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Inside Afghanistan - An Exclusive Report

Direct from inside Afghanistan, World Vision press officer James Addis reports on the humanitarian effort and a peoples determined to rebuild their country wrecked by totalitarian rule and decades of war.

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Seeking out the poorer quarters

By James Addis

Children seeking
help - photo courtesy of greeted the departure of the Taliban but the legacy of drought and war has left a populace desolate and destitute. Correspondent James Addis joins a World Vision food survey team, and heads for the narrow, dingy alleys of Herat, western Afghanistan, to meet the people bearing the brunt of the economic meltdown.

I'd expected them to be timid, shy, retiring but the women still clad from top to toe in blue burkhas are anything but. They chatter loudly when I board the bus and quickly boss me about (just like women anywhere!). I should sit here, not there, no, no there. More giggling. This foreigner must be a bit on the slow-witted side. Eventually everybody settles down and we are off. But the hapless stranger still can't get it right. The women swap seats regularly as they gossip with one another. After all one completely sheeted women looks exactly like another. Conversations begun with one are unwittingly continued with somebody else. Much confusion, more giggling. You're not married? You're how old? 38! Maybe you can find an Afghan girl. Yes there are lots of beautiful girls here. But how could I possibly know I protest! Screams of laughter.

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Perhaps one reason for the women's bonhomie is that they have a real job to do. They are part of a city wide food survey, helping World Vision determine who is in need for a food distribution in Herat, western Afghanistan, and who can manage without. It's a big job. World Vision wants to survey every single household in a city of 360,000 and it's employing 250 women to scoot round them all. Years of Taliban misrule confined them largely to the home or domestic service, though some I discover were student nurses – a job still open to them. Today they are out and about in the community – knocking on stranger's doors, asking questions. Participating in a process to bring relief to this troubled city. It's obviously an empowering feeling.

The bus I'm on is heading to district seven, the oldest, poorest and muddiest section of Herat. Mud is the key word here. The houses, streets and walls are constructed with it. Occasionally one may see an irrigated paddock with a patch of green grass but for the most part people live in a grey world. Caked mud, sloppy mud, hard mud but always mud. Muddy alleyways, lead to more muddy alleyways, then courtyards of mud. Some with artfully constructed minarets and colonnades of mud. From the hard mud inside people's homes comes a fine dust. With every breath you gulp in more of it until you are beset by harsh bouts of coughing. It makes your eyes water, it clogs up your hair.

18 year old Faridoon Mohammad is a good English speaker and responsible for the survey in district seven. On the bus he tells me about the people we are going to meet.

"There is so much misery," he says. "So many factories destroyed in the war – so there is no place to get work. Quite often the men may have been killed in the fighting so they are no longer bringing money into the home. Then under the Taliban women were not allowed to work shoulder to shoulder with men so they could not make much money. It's created a big picture of misery," he says.

Problems in the city are compounded by an influx of displaced people from the country, Faridoon continues, – mostly fleeing drought. Some make it to camps such as Maslakh, with over 200,000 refugees, the largest in the world. Others disappear into poorer quarters such as these, eking out a living by begging, or men may work as porters moving goods in the market. Casual labourers competing against thousands of others in similar dire straits to earn a few cents every day.

At first as we disembark from the bus and begin a tour of the main streets things don't seem quite as bad as Faridoon says. The first houses we come across are substantial buildings surrounded by high walls. Some even with intercoms at their gates. Residents are suspicious and not particularly communicative. But as the team of surveyors weave deeper into the maze of mudland – the streets become narrower, the houses smaller and the people more desperate and vocal.

In an attempt to keep the survey accurate – World Vision has not said it will be distributing food. Just that it is making an assessment of needs. But it is clear many see the agency as the one glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.

Suddenly you are seized by the arm. "Come to my house – we have nothing, there is no food in the house," says one. "Let me show you."

Then a cacophony of voices:

"Our home is poor. Water pours in we have to put straw down to soak it up."

