an area of the map for world news.
the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No.
the Winter on Mulberries
Rüesch, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (conservative), Zurich,
Switzerland, May 5, 2001
from the rest of the country, tens of thousands of people
in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan live in increasingly
Afghan refugee stands near a group of women the end of June
2001 in Lala Guzar refugee camp, in Afghanistan's northeastern
Takhar province. (Photo: AFP)
The first European face we have seen in our week of travel
through northern Afghanistan belongs to a Russian major, who
is serving out his lonely tour of duty here on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan
border, at the foot of snow-covered 20,000-foot mountains.
Although Moscow gave the Muslim republics of Central Asia
their independence a decade ago, Russian soldiers stationed
along the border river, the Panj, patrol the border on behalf
of Tajikistans government.
For the people of the high valleys in the Pamir Mountains,
the border is both a blessing and a curse. For centuries the
Panj was not a dividing line for the tribes living on both
its banks. But in the 19th-century struggle between Britain
and czarist Russia for the last unoccupied territory in Central
Asia, the region suddenly attained strategic importance. In
1895 London and St. Petersburg agreed to establish the Panj
as the southern frontier of the Russian Empire. The Russians
kept to the agreement for some eight decades, until Soviet
troops crossed the river in 1979 to occupy Afghanistan.
While the U.S.S.R.s military adventure created chaos
in Afghanistan, on the other side of the border, in the Tajik
province of Gorno-Badakhshan, the Soviet era is looked back
upon in a favorable light. And no wonder. For strategic reasons
Moscow gave enormous aid to the border region, building roads,
hospitals, and even a university.
Standing on the banks of the Panj today, one feels oneself
on the dividing line between two worlds. On the Tajik side
an excellent asphalted road assures rapid progress, while
the scree on the Afghan bank is interrupted only by narrow
donkey tracks. Tajik girls hurry off to school, while on the
Afghan side hardly any females show themselves in public.
With just a few strokes of the paddle, our inflatable boat
reaches the Afghan bank. The only means of transportation
in sight is the district governors donkey. The governor
has come to the riverbank with a group of men from surrounding
villages to receive delivery of a relief shipment. A
week longer and many people wouldnt have survived,
he says, while his men load sacks of American grain, delivered
by the humanitarian organization Focus.
The district we are visiting, Shugnan, has a population of
about 20,000 and is on the brink of famine. According to the
district governor, the first hunger deaths have already occurred.
Situated at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, the soil here
is poor and the small plots at the foot of the mountains are
not enough to feed the inhabitants.
Formerly, the people here were able to get grain from markets
on the other side of the mountains. But that is hardly possible
any longer. Bad harvests throughout Afghanistan and a food
blockade by the Taliban against the Northern Alliance have
resulted in tremendous inflation. And these villages must
also care for several hundred refugees who have recently fled
eastward from the Taliban.
After a march through the snow, we reach the village of Demurgan,
a collection of poor mud huts. In one of them, we are welcomed
by 40-year-old Ghaffur. His house is typical of the Pamir
region, with a central living space that serves as both bedroom
and kitchen. The place is totally bare, except for a few bundles
of straw and a cradle holding Ghaffurs third child.
Ghaffur, a schoolteacher, explains that he has received no
wages since the Islamic revolution in 1992. He
tries to support his family by collecting firewood and doing
occasional part-time work. Does he at least have some land
he can cultivate? Only one ser, he replies. In
this region, that means about 478 square yards, enough on
which to grow 77 pounds of grain at best. Ghaffur says that
his wheat supply is exhausted, and his next harvest will not
be until July. Asked what the family will eat until then,
he pulls out a plate with a small heap of dried mulberriesthe
sum total of this households food supply.
The regions supply situation is worsened by its extreme
isolation from the rest of Afghanistan. The provincial capital,
Faizabad, is a six-day march away12 days during the
winter. Under these circumstances, the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the resulting permeability of the border constitute
an enormous opportunity. Shugnans villages are much
more easily supplied from the Tajik side of the river than
from the Afghan hinterland. Thanks to the cooperative attitude
of Russian border troops, the relief organization Focus can
use several informal border crossings for its deliveries.
Focus representative Aly Mawji is convinced that targeted
foreign aid and long-term development efforts can not only
avert a famine but also give the local populace an opportunity
to reduce their dependency on drug trafficking and consumption.
But the flow of drugs into Tajikistan continues to flourish;
it is a business in which local militia commanders are indisputably
There is a long tradition of opium abuse in Shugnan and Ishkashim.
Raw opium is easy to find in the regions marketplaces.
According to Dr. Shams, head of the local clinic, an addict
consumes a tooli (17 grams) of opium every one to four days.
Its monetary value is equivalent to the price of seven kilograms
of wheat. An addicts habit is the ruination of himself
and his family.
The reasons for the widespread malady are complex; economic
worries are not in themselves enough of an explanation. Equally
responsible, apparently, is the backwardness of the health-care
system. Very few people here have access to pharmaceuticals,
while opium has been used for generations as a universal pain
remedy and is even given to children. The result is often
a lifetime of dependency. Another factor is the behavior of
some drug dealers who distribute opium on credit and accept
a portion of the next harvest as security. In this way, many
farmers find themselves sliding ever deeper into a vicious
cycle of addiction and financial dependence.