In Pashtun culture, it is considered unmanly to weep. So when Abdul Wahid broke down in front of us, it was a shock. "I am so tense and worried that I cannot sleep at night," he said. "Sometimes I feel like killing myself, because I am so helpless."
The 55-year-old farmer, like many men in this part of north-west Pakistan, has two wives. They share a one-room mud-brick house in Safar, a remote hilltop village in Buner district, with 15 children, including two from the marriage of the eldest daughter, whose husband is away seeking work in the city. They were already among the poorest families in a poor community when Abdul Wahid developed heart problems two years ago, but he was just about able to cope, with the help of his neighbours.
Life is never easy in Safar. It requires a bone-jarring journey up a dirt road from a valley far below to get there. The views from the village are stunning, but it takes the inhabitants three hours to carry their produce to market, and children must walk an hour to reach the nearest school. The soil is fertile, though: in normal times, farmers in Buner and the neighbouring Swat valley can subsist with a small patch of land and some livestock – here, unlike most of Pakistan, the staple crops are wheat and maize rather than rice. During the frigid winters, the men would seek labouring work as far away as Lahore and Karachi. But the recession has hit hard, and migrant work has been increasingly hard to find. Then drought wrecked the last maize crop.
What has pushed Abdul Wahid to the brink of suicide, however, is the result of Islamist extremism. The grip of the Pakistani Taliban on this mountainous region tightened over several years until last spring, when militants linked to al-Qa'ida took over Buner district. "They surrounded this whole area," said one of the village elders. "We had nothing they wanted to take from us, but when the army attacked, there was artillery shelling and firing from helicopters." Almost every one of Safar's 250 families escaped on foot over the mountains.
For Abdul Wahid it was an unforgettable ordeal. "Most people reached safety in a few hours, but it took me five days and five nights, because I had to keep stopping to catch my breath," he said. "One wife went ahead with the children, while the other stayed with me. As we passed villages we had to beg for food and shelter." His heart condition also prevented him queuing up for the rations distributed in the camps set up for people displaced by the fighting. Once again he had to turn to others to help him.
But the war that engulfed Buner and Swat – a war fought at the urging of Britain and the West – has left everyone in Safar closer to destitution, with less to spare for Abdul Wahid and his family. "I don't have food to give my family," he said. "I don't have money for heart medicine. I feel a great burden weighing on me."
The wheat crop was ready for harvest when the military offensive began, but was ruined by the time the villagers returned to their homes, which means they have no seed to sow for next year. A 12-hour curfew remains in force, and the army has told farmers not to plant maize, for fear that the tall stalks could hide armed infiltrators. Fruit orchards were also cut down to deny the militants cover. In the confusion of the fighting, many families lost their livestock, a common store of wealth in the region, or had to sell their animals at a fraction of the market price as they fled.
ActionAid, the charity The Independent on Sunday is supporting in its Christmas appeal, is working with local partners in Buner and Swat districts to get farmers back on their feet. It is giving seed, fertiliser and fruit tree saplings to families so that they can start growing food again. Some of the poorest are receiving cows to supplement their incomes. One of ActionAid's most valuable projects is to send out teams to help villagers apply for identity cards. The authorities are distributing rations to tide people over the winter – but only if they are registered. In the more deprived areas, where few can read or write, the procedures are not widely understood, and women, in particular, miss out. Only 16 people in Safar village, we discovered, had identity cards.
But to an extent unknown in more individualistic societies, people in the world's poorest communities come together to overcome disasters that would leave most of us too devastated to carry on. Those who, by our standards, have virtually nothing help those who are even worse off; everybody does what they can. And that, it turned out, was what had reduced Abdul Wahid to tears: the feeling that he was unable to contribute.
"I have to be part of the community," he kept saying, "but I have nothing I can give." He and the people of Safar are part of a wider community, however – one that is able to give. With your help, ActionAid can deliver hope to innocent victims such as Abdul Wahid, whose life has been ruined by a conflict intended to make us safer.
The Independent on Sunday's Christmas appeal is supporting the work of ActionAid in Pakistan, where millions of civilians have lost their homes and livelihoods in the battle against al-Qa'ida and its allies. Your donations to ActionAid, which has been working in the country since 1992, will help these people rebuild their lives.
£24 can provide cereal and vegetable seeds, and fertiliser to a family
£40 will supply 15 saplings to start an orchard
£95 is the cost of a cow to supplement a poor household's income
£190 will buy 10 families basic food supplies to get through winter
To donate to the IoS Christmas Appeal and actionaid visit: http://www.actionaid.org.uk/iosReuse content