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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

Surviving the Winter on Mulberries

Andreas Rüesch, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (conservative), Zurich, Switzerland, May 5, 2001

An 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)
Isolated from the rest of the country, tens of thousands of people in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan live in increasingly dire circumstances.

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 Tajikistan’s 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 governor’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Ghaffur’s 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 mulberries—the sum total of this household’s food supply.

The region’s supply situation is worsened by its extreme isolation from the rest of Afghanistan. The provincial capital, Faizabad, is a six-day march away—12 days during the winter. Under these circumstances, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting permeability of the border constitute an enormous opportunity. Shugnan’s 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 involved.

There is a long tradition of opium abuse in Shugnan and Ishkashim. Raw opium is easy to find in the region’s 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 addict’s 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.

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