"My child is sick. We have no money for medicines"

"Please we need food, will you help us?"

So I visits their homes. Inside one might find a child or adult laying prone on the floor. There's no money to take her to hospital. An elderly widow complains her only son will not care for her, what can she do? Another woman used to farm with her husband – they slowly watched her fields turn to dust in the drought. When all was lost they brought their children to Herat. Now her husband scrapes a living as a porter in the market. On a good day he might make 50,000 Afghanis, about $US1.

Then there is the kind of pain not easily addressed with food or medicines. I'm especially, touched by an elderly couple whose only son fled the Taliban for Iran several years ago but has not been seen since.

"Why did he go," I ask. "You do not understand," says his father Gholam, "The Taliban, persecuted him, arrested him. Made life so painful. Living in the time of the Taliban was like living in a cage."

The couple live in a two room home. One room is kept especially for their son, when he returns. His mother Fatama shows me the room with pride. There is hardly anything in it but some neatly folded blankets, a few drinking and eating utensils. She keeps repeating this is where her son will stay when he comes back. But there is desperate, plaintive note in her voice. The unspoken thought - maybe they will never see their son again.

To be honest it's a relief to clamber back on the bus and escape the stories of hardship and despair, and the dust which is stinging the back of my throat. I'm conscious that I can leave so easily and move to an environment of relative comfort. But for these poor people there is no easy exit. Hopefully in about ten days World Vision can begin the food distributions and bring some comfort.

It's going to be a big job. As the survey forms come in it appears some 70,000 families will need food assistance (best estimate as of 26 December 2001). Each will receive a 50kg bag of flour, making 3,500 tonnes of food. The World Food Programme will supply the food and handle the shipping from Iran. World Vision will be responsible for distribution. 350 trucks will be required to ship the flour – a major logistical exercise.

But I pray things will go much further for these people. That the rains will come, that they will be able to return to the land, that the decades of war will be replaced by peace. "God," I say as we make the ponderous journey home, "please give these people a break."

Epilogue: Cold comfort - A Family's Story
Saad Gol fled the drought-stricken countryside for a cold, water-logged home in the city…

"Before the drought we had a good life," says Saad Gol, "because of the drought we have lost everything."

Saad lives in a house in Herat's district seven with her mother and father in law, her six children and her husband.

The house is really a big hole in the ground surrounded by stubby mud walls and domed roof of mud and branches. Getting inside means stooping through a low-entrance way (there is no door) and decending half a dozen rough steps.

When I meet Saad she is boiling up water for tea with her youngest child Ziagol on her lap.

"This is all we have for every day," she says "bread and tea."

She shows me around the three rooms in her home. It's gloomy, dusty, cold and damp. One of her children, Gholam, is wrapped up in a makeshift cot sound asleep. The child is sick - some sort of respiratory problem. Saad describes it as "cold weather in the chest". It's hardly surprising. Under the floor coverings the family has put down layers of straw in an attempt to soak up the water which seeps inside – an inevitable problem in a subterranean house. One can only shudder at the thought of trying to survive a freezing Afghan winter in such a home.

Saad says about a year ago she lost one of her other children – she thinks it's the same thing Gholam has. There is no money for medicines and doctors, she says.

Saad's husband works as a porter in the market on a good day he might make 10,000 Afghanis (about 50 cents) - on a bad day maybe 4,000 or 5,000. To eat properly Saad estimates the family would need at least 150,000 per day. Fortunately the owner of the house does not demand rent – he just asks that they look after the place for him.

Saad would love to return to the land but at the moment cannot see how. They would need at least a pair of ox to plough with and some seeds to get started again she says.

Saad gets emotional when she talks about life on the farm. The way the family had persevered even as their fertile fields turned to bare earth then dry dust. In the end there was no vegetation to feed their animals and nobody who could buy them. The family killed and ate their last goat, then headed for the city.

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