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.
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."
Near Mazar-i-Sharif - a military camp that was once controlled by the Taliban's opposition, hundreds of families from the Alburz mountain region have lived for nine months in cold concrete bunkers. Some men climb the mountains to chop firewood to sell in the city. Others go to the city to work for as little as one kilo of rice a day. But most families here rely entirely on aid agencies to bring them food, medicine, blankets, and fresh water. The WFP has flown in three separate shipments of grain over the past nine months, doling out 100-kilogram bags of grain to each family. But since rural families have as many as a dozen members, even this large amount of food runs out quickly.
"One bag of wheat is enough for 13 days, and we often don't get another bag for several months," says Faiz Muhammad, a tall, courtly elder from the Alburz region who is responsible for 100 families at Camp 65. "WFP brings us food, Medecins Sans Frontieres brought us blankets and medical clinics, and UNICEF still gives food for children if they are underweight. But more than anything, we need food."
Some diplomats say that Afghanistan's wounds are at least partly self-inflicted. Despite the drought, neither the Taliban leadership nor the rebels up north have seriously considered declaring a truce and turning their attention to the humanitarian crisis facing those they seek to rule. Other provocative actions, such as the controversial destruction of 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province, also make it difficult for aid agencies to peddle the plight of the Afghans to donor nations.
"We remain committed to helping the Afghan people, and we will do what is in our power," says Hans-Joachim Daerr, the German ambassador to Pakistan and head of the Afghan Support Group of donor nations. "But the Taliban government should be aware that all the efforts to obtain that aid operate in a political environment. And the Taliban makes moves that do not improve the situation for the overall framework of aid."
For their part, the Taliban leadership admits that more could be accomplished for the Afghan people if peace was restored, at least temporarily. "It's a very good suggestion," says Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, one of the few nations that officially recognizes Taliban rule. "But in the past, when we have laid down our weapons, we have been hit from behind. There are always tricks, gimmicks, and we don't have confidence that our foes will abide by their promises."
As for Afghanistan's growing reliance on aid, Mr. Zaeef says, "What the people of the international community are doing in humanitarian aid, we are grateful for that, but we don't want our country to be a begging nation. We want to stand on our own feet."
But Zaeef says Western nations pushed the UN to impose sanctions on Afghanistan last September - including travel bans for Afghanistan's top Taliban leaders, bans on international flights for the state-owned Ariana Airlines, and economic freezes on Taliban government assets. "We just want the world to leave our country to make our way, to have a scope for redevelopment of the land, and to wipe out poverty," says Zaeef. "We don't want aid for all time. But we don't want the world to create hurdles in our way to recovery."
For Bibigul, a mother who has already lost two children in Camp 65 to cold and hunger, all she can hope to do is carry on.
"We had a good living in our village, but we lost all the things we had," she says, sitting in a room with her last possessions: three blankets, one cooking pot, and a trio of artillery shells that she uses to carry water. "We are a very needy people right now. But if we fulfill our needs, then we can buy seed and fertilizer and we will go back to our village to start our lives over."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor