Ilmira Gafiatullina in the Uzbek Republic of Karakalpakstan
By the time our convoy reached Kegeili district, people from the Khabibulaev collective farm were lining up around the Red Crescent distribution point after walking ten kilometres to get there. As usual in winter in these remote areas, there is no motorized transport because of lack of fuel. The temperature is well below freezing but people are excited: at last they can get some food to their families.
The people of Karakalpakstan depend on agriculture. But for the last two years the fields that lie at the edge of the Kara-Kum desert have produced little if any crops. The hardest hit are people who work in collective farms and agricultural industries.
Unemployment is now very high because of lay-offs at centres like the Chimbai cotton processing plant, which closed last October with the loss of almost 300 jobs because the harvest failed.
But with wages as low as the equivalent of four US dollars a month, even some people who sill have work live below the poverty line.
We met Zulfya Tajibaeva while she was queueing up for the Red Crescent food parcel. She is only thirty-six but looks completely worn out. Her hollow cheeks are occasionally lifted by a smile, but her eyes betray her desperation. She hardly ever complains to anyone, she says, but now she wants to talk.
Life for the family and its four children was never exactly easy, but she has not been able to make ends meet for the past two years. Last summer she was working as a cotton picker, and with the little she earned in the fields she bought oil and flour. She also got some clothes and shoes as payment in kind. Zulfya's husband also spent the summer in the cotton fields, but at the end of the season large gas and electricity bills were automatically deducted from his income and he got no cash at all. The family sold almost all their cattle last winter; to get through this one they slaughtered their last cow.
A child allowance is the only source of cash for most of the families. As long as a woman can give a birth to one more child, she can count on another two dollars a month from the state. Zulfya gets eight dollars but has to pay sixteen for every 50-kilo sack of flour, of which the average family consumes at least two a month. It doesn't add up.
Zulfya's 13-year-old, Alfya, and her 15-year-old, Jaksymurat, were huddled together in the line for the distribution. Alfya got a warm jacket and boots from the Red Crescent and can now go to school in her own shoes instead of borrowed ones. But today she and her brother skipped class to help their exhausted mother carry home the vital food.
The Red Crescent's two-month family ration consists of rice, flour, salt and vegetable oil. It is currently distributing a total of 440 tonnes of food to large farming families left without any income due to the failed harvest, and the next round of distributions is set for April.
Jupargul Seitmuratova is a 50-year-old mother of eleven children who also looks after her blind husband. Her six grown-up sons could move somewhere else to look for work, but there is no money even for the journey. The family survives on the father's disability pension and child allowance - and the little they can grow in their kitchen garden.
We were invited in for a lunch of home-made bran bread - unpalatably black and hard, it was all there was, and it was generously shared. But now one of Jupargul's sons was on his way home with the sack of proper wheat flour; soon the smell of real bread would fill the house.
"The Karakalpaks are proud", says Abadan Bazarbaeva, chairperson of the Karakalpak Red Crescent branch. "They hide their true plight behind smiles, but they're hard workers who are used to fighting Nature to win their daily bread." Earlier in February, the Uzbek Red Crescent started emergency food distributions to 20,000 people in the worst affected areas of the republic of Karakalpakstan, while more than 150,000 are benefitting from the re-stocking of medical institutions with essential drugs. But the needs here are still huge.