'The people are starving - we need to get back in to help'

Terror in America: Aid Work
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The Independent Online

As the Western world watched the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, the people of Afghan-istan would have been oblivious to the events or the ramifications they would have on their own lives. The Taliban has banned television and most people, even in the country's second-largest city, Herat, do not have a radio.

When I spoke to one of our Christian Aid workers after he reached Peshawar (Pakistan) he said it had just been a normal day. Many people would never have heard of New York, let alone the World Trade Centre.

Two days after the terrible events in New York and Washington, when our foreign workers were pulling out, the only reaction they got were anxious, puzzled looks. The people could not understand why they were going. Even then they had no idea what was going on. Though thousands are now leaving – the UN report 65 per cent of Jalalabad's inhabitants have fled – some villagers in more remote regions probably still know nothing about this.

Of course, one of our immediate concerns was how this was going to affect our workers, local and expatriate. We had to withdraw because of security concerns and because the UN and Red Cross, who provide the only flights to Herat, were pulling out.

But I do worry about the women I worked with and fear for them. The situation was already difficult. When I arrived in November 1999, I was shocked to see just how bad the conditions were, especially for the women. The educated and more wealthy people left years ago. Most of the ones still there are on the verge of starvation. The country has suffered a three-year drought, the worst in living memory. There is armed conflict in 17 out of its 32 provinces. Villagers are just worried about how they are going to feed their children.

Since the American attacks, we have heard messages from inside, saying food and fuel prices have rocketed. The World Food Programme had already estimated that, by November, 5.5 million people would be dependent on food aid. Our local workers, who remain in the country, are still trying to do what they can using existing stockpiles but there is no WFP aid getting in. The WFP is still distributing in Herat but, across the country, they say they have only one or two weeks of food left.

As a Westerner visiting the country and meeting the women there, I never felt any animosity from anybody. On the contrary, the women were extremely generous and welcoming and frequently tried to give me presents.

The professional women, the former bankers or professors in the cities obviously feel envious of Westerners and they are frustrated at their own position but, in the villages where the Taliban's impact has been least felt, lives are much like any other subsistence society in the world. Wells have dried up, even in Herat. Women have to walk a mile or more to get water but the restrictions do not allow them to go this far from home without their husband. Even when they get to the well, often they find the water is heavily contaminated. Children die from drinking it, usually from cholera.

But the women I met had incredible spirit and humour. They are not willing victims. Some of the younger ones have been refugees in Iran and have seen another way of life, where women were entitled to education and could find fresh vegetables in the market. Out of sight of the men, the Afghan women open up and talk about their lives and worries. For a moment, you could think you were talking to women back home. Then you remember their children have swollen bellies from lack of food.

Under other circumstances, in a different place, these women might have gone to university or studied a trade. Under the Taliban the only professional work open to them is in the few health centres. Some have managed to find a way round the restrictions. In the bigger cities, they have set up secret schools in their homes.

Being a woman, I didn't meet with the Taliban, although you could see them on the street. It is easy to tell which ones they are because they wear a particular style of turban. And all the soldiers, you know they're the Taliban, because they are only ones allowed to be. But, in any case, I didn't spend much time on the streets. It is not that it was not safe; it is more that women just do not go out, unless they are in large group.

In towns, the Afghan women are not allowed to be seen by men without their blue burqa. But they try to live as dignified a life as possible. At Christian Aid, we train birth attendants, basic midwives, because it is so hard to get to the nearest hospital. Most other women acting as midwives are untrained. I heard of one who would use the sole of her shoe to cut the umbilical cord. Infant mortality is desperately high.

Lots of friends in Britain ask me how I can visit countries such as Afghanistan and Kosovo now I have a son. But, for me, going to these countries and seeing girls and boys who I know will not be alive next time I go, makes me more determined to work for an aid agency. We want to go back to Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Alison Kelly, married, 43, and from Devon, is the head of Christian Aid's Middle East, East and Central Asia Team. She has worked for the charity for six years.