It's not ideal because it creates dependence," he says, adding that the WFP would soon move back to usual programs, based on food-for-work schemes.

A paying job, in fact, is for many Afghans a more scarce commodity than food. Mr. Yusef, the farmer, and Mr. Ahmad, the tailor, haven't had work in quite a long time. More than two decades of war and three consecutive years of drought have done so much damage to Afghan society that it is often hard to discern which one hurts more.

Yusef grew vegetables up in Bagram, north of Kabul, now the home of the main airbase employed by US and British troops.

"Right now, there isn't enough water, so I'm not farming anymore," Yusef says. When peace or rain arrive - hopefully both - he will return to the fields he calls home. But what were once farmlands are now dusty plains that are fertile only with landmines. UN officials say a massive demining program must be undertaken before displaced Afghans can safely begin to go home again.

Ahmad's home, like so many things here, has been destroyed. When Taliban forces were on a campaign to gain territory four years ago, they came plowing through his home in the village of Estalif, about 30 kilometers north of Kabul, and destroyed it. They burned his and all of his neighbors' homes, he says, and his tailoring equipment along with it.

"I came to Kabul just with the clothes I have with me," says Ahmad, a father of 12 children.

Such stories are common, as are reports that the Taliban massacred thousands of the country's ethnic Hazara people during their rule. Afghanistan's interim foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said his government wants to organize a war-crimes tribunal to bring to justice the men who perpetrated such crimes.

Ahmad, however, is more interested in making sure his family gets fed. "I don't want revenge," he says. As he speaks, another man muscles into the conversation.

He earned a university degree in engineering, but has been out of work since the Taliban came to power.

"The distribution of wheat for one or two days won't solve our problems in Afghanistan," says the man, Abdull Latif.

"Please don't forget about us in the future," Abdull adds. "We don't believe any of the governments here can solve our problems without the help of the outside world."

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