Harsh Season Overwhelms Afghans
Hopes for Progress Battered by War, Weather, Economy and Regional Tension

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

KABUL -- If all the winter woes of Afghanistan could be said to concentrate in one spot, it might be the wind-swept, frozen field on the outskirts of Kabul known as Charai Qamber.

Plastic and burlap tents are clustered on the icy terrain, each colony housing dozens of families who have fled different crises: laborers deported from Iran, longtime refugees forced out of Pakistan by camp closings, farmers from southern Helmand province whose villages were caught in fighting between Taliban insurgents and international troops.

Some families have dug trenches beneath their tents, lined with scraps of carpet, where they can keep a little warmer by sleeping around charcoal braziers. But with temperatures falling to 25 degrees below zero on some recent nights -- exceptionally cold even by Afghan standards -- every night is another ordeal, filled with the sounds of rattling wind and coughing children.

"This place is not fit for human beings. If not for the fighting, we never would have come here," said Ismael Jan, 25, a villager from Helmand squatting in one tent. He said his wife and brother were killed last month when Taliban forces attacked and foreign troops retaliated with a bombing raid. Jan and his neighbors piled into a truck and drove 300 miles, hoping to find help in the capital. "Now here I am with six children, nothing to eat, and no one to defend us from thieves," he said.

Afghans are tough, resilient survivors, accustomed to harsh conditions and recurrent conflict. But this winter, the forces of war, nature, economic crisis and regional tension have converged with a vengeance on this long-suffering populace, further chilling hopes for progress and stability that had been slowly building during six years of internationally backed civilian rule after the overthrow of the Taliban, an Islamic extremist movement.

Heavy snow began falling after the new year, blocking roads across a dozen highland provinces to the west and north. Cut off from help, people and animals began to starve and freeze. By last week, the government said, more than 500 people as well as 200,000 sheep, cows and other livestock had died across the country. Provincial hospitals reported having to amputate fingers and toes of numerous frostbite victims.

The heavy toll has come despite aggressive efforts by Afghan and international relief organizations to provide food and other aid to vulnerable regions before winter set in last year. The U.N. World Food Program, for example, by November had delivered nearly 23,000 metric tons of wheat, oil, rice and other staples to the 17 most winter-affected provinces, enough to feed about 325,000 people until spring.

But as the cold and snow worsened, aid officials said, an unexpected surge in food prices greatly expanded the hunger threat. The cost of wheat flour, the most important staple, rose between 60 and 80 percent, largely because of a drop in food exports from neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Last month, U.N. officials warned that an additional 2.5 million Afghans were at risk and appealed for $77 million to feed them.

"Winters here are always severe, and we were well-prepared for this one. But the massive price increases made the conditions much worse," said Rick Corsino, Afghan country director for the World Food Program. "We calculated there were two and a half million people who before were borderline food-insecure. The price increases pushed them into being high-risk."

Afghan officials said they had also worked hard to prevent a humanitarian disaster. But they complained that lack of coordination and trust between international aid agencies and the government had delayed the relief delivery.

"The help was there, but not in time," said Abdul Matin Edrak, director of the national disaster management administration. "The agencies say they cannot send help until they assess the needs. When people start dying, only then they start to assess." Another problem, he added, is that the vast majority of Afghans are poor, so it is difficult to isolate the neediest. "When a disaster comes, everyone rushes up and says they are suffering."

While some Afghans have been trapped in remote and inaccessible areas, others have been forced to migrate in midwinter because of domestic conflict or international disputes. Both Pakistan and Iran have recently begun forcing stragglers to return home. Pakistan closed two large Afghan refugee camps near the border, and Iran began detaining and deporting Afghan laborers whose work permits had expired.

Barfaq Mahmad Gul, who worked as a laborer in Iran for five years, was arrested three months ago and driven to western Afghanistan, where the worst snowstorms and the most deaths have been reported. He and his family traveled by truck and on foot across the country to Kabul, where he hoped to find work and a place to live. But the capital is overcrowded, jobs are scarce and many residents live in heatless rooms or ruins. The Guls ended up in Charai Qamber, where they spend their days keeping warm around a charcoal tin-can fire, with no plan beyond surviving the winter.

"This is our life now," said Gul, 35, whose two small children sat beside him in the tent, barefoot and sniffling. Behind them were plastic bags of clothes and a single cooking pot, lent by the family in the next tent. "There is nothing here for us, but what choice did we have?"

About 70 families recently reached Charai Qamber from the Sangin district of Helmand. Taliban insurgents have fought fiercely to capture the region over the past year, and U.S. and British forces have retaliated aggressively.

"Our house was bombed and my two brothers were killed," said Rahmatullah, 26, an illiterate farmer, who lifted up a thin jacket to show several half-healed shrapnel wounds. "It's much warmer where we come from, but it is too dangerous to stay. We are poor people and we do not take sides, but when the Taliban come, the foreigners bomb the whole village. It is better to freeze up here where no one will bother us."

As Rahmatullah spoke, a convoy of U.S. military vehicles arrived. Hundreds of people began emerging from their tents and hurrying toward the convoy, some pushing wheelbarrows. American military officers at the scene said they had visited the tent colony several times to bring supplies, with soldiers pooling their own money to buy coal.

Armed U.S. troops repeatedly ordered everyone to fall back, and one Afghan soldier began calling out names. One by one, tent families entered the compound and emerged with a large sack of coal and smaller bags of sugar, oil, wheat and tea. They hurried past the resentful stares of those who had not been called and trundled the precious supplies back to their makeshift homes, footsteps crunching on the frozen field of the Afghan winter.

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