Spectre of famine over Tajikistan

Published: 4 October 2001 0:00 CET

Rita Plotnikova in Dushambe

In Tajikistan, which shares a 1,200 kilometre-long border with Afghanistan, a severe and continuing drought tightens its deadly grip on the population. In September, the Tajik government officially declared that it would not be able to accept refugees from Afghanistan since some 1 million people out of a population of 6.2 million in Tajikistan are on the brink of starvation. The country has been devastated by economic crisis, civil war and drought. Last year's drought - the worst in 75 years - has forced hundreds of households to sell anything of value to buy food, even the doors and windows of their houses. The result is that people have no resources left to face the bitter upcoming winter.

Last August, the International Federation launched an appeal for 6.7 million Swiss francs to provide 130,000 people in seven districts in northern and southern Tajikistan, with essential food items to see them safely through the bitter winter months. The appeal also calls for the provision of winter shoes and clothing for 65,000 children to enable them to continue going to school. The Dushanbe delegation is working closely with the Tajik Red Crescent to alleviate poverty and starvation and their work is also focusing on health and water sanitation issues, as only 35 per cent of the rural population have access to safe drinking water, but these will be small community projects. Still the needs far outstrip incoming resources.

The Kulyab region in the south of Tajikistan is the poorest in the country. The village of Kishlak Vakhdat is situated less than a kilometre away from the Tajik border with Afghanistan. A vast valley along the Pyandzh river shared by the two states is covered with cotton fields on the Tajik side. It is very quiet here. While the adults are working in the cotton fields, 17-year-old Pirnazor is at home taking care of the scanty household and of his four younger brothers and sisters. Living in severe poverty they are deprived of everything, including means of transportation, electricity, food, clothes, schools. Pirnazor remembers the civil war in Tajikistan that scared them to death four years ago. Now all he wants is to live in peace and to have something to eat and to wear.

When he was six he began to go to school but could only attend classes for a short time. His younger brothers and sisters never even had the chance to go for a single day. The only road they know is the one from home to the cotton fields where they go every day to help their parents earn a living. When their salary is paid the income of the family can be up to $ 4 a month, but most of the time they have no money at all. The only toy for the children is their old cradle filled with stones and old rugs. Their daily meals consist only of tea and home-made bread. When there is no flour, they eat boiled leaves.

Ibraghim Tabilov, 64, has been living in Gulistan all his life. "I was very lucky to receive this house from the collective farm where I used to work as a mechanical engineer," he says. His house has no doors and no window frames - it is a former tractor repair shop of which only the walls survived after the war. Ibraghim now works as a guard in the collective farm - that's the only work he can find since he lost his leg when working on a tractor. "Everything collapsed here," he says "with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We lost jobs and all our savings. Then the civil war started, and all our possessions were destroyed."

The civil war devastated many villages in southern Tajikistan. More than 55,000 people were killed. Most industrial enterprises were brought to a standstill and to this day the remaining rusty constructions are frightening to passers-by. Ugly carcassesoftanks still litter the fields and the side of the road as reminders of the recent war.

Every morning Ibraghim's wife Ugulba goes to work in the cotton fields to earn her two dollars a month. This sum, added to Ibraghim's pension of three dollars is their total income to support a family of nine. But Ibraghim does not complain. "Thank God, the war is over," he says. "This year the cotton crop was not very good, and we did not have any wheat yield at all. We have not got much, but if our neighbours from Afghanistan come we'll share whatever we have."

Kishlak Olemtoi is about 100 km south of Dushanbe. Karim Sharipov, 47, lives here with his wife and seven children. In July the mountains around the village get burnt by the sun and resemble huge sand hills in a desert. Every week, Karim, accompanied by the children, fetches water 10 km away from home. "Life was different ten years ago," he says. "We used to work in the collective farm, earned enough money and never worried about food - you could always buy it." Now out of a job and with no food stocks left, villagers have started to dig the steep mountain slopes with shovels to attempt growing wheat, but most of the young plants get burnt, and at best, the yield is no more than 30 per cent of the grain that was planted. "We have not seen proper rains here for five years," Karim says. "Last year the Red Cross Red Crescent brought us flour that kept us alive for nearly a month. When this supply was spent they brought us more - that's how we survived last winter." Karim has never been to Dushanbe in his life. He points to his bare feet and says "I have never had a pair of decent shoes to go the capital." The parcel that the Red Crescent has brought for the family will be shared among 50 neighbours in this small community lost among arid mountains.

In the region of Kulyab there is overwhelming evidence of the severe poverty brought on by drought, fighting and economic dislocation. The International Federation has been providing food and clothes to the poorest in this republic since 1994. Last year, more than 78,000 people in Kulyab region alone received wheat flour, oil and salt to make bread. Each family received between 25 and 70 kilos of wheat depending on its size - a significant support during the winter when there are no leaves to boil. "The most difficult is to ensure the distribution among the most vulnerable when 90 per cent of the population in this particular region live far below poverty line, " says Marc Beuniche, the International Federation agronomist based in Kulyab. "Apart from providing food, we also try to help people restore their stocks by distributing high quality wheat seeds." Speaking about farming in this region Marc also noted, that "it's not just droughts that do not allow the crops to grow here, but the lack of or malfunctioning irrigation systems that could provide water to the fields. Since the best lands are occupied by cotton, people in despair start cultivating the mountain slopes where without irrigation there is very little hope for good yield in this climate."

In Dushanbe, Mathew Kahane, UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Tajikistan, noted: "The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is our most reliable partner in Tajikistan. No other organisation has the network that allows the delivery of humanitarian aid and provide hand-to-hand distribution to beneficiaries throughout the country." He also expressed hope that "the attention given to Afghanistan will not bypass the current humanitarian crisis in Tajikistan"

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