AFGHANISTAN: AN EPICENTRE OF SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL TRAGEDIES, A COUNTRY OF BRAVE PEOPLE


Italy: Months ago, Said Karim, a supervisor of demining activities in the Western Afghan region of Herat, wanted to show to a foreign visitor something nice from his beloved country; something different than landmines and Uxo (bad Ufo, in a sense: unexploded ordonances) that pollute 724 million of square meters of useful land. Said, only 30, born in the region of Ghazni, had been working to remove the landmines and Ufo for the past 10 years, putting his life in danger every day, for 120 dollars per month. His yeys showed a lot of compassion when he saw chidren with no legs, peasants with no hand due to mines accidents. But that day, he wanted to show us something nice. Therefore, Said’s finger pointed out, not far from Herat city, a green line under the spoiled hills: “It is a small portion of the former pistachio forest; and it was a place for pic-nics, before the eighties”.

From the “pistachio forest” to dust planes The deminer Said Karim, the “soldier” of this army of peace (4.000 Afghans work as deminers in the more successful and cheap demining program of the world) is no more there: his mission of recreating the soil, of giving back the land to peasants and preventing children to lose their legs was stopped some months ago: an Uxo blowed him up. He is buried in Herat. Since then, many things changed in Afghanistan. Huge bomb rains from the sky, instead of water. There was – and still there is – a war made from the highest skies by the biggest superpower against one of the poorest countries of the world.

The forest Said showed us was covering a belt from the West up to the East of the country. Not much remains. Not much remains of any Afghan forest indeed. Decades of long war caused massive depletion to forest resources and wildlife species. In the last years, the various mujaidin factions and then the Taleban allowed a lot of tree-cutting, for logging and smuggling precious wood to Gulf countries and Japan.

The three years long drought – before the recent “war against terrorism” – did the rest, damaging the traditional Afghan agriculture, based on weat and vegetables, apart from subsistance livestock. Afghanistan, a country known only for the oppy cultivation, was home of a lot of agricultural products: weat and barley, grapes (Afghanistan was exporting dozens of varieties, naturally dried) and other fruits, almonds and oilseeds, vegetables, sesam, oranges.

There were millions of olive trees in the East of the country; now they are abandoned, or cut, and no oil is available for the cooking purposes, to produce soaps and to give some relief to the dried skins of the children: affected by dry climate, wind, and dust. Everyday, boys like Saif who is only 9, and a child of a poor peasant’s family, spend hours to the border of the roads. Said tries to fill up with sand the holes in order to “protect” the cars passing by, and hopes he will be rewarded by the drivers with some meagre afghanis, the overdevaluated country’s currency. When back home, he will find no water nor soap to wash the dust away, no clean water to drink (only 11% of rural Afghans have access to drinking water), no food apart from some bread when there is. The younger children in Afghanistan die in a huge number (one every five babies does not reach the age of five). Msf (Doctors without borders) reported that during this winter of war, mothers were giving to children soil mixed with weat and grass. In harsh winter, the children and adults endure below zero temperatures without finding firewood for heating purposes.

Hanin under a clean sky The pollution of land and pastures by landmines and Uxo is a terrible danger for children and adults. Hanin was 10 years old and was looking after his sheeps in the hills near the village of Shauorma, province of Farah, when he “found” a granate; he run to the road, and asked the driver of a car who was stopping there: “please, take me to the hospital, my father will pay…”. He was lucky, he lost only the fingers of the left hand. In Afghanistan 40.000 people survive with amputated limbs, or blind due to an explosion.

Afghanistan, the epicentre of unsatisfied needs. A concentrate of tragedies. There is no “natural” or human-made desaster that had not visited and affected that country. War for 2 decades, first of all, and therefore people displacement and landmine tragedy. Drought and water emergencies. Oppression of human rights. Hunger. Earthquakes. Deforestation. Extreme weather.

But also, Afghanistan, unlike other Asian countries, was exempted by the bynomium “Western consumerism for few plus poverty for the majority”; by the cheap consumerism typical for instance of India, and by a pattern of globalisation which is against environment; one could not see there useless cheap products, armies of pollutant old cars, intensive animal production, high energy consumption rates, junk cheap “modern” food, toxic agricultural inputs, pollutant industries, anarchic buildings destrying landscape, enormous cities. Afghan sky was blue above the color of the mud houses and of the sandy soil that dominate the landscape. Under a clean sky, Afghan children still played happily woth skites – selfmade ones – in spite of the Taleban decrees.

