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
" 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
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
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 is ICRC press officer for Asia and Latin
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