The Rural Relief Association of Afghanistan, a local organization supported by ACT, loads a truck with food bound for hungry people in the Zareh region near Mazar-i-Sharif [see map; where the city is spelled Mazar-e-Sharif]. This long-time partner of ACT members Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid assists displaced people in the area with shelter, food and blankets. UMCOR is a partner with ACT and Church World Service in this hunger relief effort.
On the map Afghanistan looks like a place one can understand. It has towns and mountains. It has roads for people and goods to travel. So why, eight weeks after the worst of the war in Afghanistan was over, were people still eating grass just one inch away on a highway map from the major Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif?
The aid truck sitting in the courtyard of a merchant in that city was one clue. Immobile, out in the cold, it was a world away from official pronouncements about "famine averted" in Afghanistan. At a mound of wheat workers were filling sacks, measuring each scoop against a set of weights on a hand-held scale like those that symbolize justice in the West. Others carried heavy sacks of wheat up a slender wooden ramp, slowly filling the truckbed.
It was early afternoon. Departure was set for six o'clock the next morning. The original plan was for a whole convoy of food trucks, but because of difficulties in logistics, especially on the receiving end, one load was now going as a trial run. Even this test was already several days behind schedule. Unknowns lay ahead as well, including armed clashes at a town along the route where factions were competing to fill the vacuum left by the departed Taliban.
At the destination, a place called Zareh, 10,000 families live in a microcosm of rural Afghanistan. They and their territory are afflicted - by wars, by drought and then war again.
Just weeks before the Zareh region had been a base for Rashid Dostum, a major commander in Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Taliban forces fought him there, burning villages and cutting down trees. But the area proved too inaccessible for the Taliban to conquer. Now Zareh was proving itself too inaccessible for aid.
"Our emergency survey found that, of the 10,000 families living in the Zareh area, one-third need food aid," said Agi Amanullah, regional director for an Afghan aid organization supported by Action by Churches Together. "Half the children under five are malnourished. Of those, 20 percent are severely malnourished."
Amanullah's staff had gone to Zareh from Mazar-i-Sharif as soon as the news of people eating grass got out. They brought some help then. Now, nearly two weeks later, the first truckload of food was almost ready to leave. Ahead lay six or seven hours of very bad roads. Then each sack of flour would be transferred to the back of a donkey for another half-day's journey over even rougher terrain to two villages where conditions were worst. Aid workers would oversee the operation, testing local storage and distribution capacity with this load before food was transported in the quantity needed.
This one operation says much about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan - a calamity born long, long before September 11, but one instantly upstaged by that tragedy and still relegated to its shadows.
As the Zareh truck left on its mission of mercy the British Broadcasting Corporation was reporting similar circumstances in mountains further to the east. A reporter hiked into villages where every family had lost at least one member. The bombing campaign, the BBC concluded in early February, "created a vacuum in the humanitarian food chain that is only just beginning to fill."
At the same time, well south of Zareh, an aid agency was bringing food by truck and donkey to a region called Abdulgan. There, as autumn turned to winter, the last chapter of a hunger saga had unfolded across 55 mountain villages. Casualties unnoticed in the outside world ran "into the thousands", according to a report in the New York Times.
These are Zarehs too. "There could be lots of Zarehs," Amanullah said when the truck was ready.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is trying to find out. For weeks now "Rapid Helicopter Assessment" sorties have been filling in blanks on the map - but only slowly. All during February the missions moved from district to district assessing hunger in vulnerable villages. At the end of the month two more helicopters arrived to expand the operation into more of the drought-stricken western, central and northeastern regions of the country. Meanwhile, on the ground, various aid groups are following up with operations like the one for Zareh.
WFP statistics show that during the war much less food aid entered the country than was needed. Also, most food distributed during that period did not reach far beyond regional centers, according to reports at the time and interviews with local aid workers since then.
The big picture still leaves plenty of room for places like Zareh. From October to the end of February, WFP has shipped 322,000 tons of food into the country. Within Afghanistan 267,000 tons of that have been distributed, according to WFP. This news is mostly good, and steadily improving since the war. However, when millions of people are hungry and those who are hardest to reach are also the most vulnerable, the margin for suffering is still great.
Isolation is compounded by the way aid delivery costs are covered. Subsidies for distributing food aid cover both tonnage and distance. When local transportation is difficult, the rates favor weight over distance. Labor and other costs of handling aid can be met more readily if large amounts of food are moved relatively short distances.
In places like Zareh neighbors help neighbors survive despite years of war and drought. Hungry households gradually sell off their assets, from carpets to donkeys. They gain weeks or months of leeway by eating less and less, mixing grass with flour, and gathering wild plants. Some leave home to find work, ask for help, and send money home.
An Afghan proverb says that rain makes farmers kings but drought makes them beggars. It leaves out everything in between.
"At the beginning of the crisis we agreed with the World Food Program on the danger of starvation," said Mohammad Ehsan, program director for Norwegian Church Aid in Kabul. "After the war WFP shipments have taken the edge off in many places. But much help is still needed, especially in remote places and in provinces like Ghowar and Badghis." In those two northwest provinces, ACT members Christian Aid and Norwegian Church Aid are both providing assistance. Local ACT partners are currently surveying rural needs there and elsewhere. They will need new funds in order to respond to what they are finding.
Back in Zareh, more aid is now due. How are its thousands of hungry families doing? Did the full aid convoy make it? News should be on its way out - by foot, donkey and truck, by radio, cell phone and e-mail.
Zareh is only an inch away from help.
Photos credit: Jonathan Frerichs/ACT International. Click on any photo to see a larger version.
UMCOR 9/11 Update September 2004: UMCOR's response to the aftermath of September 11 continues. We thank are thankful for all of contributions that United Methodists and others have so generously given.
Source: Action by Churches Together, http://www.act-intl.org.