KABUL, Afghanistan -- International relief efforts have helped pull Afghanistan back from the brink of widespread famine, but many people are still subsisting on insufficient diets, the head of the World Food Program said Tuesday.
The twin scourges of war and drought had raised fears that Afghanistan could be facing mass starvation; the WFP said some 6 million people were in imminent risk. The concern was compounded by thefts of international food aid by bandits in the security vacuum following the fall of the Taliban.
"We have averted a famine," WFP head Catherine Bertini said, but added: "Even though people are receiving some food, that's not to say they're receiving enough food."
"We have sent food into virtually every area of the country that is secure, which is most of the country," she said, and praised local authorities for help in retrieving stolen food.
In the Jalalabad region alone, some 400 tons of stolen food has been recovered, Bertini said, estimating that only about 0.2 percent of the agency's food had been lost for good.
Other organizations distributing food within Afghanistan include the international Red Cross, the Iranian Red Crescent, Japan's Peace Winds, Tzu Chi of Taiwan and Mercy Corps International among others.
On Tuesday, seven carloads of humanitarian cargoes, including 130 tons of food, were turned over by Russian authorities to Afghan officials in Tajikistan for shipment to this country, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
A bakery for widows
Earlier, on a tour of WFP-funded projects in the Afghan capital, Bertini visited a bakery run by and for widows, which she said demonstrated how food aid can bring cohesion to a shattered society by feeding the soul as well as the stomach.
Glancing at a group of about 50 women who huddled along the bakery's wall, some with their burqas thrown back to warm their faces in the winter sun, Bertini said the daily ritual was important for women who suffered from war and Taliban oppression.
"They come, sharing their struggles together," she said.
The bakery, one of 21 such operations supported by the WFP in the Afghan capital, provides work for some widows and bread for hundreds of others. In all, the bakeries distribute bread to more than 6,700 families. The daily ration of five flat loaves costs about 3 1/2 cents.
For some, the bread is what keeps their lives going.
"We never eat rice or anything, just this bread," said a woman who gave her name only as Alima.
For the workers, it has been much more. The bakery, started in 1996 in the only functioning building on a war-blasted block in west Kabul, was allowed to operate under the Taliban even though women were generally barred from working.
"They allowed it because they knew that there would be no male body inside the bakery. We worked, but with a lot of fear," said Aqila Asdaque, a local WFP monitor.
Inside the bakery, women squatted on a low platform, pounding flat loaves of dough before placing them in the wood-fired hearth to bake. Empty, washed dough vats were propped on a dead bush in the bakery courtyard to dry.