Winter closes in on families trapped by war |
Rory Carroll reports from Mamorick on the plight of Afghans facing a bleak future
Rory Carroll in Mamorick
Wednesday December 19, 2001
The jeep crests another peak and finally the valley stretches below, a frozen wasteland of ice where nothing stirs. The village of Mamorick once thrived here but the mud-brick houses dotting the plain are now rubbled ruins coated smooth and white by snow.
There is a rumour among aid agencies that refugees in the mountains have returned to Mamorick, but it seems fanciful. There is nothing to return to.
A figure breaks the stillness by stepping from a doorway. His name is Quardan Gulanasin. He is barely 4ft tall and looks 10 years old, though he is 16. Two fingers on his left hand are missing, lost to shrapnel wounds worsened by frostbite.
He leads the way into the roofless house. Snow crunches underfoot inside what used to be a kitchen and bedrooms. He opens a door into a room the size of two car parking spaces. Beneath the improvised ceiling live 17 people.
Smoke from a broken stove shrouds them in gloom but from the coughing it is possible to distinguish children from adults. There are three families - Gulanasin, Ahmad, Mohammad - and they will remain in this room for the winter.
They are staggered to see their first foreigner in at least three years. "Help us, please," says Quardan. "The snow will cut us off in a few days and we don't have enough food. We are getting weaker by the day. We could die here."
After months of debate between western governments and aid agencies, winter has engulfed Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis. Six million people are estimated to need help to survive the legacy of drought and 23 years of war.
American bombing impeded an aid effort already crippled by years of international neglect, according to a UN report in October. "The horrific events of September 11 have undermined those assistance efforts and today the survival prospects for millions of Afghans are worse than ever."
Some aid agencies warned that the bombing would turn a disaster into a catastrophe because foreign staff evacuated and abandoned aid distribution. London and Washington replied that the bombing did not seriously hinder distribution and that matters would swiftly improve once the Taliban were ousted.
Two months later the central province of Bamiyan, shaded purple in World Food Programme maps, indicating highest priority, suggests London and Washington won the argument. The humanitarian crisis has eased. It is not catastrophic, merely disastrous.
The families in Mamorick lack food, fuel and medicine. They will not starve to death because sacks of wheat grain provide bread, but a combination of malnutrition, illness and exposure is likely to snuff out lives.
Bakth Avar, aged around 50, has all the symptoms of tuberculosis. Her name means bringer of luck but in a confined space with 16 others she will more likely bring infection.
Unable to grow crops, the villagers have no livestock, no twigs, leaves or dung for fuel, no socks or blankets, no way of leaving except through a pass that is mined and that snow will cut off within days. "I can already guess which of my brothers and sisters will die," says Quardan.
Fit boys are sent up to remote passes to clear snow, sometimes with their hands, in the hope that drivers will toss out money.
And yet it could be worse. For the past two winters the three families lived in caves of the Hindu Kush mountain range, losing hands, feet and infants to frostbite. They could not descend because Taliban soldiers roamed the valley, slaughtering ethnic Hazaras and burning their homes.
Last month it was the Taliban's turn to flee and the families returned to Mamorick's ruins. "Even if no one comes to help it is better here. We have a roof and some warmth," said Quardan.
Hazaras were exterminated by the Taliban. An ethnic minority said to descend from the warriors of Genghis Khan, they were Shi'ite Muslims despised as heretics by their Sunni Muslim overlords.
"The main political idea of the Taliban was that Tajiks should live in Tajikistan, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan and the Hazaras and Shias in the graveyard. They regarded our people as a curse," said Karim Khalili, the Hazara leader.
Aid agencies have yet to reach the estimated 100,000 people stranded in villages such as Mamorick, buried in the mountains, but in the past week convoys of wheat and plastic sheeting have skidded over icy roads into Bamiyan town.
"It is the poorest place I have seen in my eight years in Afghanistan," said Jukka Siegberg, a surgeon from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Last March the area became notorious when the Taliban blew up two giant Buddha statues carved by monks 1,800 years ago into the red sandstone cliffs. The monks' caves, dotted around the statues, were left alone.
Days after last month's Taliban pullout around 400 Hazara refugees abandoned their hovels in Mount Baba and colonised the caves in which western backpackers used to picnic.
Babi Sabir, 30, shares a small cave with eight daughters. They own a rug, a pot, a bag of potatoes and some leaves. She was shot in the foot and elbow but twice daily Ms Sabir applies "ointment" retrieved from an American air drop. It is a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce.
"Hunger is our biggest problem. We are down to one potato each per day," she says. The stockpile of leaves - fuel - will last a week but snow will prevent further collections. Her daughters use rubble from the statues to gash water from the frozen stream. Again, it could be worse. Ms Sabir lost two sons to exposure and malnutrition last winter but the cave, she says, should save her daughters. Neighbours have offered to make her a door from the tin of a stove and petrol can.
The aid agencies Solidarites and Focus will start distributing WFP wheat to Bamiyan this week. American special forces have repaired an airstrip in case roads become blocked.
At their Kabul headquarters aid agencies quietly agree that on balance America's war has eased what had been a neglected crisis by ousting a disruptive regime and generating resources and urgency unimaginable on September 10. Enough food is reaching enough priority areas to avert mass starvation.
Norma McRea, of the Red Cross, said it would be a very difficult winter regardless of the assistance. "It's a shame about the timing. If only we'd been here a few months earlier."
For people in Bamiyan treatable illnesses such as influenza and tuberculosis are death sentences. The hospital, trashed by the Taliban, has three beds and virtually no medicine for a population of 100,000. An x-ray means a 10-hour jeep ride to Kabul, unaffordable for most.
Conditions should improve as aid agencies arrive over coming weeks. For the families in Mamorick, trapped beyond the white peaks of Mount Nayak, Bamiyan is a magical word denoting food, warmth and medicine. When the snow melts and roads open next spring it may match the expectations of those still alive.