In remote Afghan mountains, villagers forced to eat grass

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

BONAVASH, Afghanistan -- The village of Bonavash is slowly starving.

Besieged by the Taliban and crushed by years of drought, people on this remote mountain have resorted to eating bread made from grass and trace amounts of barley flour.

Babies whose mothers' milk has dried up are fed grass porridge. The toothless elderly crush grass into a near powder.

Many have died.

More are sick.

Nearly everyone has diarrhea or a hacking cough. Many are too weak to stand. Others cannot leave their homes. Some children have bloated bellies. When the pain becomes unbearable, their mothers tie rags around their stomachs to try to alleviate the pressure.

One man has grown so weak he cannot move.

"We are waiting to die. If food does not come, if the situation does not change, we will eat this ... until we die," said Ghalam Raza, a 42-year-old man with a hacking cough, pain in his stomach and bleeding bowels.

10,000 people in area

Bonavash is the most accessible village in the remote mountain region of Abdullah Gan, where about 10,000 people live.

People in even more distant reaches, days away by donkey, are worse off, according to aid workers and Bonavash residents who have been there.

They describe people who do not even have barley to mix with the grass and who simply eat it straight from the ground. People whose stomachs are rock hard from hunger. People dying in front of them.

"If we cannot get aid within the month, we will be as bad as they are," said Dawood, the commander in Bonavash, who like many Afghans uses one name.

Abdullah Gan is "a humanitarian crisis," said Ahmed Idrees Rahmani, the International Rescue Committee's acting northern Afghanistan coordinator.

Thousands of bags of wheat flour meant to save the people of Abdullah Gan sit stacked in a compound in the small town of Zari, four and a half hours away by donkey along mountain trails.

The World Food Program spent two weeks trucking 1,000 tons of flour to Zari, the nearest outpost accessible by road, but never told the aid organizations that would distribute it.

Aid workers found out only because residents told them and rushed to the area to try to figure out the logistics of distribution. The wheat is improperly stored. If it rains or snows, much will be damaged.

A woman named Fatima sits outside her house boiling grass in water to soften it. She then mixes it with a handful of barley flour, and forms it into a patty to bake as bread.

Her family has been eating like this for more than a year. Two of her children have died.

"We have nothing else. No cooking oil, no rice, no flour, no tea. This is it," said her husband, Mir Hossin.

Along the wall of a house sit 12 small children, several taking occasional bites from pieces of grass bread, green and brown hunks that resemble clods of mud.

"In the summer, when there are softer grasses, we feel a little better," said Khadabaksh, as he looked in despair at his four young daughters.

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