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back of beyond

by Macarena Aguilar

The World Food Programme estimates that in Afghanistan some 3 million people are severely affected by the drought and an additional 8 million less directly.

Two decades of conflict and three consecutive years of drought have combined to steadily worsen the plight of the majority of Afghans. In some of the most inaccessible parts of the country, timely aid is a matter of life or death for hundreds of thousands of people.

" Our current priority in terms of relief is to ensure that people living in the areas worst hit by the conflict and drought don't have to consume their supplies of seed to stay alive, as was the case last winter," explains Robert Monin, ICRC head of delegation in Afghanistan.
For more or less three months, Robert has been in charge of one of the ICRC's oldest, largest, costliest and most complex operations worldwide. As he describes, with both passion and concern, the situation in Afghanistan and what the ICRC, together with the Federation and the Afghan Red Crescent, can and must do to help, his deputy, Martin Amacher, walks into the office. Somewhat nervously, Martin announces that two teams working in the Ghor region for the past fortnight have been caught in a snowstorm, the trucks carrying supplies for distribution have been immobilized and the del-egates accompanying them might have to spend the night in their vehicles.

After a few seconds of silence, Robert says: "It's the end of March, we assumed that the worst of the bad weather was over and we could finally reach one of the most needy and remote areas in this country."

Undoubtedly, the news comes as a blow to the relief team which had just spent more than a month finalizing every detail of the operation in Ghor whose aims are multiple. On the one hand to provide seed for some 10,000 farming families hoping it will enable them to stay in their villages rather than move on to other parts of Afghanistan or to neighbouring countries, where they will probably be totally dependent on the generosity of the humanitarian community. On the other hand, to carry out an in-depth survey of the population's needs as a basis for planning follow-up activities by the ICRC and the Federation.

As so often happens in Afghanistan, however, another unexpected turnabout, this time in the weather, allows the teams in Ghor to proceed with their work.

"Although rain is desperately needed, we're hoping for another two weeks of blue skies. Once it starts to rain, the few roads in the area will become useless quagmires. So we are now working against time. If the harvest is to be ready by June, farmers must have seed and sow it as soon as possible," says Lukas Heitzmann, ICRC delegate in charge of the operation.
Ghor, with its 400,000 inhabitants, is the most sparsely populated region in Afghanistan. Its arid and mountainous landscape, covering roughly 38,000 square kilometres, is situated in the middle of the country between two highly populated regions, Herat and Kabul. Ghor is among the few areas that are still partly controlled by anti-Taliban forces and, owing to the difficult security situation and the three years of severe drought, its inhabitants continue to swell the ranks of the displaced.

Many people in Lashkara depend on food assistance to survive the combined effects of war and drought.


Assessing the needs

As elsewhere in the country, the means of communication in Ghor are rudimentary. It takes two and a half hours along rough dirt tracks to cover 55 kilometres and reach Qale Seyah, a tiny village of adobe huts where some 400 people are barely eking out a living. Before last winter set in the ICRC distributed food rations so that the population could survive once their community, as many others in the area, was cut off by heavy snow.

The village elders greet us with moving graciousness. They know the distribution this year will consist of seed and food rations that are to last until the next harvest, still another three months away. "Before the drought and the looting in the village, we were rich," says Rabia over and over again. She is one of the women of Qale Seyah helping the joint ICRC/ Federation survey team collect information on living conditions in the village. Rabia, who doesn't know her exact age, has one of those weather-beaten faces and is unusually forthcoming for an Afghan woman. "We used to have all kinds of livestock," she continues, "but who knows how many of us would have died last winter if it hadn't been for the food we received from the ICRC?"

During an entire day, the survey team gathers information on food security, health care, farming and the means developed by the community itself to deal with the effects of the conflict and drought, by talking with the village elders and the women whose homes visited.

"We really are reaching extremely remote places, where many people have never seen a foreigner. It's hard to describe - just reaching some of the villages is a feat in itself," says Carol Osborne, Federation health
delegate and nutritionist on one of the survey teams. As she speaks, Carol tries to hide her mouth behind the mandatory veil. She is nursing a serious sunburn to her lips suffered a few days earlier during an eight-hour journey on horseback to one of the most isolated villages.

While the survey teams pursue their work, simultaneous distributions of seed and food rations are being carried out in various parts of the region.

Reaching the distribution point

It is nine in the morning. Everything seems to be going according to plan. The usual bouncing of the passengers of the vehicle has begun thanks to the road leading to Lashkara, one of the day's distribution points. After a two-hour drive bordering towering mountains, we reach a spot where people are pressing around trucks loaded with sacks and crates. No doubt, those are our own trucks which, by some miracle, have completed the 480-kilometre journey from Herat, after four days.

Shaking his head slightly, Lukas puts on the emergency brake and, with surprising equanimity, prepares to get out of the vehicle. "This is why we are here," he says, "to solve problems." After a brief discussion with a group of partly curious and partly anxious men who close in around him, a rope attached to two poles on either side of the road, which served as a checkpoint, is lowered.

"Weather problems aside, we mustn't forget that we're operating on disputed territory. Every time we want to go somewhere, we first have to discuss it with all those in control of the area to ensure the safety of our personnel and, of course, of the beneficiaries. And, believe me, this takes an enormous amount of time," explains Lukas.

Once in Lashkara, it is all abuzz with dozens of ICRC workers unloading trucks, organizing people into lines and checking lists of beneficiaries, while men of all ages pour in from nearby villages astride donkeys or horses. They appear over the hills as if from nowhere wearing the typical robes and large turbans. Some 572 heads of households are expected.

By mid-morning, the distribution place has taken on the look of a fairground. The men stand around, each patiently awaiting his turn to collect his portion.
Mahmoud already has his. It took him an entire day to reach there. He, claims to be 90 years old but is probably closer to 70. Some of the younger men help him load his sacks of food and seed onto two donkeys. He appears satisfied as he prepares to leave. "Now, we must just hope for rain," he says, grinning broadly.

Macarena Aguilar
Macarena Aguilar is ICRC press officer for Asia and Latin America.

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