Afghan children cry for bread

Monday, February 11, 2002

DASHTEH ARZANA CAMP, Afghanistan -- Hunger drove him to leave his village. Bad luck led him to a camp mostly bypassed by aid groups.

And his children's cries for the bread he couldn't provide pushed Mohammad Sadeq to douse himself with diesel fuel and strike a match.

Outside a leaky tent -- like the thousands of others along a forlorn ridge outside Mazar-e-Sharif -- Sadeq's eight children screamed and tried to put out the flames engulfing their 40-year-old father. They ripped off his burning clothes, pulling away strips of smoking flesh as well, witnesses said.

"I am fed up with life," Sadeq said from his hospital bed Saturday, four days after his suicide attempt. "I cannot even offer food to my crying children. Dying is the only escape from all this."

Sadeq's journey from the northern mountain village of Charholak to a cot in surgical room No. 3 of the Barat Hospital passes through levels of misery familiar across Afghanistan.

Families around the country have pulled up stakes to chase the most basic necessity: a reliable supply of food. Staging areas for international relief, such as Mazar-e-Sharif, have drawn most of the migrant wave, estimated to be at least 1 million people. Sadeq believed -- like others -- that aid would be plentiful.

Agencies overwhelmed

But relief agencies are overwhelmed by the numbers and need. Supplies of donated wheat are moving through U.N. channels to key distribution points in the countryside, but only a trickle of help has reached the nearly 20 camps around Mazar-e-Sharif -- a mix of internal migrants like Sadeq and so-called local "cheaters" hoping for aid.

The limited distribution is partly intentional. Relief agencies, conscious of what they call "the pull factor," do not want to encourage a continued exodus from villages.

"It's a difficult balancing act," said Arnault Serra-Horguelin, head of the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, in Mazar-e-Sharif. "Clearly, there are people who need help, but we don't want to create permanent camps that keep drawing new people."

The effort intends to weed out cheaters and help focus the aid distribution, said Serra-Horguelin.

Ultimately, aid groups want to persuade migrants to return home. Many refugees say that is impossible.

"We sold everything to come here: our homes, our land, our belongings," said Mohammad Asur, a leader in the Dashteh Arzana camp. "How can we go back?"

Asur grabbed his wool blanket, part of one of the few aid shipments to reach the camp. "We are going to the bazaar to sell these for bread," he said.

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