Documenting the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan (2001)
By Pieternella Pieterse
Pieternella Pieterse is a free-lance photojournalist. Based in Ethiopia, she travels extensively throughout eastern and central Africa. Earlier this year she travelled to Afghanistan with Concern in order to document the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
It is June 2001- an email comes in about the Irish agency Concern stepping up their operations in Afghanistan. I had been doing a lot of free-lance photo work for Concern in the past three years so I write an email back to their head office wondering if this means that more photographs and case studies are also needed. An unexpected 'yes please'-reply means I am on a plane out from my 'base' in Addis Ababa to Islamabad barely a week after the first email came in...
My plane arrives in at 3 AM, a good time for me to adjust to the heat, not so nice for the field staff who wait for me at the airport. A UNOCHA plane takes me across the Hindu Kush to Faizabad the next day. Concern's Phil Miller is waiting for me by the side of the airstrip and a briefing starts as soon as we get into the vehicle.
This three months before the attack on the twin towers in NY, and three months before much of the world discovered where Afghanistan actually was. Then, there were already many thousands of IDPs living in Northern Alliance (NA) held territory, ignored by most of the world, with little or no aid reaching them.
Farida, one of the two Afghan women who work for Concern in Faizabad, helps me out as a translator for the duration of my trip. She provided me with incredible access to women everywhere we went as well as with great insight into what it is like to be a young, educated woman in Afghanistan today. She studied at university in Kabul; she wore trousers then and had male friends. It all ended when the Taliban started clamping down on people in Kabul, her father lost his teaching job when the school closed and the family moved north where they originally came from.
Concern's work in the Northern Alliance-held territory has two target groups; war IDPs and drought affected populations. In Faizabad and Dashti Qala towns we visit the war IDPs. In the Faizabad there is some relief effort, a number of international NGOs have had their offices in Faizabad since the 1998 earthquake. In Dashti Qala it is a different matter. We find a number of informal IDP camps dotted around the outskirts of the town. There is little aid available to these people; the frontline is close so many NGOs have consciously refrained from establishing any presence here. The lack of facilities hasn't persuaded the IDPs to leave, there is nowhere else to go in this drought stricken area, at least in the town there is a chance of finding casual employment or to beg for food. Concern has built a large amount of latrines in the IDP camps, which help to keep hygiene levels acceptable. Most people I spoke to had lived under plastic sheeting through the 2000-2001 winter, in the snow. They were about to go into a soaring hot summer when I was there and by now, I guess winter is upon them again.
In the Nuw Abad IDP camp the mood is desperate. We are mobbed by people who want to get their name on our list. But we have no list... I interview women who were abused and tortured by Taliban soldiers as they attacked their villages in last year's 'summer offensive'. Many have lost husbands and sons in the struggle, all are ethnic Tajik or Uzbek.
Concern had, before last winter, encouraged local families to take in IDP families, with some success. We visit IDPs who live with host families. In many cases, the local population had seen it as their duty to take in the IDPs. The host families were helped by Concern with some food aid and with the construction of a latrine in their compounds. Some host families have now worked out a 'rent' agreement but many IDPs are staying for free.
From the war IDPs in Dashti Qala we move on to the town of Dashtak, the epicentre of the 1998 earthquake. On the roads (if you can call them that!) between Faizabad and Dashtak we stop to talk to men working on road improvement as part of a Food For Work project implemented by Concern. Many are from Dashtak and surrounding areas. I talk to women about their lives. They feel hopeless. Three consecutive years of drought has left them with no food or livestock on their land and while they are allowed to farm their own land, there is no chance of them finding jobs working for others. So they are not only dependent on aid, they are also dependent, more than ever, on their husbands to work to get this food. A number of widows are included in different food distributions that run alongside the FFW distributions but not enough to feed all the vulnerable families. I found many women were not widowed but simply waiting at home for their husbands to return from places where they had gone to look for work. These women had no access to FFW or 'widow welfare' rations, but had to beg for food. One woman had heard that her husband had been spotted in Iraq; another heard her husband had gone to a town just before the Taliban had attacked it.
On the way back to Faizabad we stop in a village called Begum. Here too drought has turned the surrounding hills into sand dunes. All women we talk to are wives of men working on the road, they have returned recently. This village was deserted for a year until the road project started. The FFW project is the only source of income in this area and these families have returned from their desperate searches for work in towns 2-3 days walk away. The WFP rations aren't very big considering between how many they are shared but still this is the best deal around in this drought stricken area where all the (relative) wealth lies on the Taliban held side of the frontline.
