Graveyards outgrow villages in Afghan starvation belt

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The Independent Online

Grain has become the only currency that matters in Afghanistan's hunger belt, now into its fourth year of a drought, which has destroyed the rural economy.

In the remote mountain villages of the Badghis province in the west, people have been reduced to selling their daughters for grain. Ahmed Shah sold his seven-year-old daughter for five sacks of wheat. And he is just one of dozens of men who Oxfam believe have sold their daughters. For many years an elaborate dowry system has ensured that girls have a value for marriage. But the price has never been so low before, nor the arrangements so desperate.

In one village I visited, Sia Sangh, which is two hours' walk from the nearest road, the graveyard looks bigger than the village, every house seems to have lost at least one family member. And some houses are completely empty because of death through diseases connected with hunger. TB has taken hold in the area, and there are no doctors. Men sit listlessly on their doorsteps, some too weak to make the walk across rough mountain paths to collect food. A dried-up water course goes through the centre of the village. In better times it carried the melted snow off the peaks in the spring. But now there is only a light dusting of snow, which will not fill the aquifers that feed the village well. More remote mountain villages higher up now have no wells at all, so that villagers are forced to walk for up to a day to collect water.

Tahir Shah, a boy dressed in rags, said that his whole family had died in the past year, including his father and mother, three sisters and one brother. He lives with relatives. The tight clan structures here have kept away the worst effects of the drought but this winter has been the harshest yet, mainly because of the disruption to aid supplies caused by the fighting and the American bombing.

Many families have left this region in desperation to fill the squalid refugee camps around the western city of Herat. Half of the houses in Sia Sangh are empty, and the cumulative effects of the prolonged crisis have had disastrous consequences. Even until last summer there were still a few animals left. Now the sheep and cattle have all been eaten or sold, so the only animals that remain are donkeys used as pack animals.

On the narrow track that snakes around the ravine up to the village I met Abdullah Shah with three donkeys carrying sacks of wheat. But they had not come directly from aid distribution stock. He had "borrowed'' them from the bazaar after giving all of the wheat he received in aid last month to grain-lenders.

Much of the first shipment of food that Oxfam made last month went directly to the grain lenders. They had given food on credit, and now the most vulnerable have to pay them before they can take any wheat for themselves. Pumping in enough food to fill the vacuum has not yet been possible. The author is a BBC foreign correspondent.

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