Another advantage of Afghanistan is its brave people. Children who resist to cold and hunger; woman who were able to survive under attempts of annihilating them; men who endured any kind of hardship. After seeing the conditions of Afghan children, but also their ability to play just with slef-made skytes (even in violation of a stupid taleban rule), an Italian reporter said: “Since now I will not be able to tolerate any request of play station by an Italian fat child”.

War, a crime against humans and nature Afghanistan is also the epicentre of strategic interests that are the true reason of the war, apart from showing the Americans some retaliation purposes.

Rural Afghans are the main victims of the war. They live in remote areas and the relief agencies did not dare to reach them under the insecurity made by the bomings. The poorest Afghans could not leave their places refugee (it needs money to escape!), so the war added dead people to those who died because of drought. Frowz was 8 years old. She did not know about Bin Laden at all. She lived in a small village in the drought affected province of Baghdis, not far from Sangatesh. Before September 11, some aid agencies used to come with some food. Afterwards, no, and Frowz died of hunger and is now buried with other children, in short graves. The Geneva Protocol of 1979 for the protection of civilians during war time states that it is a war crimes to produce the starvation of people. But if you bomb a country where 6 millions people depend on the distribution of food aid, that interrupts the food distribution; it looks like a genocide. Nobody will know how many people died of hunger as an indirect efect of military actions; none knows how many children died – and will die – for cold because they were displaced from their houses due to the bombings. None knows how many children died of water-borne diseases because under the bombs it is impossible to go and fetch clean water or firewood to boil it…

The “collateral damages” of bombing did the rest. Many villagers were hit; according to some calculations made by a US professor, at least 6.000 civilians died under the bombings. For instance, 65 people died and only 10 survived in the small village of Madò, Chapparar district, province of Jalalabad, under the mountains of Tora Bora. Roze, a young villager whose house was only 300 meters from Madò, says: “I knew all of them. I helped helping the survivors that day, and also burying the dead bodies. They were in pieces…Concerning the survivors, there are children who are now we parents elsewhere; but a man called Durkam, he was around 35 years old, disappeared, after all his family, wife and three children, died under the bombings. His mind has gone”. THe green eyes of Rose look at the ruins of the village in the small hill…

And, does it make sense bombing those mountains? Azimullah, 25, a peasant from the same district, whose village Agam is under the Tora Bora mountains, looking at the mountains was saying already in December: “Bin Laden is not there, but many trees are there, cedar and others. The bumbard destroy them; before the middleman were cutting it and earning a lot of money, and also some villagers were earning on the business. Now the trees go on fire”. Azimullah is now worried about the next wheat crop: “We sowed it, but no rains, you see the river? It is dired up. If no rains during all the winter, we will have no weath in May”. There are also monkeys, on the bombed mountains. Like human beings, wildlife was affected by the severe bombardments. The bombing is playing havoc with the biodiversity of the war-devastated country, which has been a prime sanctuary for variety of migratory birds and wild animals. US warplanes were pounding positions in the south, north and west of Afghanistan, which are sanctuaries for variety of wild species including Kabul Markhor, snow leopards, Houbara Bustard, falcons and water-birds. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has estimated 85 per cent decrease in the number of migratory birds due to air strikes, coming from Siberia and Central Asian Republics to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan.

War worsened the conditions of Afghan animals. Already, goats, sheeps and livestock had died because of drought affecting padture lands. But with the war, and the displacement of people, the destruction of villages, and the impossibility to distribute forage, many more animals died. “Malnourishment and communicable diseases are the greatest immediate animal concern” says Michelle Bruce from the Wspa (World Society for the Protection of Animals), an organisation that tries to provide food, veterinary first aid and preventive vaccinations to help stabilise the animal population. At Peshawar, Pakistan, Wspa supported the Brooke veterinary hospital to treat the injured, hungry and exausted donkeys that came from Afghanistan carrying the refugees and their goods. A Wspa’s disaster relief team is now in Kabul, looking after the health of animals at the zoo and throughout the city that have been affected by the war. The zoo’s only remaining bear, Donatella, has been now treated by the Spanish veterinary dr. Murillo: “Despite all her hardships, she is one of the friendliest bears I have ever met”. But the old lion, Marjan, who survived to 20 years of war and starvation, died few days ago. Old and half blind, he was a symbol of resistance.

Which future? One could say that Afghanistan is a hopeless country. Others could say that, Afghanistan becoming now a Western-controlled country, it will be filled of Mc Donald-Coca Cola, pollutant industries and old cars, pipelines and highways (there was a joke circulating in Internet: “if Bush wins” and the map of Afghanistan was full of Mcdonald flags and roads); that Western style can stand along with a fundamentalist behaviour, like it is in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. That path, of course, will not fulfil the basic needs of the majority.

