|By Ravi Nessman|
Associated Press Writer
Monday, January 7, 2002; 5:29 PM
BONAVASH, Afghanistan -- The village of Bonavash is slowly starving.
Besieged by the Taliban and crushed by years of drought, people on this remote mountain have resorted to eating bread made from grass and trace amounts of barley flour.
Babies whose mothers' milk has dried up are fed grass porridge. The toothless elderly crush grass into a near powder.
Many have died.
More are sick.
Nearly everyone has diarrhea or a hacking cough. Many are too weak to stand. Others cannot leave their homes. Some children have soft bloated bellies. When the pain becomes unbearable, their mothers tie rags around their stomachs to try to alleviate the pressure.
One man has grown so weak he cannot move. Last week, he went blind.
"We are waiting to die. If food does not come, if the situation does not change, we will eat this ... until we die," said Ghalam Raza, a 42-year-old man with a hacking cough, pain in his stomach and bleeding bowels.
Bonavash is the most accessible village in the remote mountain region of Abdullah Gan, where about 10,000 people live.
People in even more distant reaches, days away by donkey, are worse off, according to aid workers and Bonavash residents who have been there.
They describe people who do not even have barley to mix with the grass and who simply eat it straight from the ground. People whose stomachs are rock hard from hunger. People dying in front of them.
"If we cannot get aid within the month, we will be as bad as they are," said Dawood, the commander in Bonavash, who like many Afghans uses one name.
Abdullah Gan is "a humanitarian crisis," said Ahmed Idrees Rahmani, the International Rescue Committee's acting northern Afghanistan coordinator.
Hundreds of thousands of others are also living in desperate conditions in the mountain regions along the former front lines between the Taliban and the northern alliance, Rahmani said.
Many share the same confluence of natural and manmade disasters that make life worse than in other devastated places. Cut off by war, they are completely dependent on rain for irrigation, and too far from any road for aid to be delivered easily.
Thousands of bags of wheat flour meant to save the people of Abdullah Gan sit stacked in a compound in the small town of Zari, four and a half hours away by donkey along mountain trails.
The World Food Program spent two weeks trucking 1,000 tons of flour to Zari, the nearest outpost accessible by road, but never told the aid organizations that would distribute it.
Aid workers found out only because residents told them and rushed to the area to try to figure out the logistics of distribution. The wheat is improperly stored. If it rains or snows, much will be damaged.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York that the WFP has received reports of starvation in remote villages. "The agencies have managed to get record amounts of food into Afghanistan but then getting it from depots to remote villages where it is most needed has not been easy," he said.
"With different warlords controlling different roads, there are some areas where we just can't go," said WFP spokeswoman Abby Spring. "We have the food, the cash, the trucks, but what we don't have is the security which makes it difficult, if not imposible, to provide food to some communities."
This means that even though help is here, it may not solve the problems in Abdullah Gan.
Each family is entitled to three bags of flour - a three-month supply - but aid groups cannot get it to them.
It would cost nearly $10 a bag to rent donkeys to haul the food into the mountains to the nearest villages, such as Bonavash. It would cost far more to reach those much farther away. "Reaching these people is tough," said Rahmani, of the International Rescue Committee. "Most of them need airdropped food."
Abdullah Gan is a proud region of Hazaras, the small ethnic group of Shiite Muslims particularly obstinate in their opposition to the hard-line Sunni Taliban regime.
Throughout the war, the Taliban laid siege to Abdullah Gan, refusing to allow any aid through. Villagers caught trying to bring food up from Zari were beaten.
For one period of about six months, the villagers fled Bonavash and the Taliban controlled it. But after repeated guerrilla attacks, the conquerors returned to Zari, an area they could supply by road.
Now, Bonavash is a shell. Nearly half its 650 families fled the war, drought and hunger. Many houses of baked mud and straw stand empty.
Before the drought, the brown hills of Bonavash swayed with wheat.
Now they are parched with cracked mud.
A woman named Fatima sits outside her house boiling grass in water to soften it. She then mixes it with a handful of barley flour, and forms it into a patty to bake as bread.
Her family has been eating like this for more than a year. Two of her young children have died.
"We have nothing else. No cooking oil, no rice, no flour, no tea. This is it," said her husband, Mir Hossin.
Like many in the village, Hossin is a farmer.
In good years, he has been able to coax between 45 and 130 pounds of wheat from his land for every 15-pound bag of seed he planted.
That was before the drought.
A week of rain and snow nearly a month ago has provided some hope. Halfway into a four-month planting season, Alinaqi has plowed some of his fields. Now he waits for something to plant.
"If we could just get seeds, they would grow," he said.
If not, "we will die."
Along the wall of a house sit 12 small children, several taking occasional bites from pieces of grass bread, green and brown hunks that resemble clods of mud.
"In the summer, when there are softer grasses, we feel a little better," said Khadabaksh, as he looked in despair at his four young daughters.
Just three weeks ago they had a mother and a baby sister.
But the mother's milk dried up, and the 6-month-old baby had trouble eating grass.
She got diarrhea and her stomach ballooned.
"She was in her mother's arms, and then she stopped breathing," he said.
A few days later, the mother died.
His 9-year-old daughter is now feeling sick and weak.
Once a farm laborer, Khadabaksh's work disappeared with the drought more than three years ago.
To buy food, he slowly sold his animals - first, his three goats, then his family's precious donkey.
Now there is nothing left to sell.
He begs his neighbors for pinches of barley so his family can make grass bread. His children get two pieces a day. He eats one.
Khadabaksh cannot move his family. The only possessions he has left are his kitchen utensils and an empty, lice-ridden one-room mud house.
If they did leave, there is no guarantee of finding even that somewhere else.
"It is better to die in our house, not in some strange place with strange people," he said.
World Food Program, http://www.wfp.org/
International Rescue Committee, http://www.theIRC.org.
copyright 2002 The Associated Press