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Afghans Still Suffer Many Deprivations - 2002-01-09

After war and drought, the needs of Afghans are great, but they are not being met. Food, clothing and other goods are reaching some areas, though not enough. Continued fighting, unpredictable warlords and inadequate delivery are keeping relief from those who may need it most.

In the village of Bonavash in northern Afghanistan, a young woman named Fatima boils grass to soften it, then mixes it with barley flour to be baked into a resemblance of bread.

That has been her family's diet for a year, according to the Guardian newspaper, and two of her children have died of it. Still another has fallen ill. Between drought and war, there is nothing else to eat. In the summer, at least the grass is softer.

The World Food Program has trucked 1,000 tons of flour to the area, but it has yet to reach Bonavash or other starving villages. The cost of the donkeys to transport it is said to be too high, though far less than the least expensive munition dropped in the area.

Elizabeth Kvitashvili, USAID representative for Central Asia, says this is the major problem. "Targetting the right people who need food aid and making sure that there is transportation available out to some of these more remote areas where the most needy people are," she said. "Given the distances, given the logistical constraints of Afghanistan - poor roads, snow - it is a very daunting feat."

Another obstacle is the arrival of bandits who have no scruples about stealing food from relief convoys. In the now lawless city of Jalalabad, they then sell the food to visiting westerners.

Atiqullah Mohmand, U.N. coordinator for refugees in the area, told the New York Times that every time he tries to distribute wheat, armed men grab it. He does not drive into the city because they would also take his car. He blames conditions on the local commander, whom he fears to name.

Not all the returning warlords behave this way, says Edmund McWilliams, who served in Afghanistan with the U.S. State Department. "If they are loyal to the new administration in Kabul and assist in the distribution of humanitarian assistance, that can be good," he said. "It is a question of whether or not they exercise their power in a positive way. People like Ismael Khan in Herat in the past have been essentially positive forces."

Mr. McWilliams says U.S. troops helped the warlords defeat the Taleban. They could not have done it alone. Now there should be some U.S. supervision of their postwar conduct.

If the warlords turn to crime and defy the central government, says Mr. McWilliams, Afghanistan faces a bleak future, " he said. "Unless the international community and the new administration in Kabul address the problem of these rogue elements, particularly in the south and in the east, it is conceivable that the people may turn their support back toward Taleban-like elements in order to insure there is security in their local areas," said Edmund McWilliams.

If the warlords are under control and Afghanistan is at peace, Elizabeth Kvitashvili thinks reconstruction can be rapid. Afghans are born entrepreneurs, she says, as they demonstrated on the ruined streets of Kabul even under Taleban rule. "There is an expectation that over time the programs that are focusing on emergency needs will transition into programs that are looking at the longer term reconstruction of the country, primarily in the agricultural sector, in the health sector and in education," she said.

A little help can go a long way in Afghanistan, says Fred Hochberg, former deputy director of the Small Business Administration in Washington.

He writes in the New York Times that only $50 can buy a used refrigerator to keep produce fresh, a sewing machine for faster stitching, a bicycle for deliveries. These small transactions are reducing poverty around the globe, he says, and are well suited for Afghanistan.