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Sunday, December 11, 2016
Aid agency says people are starving - 'we need to get back in to help'
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¬†As the Western world watched the attacks on the World Trade Centre, the people of Afghanistan would have been oblivious to the events which were unfolding, or the ramifications they would have on their own lives. The Taliban has banned televisions and most people, even in the country's second largest city, Herat, do not have a radio. When I spoke to one of our Christian Aid workers after he reached Peshawar (Pakistan) he said it had just been a normal day. Many people would never have heard of New York, let alone the World Trade Centre. Two days after the terrible events in New York and Washington, when our foreign workers were pulling out, the only reaction they got were anxious, puzzled looks. The people could not understand why they were going. Even then they had no idea what was going on. Though thousands are now leaving ≠ the UN has reported that 65% of Jalalabad has fled ≠ some of the villagers in more remote regions probably still know nothing about this. Of course one of our immediate concerns was how this was going to affect our workers, both local and ex-patriate. We had to withdraw because of security concerns and because the UN and Red Cross, who provide the only flights to Herat, were pulling out. But I do worry about the women I worked with and fear for them. The situation was already so difficult. When I first arrived in November 1999 I was shocked to see just how bad the conditions were, especially for the women. The educated and more wealthy people left years ago. Most of the ones still there are on the verge of starvation ≠ the country has suffered a three-year drought, the worst in living memory. There is armed conflict in 17 out of its 32 provinces. Villagers are just worried about how they are going to feed their children. Since the attacks on the US, both food and fuel prices have apparently rocketed. The World Food Programme had already estimated that by November 5.5 million people would be dependent on food aid. Our local workers, who remain in the country, are still trying to do what they can using existing stock piles but there is no WFP aid getting in. The WFP is still distributing in Herat but they estimate they have only one or two weeks food left. As a Westerner visiting the country and meeting the women there, I never had any animosity at all from anybody. On the contrary, the women were extremely generous and welcoming and even tried to give me presents. The professional women ≠ the former bankers or professors ≠- in the cities obviously feel some envy towards Westerners and are frustrated at their own position but in the villages where the Taliban's impact has been greatest, their lives are like any other substance society in the world. Wells have dried up, even in Herat. Women have to walk a mile or more to get water, but the restrictions don't allow them to go this far from home without their husband. Even when they get to the well, often the water is contaminated. Children die from drinking it, after contracting diseases like cholera. But the women I met had incredible spirit and humour. They are not willing victims. Some of the younger ones have been refugees in Iran and so have seen another way of life, where women received education and were able to find fresh vegetables in the market. Out of sight of the men, they open up and talk about their lives and worries. For a moment, you could think you were talking to a group of women back home. Then you remember that their children have swollen bellies from lack of food. Under other circumstances, in a different place, these women might have gone to university or studied a trade. Under the Taliban the only professional work open to them is in the few health centres. Some have managed to find a way round the restrictions. In the bigger cities they have set up secret schools in their homes. As a woman I didn't meet with the Taliban, although you could see them on the street. It's easy to tell which ones they are because they wear a particular style of turban. And all the soldiers, you know they're the Taliban, because they are only ones allowed to be. But in any case, I didn't spend much time out on the streets. It's not so much that it wasn't safe; it's more that women just don't go out, unless they are in large group. In towns the Afghan women are not allowed to be seen by men without their blue covering ≠ called a burqa. However, the women try to live as dignified a life as possible. At Christian Aid, we train birth attendants, who are like basic midwives, because it's so hard to get to the nearest hospital ≠one village I visited was thirteen hours away. But most women acting as midwives are completely untrained ≠ I heard of one who would use the sole of her shoe to cut the umbilical cord. Infant mortality is desperately high. Lots of my friends in Britain ask me how I can visit countries like Afghanistan and Kosovo now that I have a son. But for me, going to these countries and seeing girls and boys who I know won't be alive next time I go, makes me more determined to work for an aid agency. We would certainly like to go back into Afghanistan as soon as possible. When I was there we helped set up a women's council in a village and one of their first acts was to relocate the site of the well so they did not have to walk so far each day. I now wonder if that well is dry and fear for the future of the women I knew. source: Christian Aid
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