But the fact that, after more than 20 years of war, Afghanistan is “empty” – not contaminated by unsustainable develpment patterns – makes it a “virgin” place where it seems still possible to try with another model. Of course much will depend on the donors and on the government; both dont give much hope…

The infrastructural work can be develped in the direction of railways or highways, for instance. And the gas reserves that are available in Afghanistan can be used to satisfy the needs of local people or be exported. Similarly, the forests could be cut again for export purposes or a sustainable management of them could take place.

To strenghten another way, it is necessary to support the Afghan civil society that, when the warlords were fighting, was working to build a peaceful, equitable and sustainable path. Those Afghans did not leave during the bombings: when no foreigner was there. Now they are busy with the relief work, but they could do a lot if, with more support and no war, they could recover their usual development activities.

Area, an environmental careful Ngo, developed various solar energy and biogas projects in many regions of Afghanistan and tried to revitalise the agricultural cooperative system that used to operate well there. The agricultural engineer Abdullah Qaderdan from the Ngo Arc (Afghan Relief Committee) remembers the accurate planning of forest use during the decades of the Sixties and Seventies, before the war. He is now around 60, but he was involved in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry years ago, during the government of Daoud. While drinking scin ciai (the helthful green tea which is a strong habit in Afghanistan) on the light of a oil lamp in his Jalalabad office (there are frequent electricity cuts) mr Qaderdan stresses upon the need of recovering the traditional coreze, a traditional water harvesting system made by small “canals” and reservoirs, that was very successful, before being destroyed or abandoned during the long wars.

The emergencies also damaged the production of handicrafts, but still the daily life in Afghanistan is full of rich traditional and handmade goods, more in use than elsewhere. A man, with his long shirt plus trousers (no Western garnments) carrying on his cycle his food inside a double bag wonderfully embroided is a not a rare image. But the handicraft that is made for commercial purposes hides a lot of exploitation. Afghan women and men produce a variety of carpets but the middleman are paying them a pittance only, which obliges children to work also; among refugees in Pakistan, one meter of carpet needs weeks to be done and is paid not even 50 dollars to the weaver. Facing the hunger, many families soldfor nothing their old traditional handicrafts to traders and international experts, depriving themsleves and the country of such valuable things (it happens even more in Iraq, where the harsh situation due to the sanctions made people to sell antiquities and even the archeological items…

A work to do allover the country is to help maintaining the use of traditional goods at home and “on the road”, as well as developing a fair production for the market: an alternative source of income for the producers and the country.

But of course, there is a need of getting out from the absolute emergency. First of all from food shortage.The deficit of wheat up to next June, according to an Fao report (November 2001) Fao estimates is around 1,7 million tonnes, because the drought reduced the harvest to half compared to 1998. But the bumbard that began in October made difficult for many peasants to sow the seeds last automn: due to military actions (Fao does not say “bombings” which sounds too rough) “during the sowing season, peasants were displaced, inputs for agriculture were lacking, therefore next year the harvest could be even worse”. More than 6 million people were depending on food aid!

Fao wrote that it would take at least 200 million dollars “to rehabilitate the agricultural sector, rebuild the irrigation channels and the forest sector”. It will be costly also to find alternatives to poppy cultivation: at least 500.000 peasants and agricultural labourers were affected by the total ban imposed by the Taliban in 2000.

Then, the demining must be accelerated: “We experiences a shortage of funds the last years” says Fazel Karim the director of the Afghan demining agency called O.M.A.R. To clear one square meter of Afghan land does not cost much: around half dollar. The work is being done by local trained people and in ten years the demining was able to prepare the return of more than 1,5 million peasants to their cleared and clean lands. If the international plan to rebuild Afghanistan chooses to replace the local-managed demining with international “experts”, that will be much more costly and slow.

Finally, will Afghanistan become an ordinary under-developed American-prone country? “No”, says the 65 years old Mohammed Noor, a tribal elder who seats on the carpets of his guest room at Jalalabad, with ten young and adult men who all escaped from their villages, too near to Tora Bora; “remember, from Alexandre the Great to the British to the Russians…the guest for us is sacred, but the invaders are enemies, and we are able to defeat them. We will do it with the Westerners, if we understand they want to impose us their will”. He does not take into account that the former invaders did not have dollars to pay the warlords…

From India an old Gandhian follower, Jagannathanji, hopes that the future of Afghanistan will not be inspired by the multinational model nor by the warlords, but by the souvenir of men like Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a pathan – like the majority of Afghans – a muslim reformer who tried an equitable development of the villages of his people and who fought against British empire with no weapons, and who was able to create, at the time of Gandhi, a brave “army” of non violent pathans.

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