Drought effected populations along the Puli-Begum road, Takhar Province
For the past two years, Afghanistan has been hit by the worst drought in memory. For the large majority, the Afghan population is made up of subsistence farmers who are solely dependant on what they grow on their plots of land.Worst hit were the farmers who live and plant on land which is not covered by the extensive irrigation systems that are in place in many parts of Afghanistan. People in the highlands of Takhar only have the seasonal rains to rely on for watering their crops, as their villages are too far from any rivers to be irrigated. When the rains failed last year, people had to resort to selling their livestock and some household goods to buy grain from irrigated land far away.When their carefully saved up and planted seeds shrivelled up and died due to this year's lack of rain, people ran out of ways to cope. Many packed up whatever they had and left their villages. Scores of deserted villages were the result of a mass hungerinduced exodus. Recently some people in the area have been able to come back. Concern started a Food-For-Work (FFW) project at the end of May 2001 and many families have taken the chance to move home to earn a living by upgrading the road that passes though their villages.
The plains outside the town of Dashti Qala must be one of the worst places an IDP population could have settled. Still, lack of alternatives has forced over 100 families to do so. Too close to the front line according to some organisations, this large group of people has spent the best part of a year on the dusty, windy, valley floor outside the town. Exposed to the elements, children have died of hypothermia in the winter and as the summer is on its way, many more are at risk of heatstroke and dehydration.
Zarghuna Sunhanqul and her family have been living on the plains for ten months; under an old tent canvas with the ends barely touching the ground and side entrances flapping in the wind. Zarghuna, her husband and three of their four children share the tiny space, while the eldest daughter and her husband live under a sheet of plastic next door. "For the future; I don't know. Only if the Taliban leaves can we go back. Otherwise we will have to stay here. I cannot imagine how we will get through another winter here."
Drought effected populations along the Puli-Begum road, Takhar Province
In the doorway of the army administration building that has been turned into shelter, stands a frail woman holding a tiny baby. Zemrad the mother, came with her husband and four children from Boharaq village in Takhar province and like all others in the shelter, fled the Taliban army that captured their homes. "We are poor, we have nothing more to sell.We have received no food in 5 months. All I do is go begging and ask for scraps of food. My husband just leaves the camp because he can't stand it. Sometimes he stays away for 2 or 3 days. He sleeps on the streets. He is sick. He wants to go home but we can't. People are still fighting."
Naser Begum is around 40 years old. She lives in one of the tents along the river with her four sons. Her face is marked with sorrow and grief. Naser lost her husband in a Taliban bombardment only 10 months ago. She is in mourning, but has little time to do so, as she struggles to make ends meet and to somehow make sure she and her children survive. "First we lived in Lewa camp on the other side of town, but it was very crowded.We came here because the river is nearby and at least we have water.We were in this tent all through the winter. It was very cold. It was muddy and sometimes there was snow on the ground. The situation is bad. The water from the river is dirty, but we have no other choice then to drink it.We haven't received any food in 5 months. I sold all the things I had save a few cups and blankets, I have nothing left that I could sell to buy food. I am sending my children out to beg for scraps and that is what we live on at the moment."
The Concern road building project has not only drawn the most recent drought displaced people back to the villages along the Khana Qa - Dashtak road, it has also drawn back families who left in 1998 and who have been facing hard times in the town they moved to. Mumajan Amra is the mother of one such family. In 1998 she lost 8 members of her extended family in the earthquake, including her 16-year-old son. They moved away to the town of Rustaq where she looked after her blind husband while her older sons found employment to care for the family. The mother of 8 wears a typical 'city' outfit, a little different in colour and cut than one is used to in these dusty villages, she stands out a little in the group of Dashtak women she has just rejoined.
Qamargul Saidahir is 31 years old. She lives in the village of Bikha on the Khana Qa to Dashtak road. Her house is no more than four low, mud walls, with what looks like a tent canvas covering the top to keep out the sun and some of the dust. She is shockingly skinny and sways dizzily as she gets up to shake our hand. "I am sick," is the first things she says, as if to excuse herself for her skeletal appearance. "As we sit down she sums up what is happening to her. "My husband has gone away to look for work. He is in Iran and he has left me and our daughter behind. He hasn't sent us any food, we haven't heard from him at all. I am sick, I don't know what it is, and I have no money to see a doctor." Her hands trail in the air and tears roll down her cheeks. "I don't know what to do anymore. How am I supposed to feed my daughter? How are we going to survive?"
IDPs, Now Abad, Dashti Qala, Takhar Province When the Taliban advanced on Takhar province in the summer of 2000, many civilians fled northeast, to the north of the province, which was, and is, still in hands of the Northern Alliance. The town of Dasthi Qala and its surrounding villages, with its open plains became a popular destination, despite the proximity to the front line... By June 2001, 3000 families, as many as 20,000 IDPs were living in Dashti Qala town and adjacent villages. Luckily, some IDPs found shelter with host families, living in much more comfortable conditions than the majority of their fellow displaced, who are forced to live in the open in a large and windy plain.
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Reference this page
Documenting the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan (2001). Field Exchange 14, November 2001. p15. www.ennonline.net/fex/14/june