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Afghanistan Visits Frustrate Doctor

June 22, 1998

FAISABAD, Afghanistan (AP) _ Virtually every day this month, along with sacks of wheat, cans of oil and cakes of soap, Red Cross helicopters have flown a weary-looking man in tennis shoes to the earthquake-crushed villages of northern Afghanistan.

For Dr. Abdul Audir, the visits are as frustrating as they are depressing. In addition to injuries from the quake, villagers suffer from malnutrition, worm diseases, eye and skin ailments, respiratory infections and tuberculosis, illnesses that could be treated _ if only medical workers could reach them.

Audir, a physician at the Faisabad hospital, would like to carry in antibiotics and painkillers and spend time searching out the sick, especially among the women sequestered out of sight.

But the United Nations and Red Cross have put their priority on evacuating the very seriously injured and delivering food. Basic health care will have to wait.

``This is a big problem for me,″ Audir said with a sigh. ``These people need so much care.″

The May 30 earthquake struck one of the poorest regions of one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Quakes, landslides and floods are so frequent that entire villages have picked up and moved every few decades to search out surer sources of water, food and shelter.

The chronic want has been compounded by 20 years of war, which have left Afghanistan with a surfeit of weapons and soldiers, and practically no government to deal with the misery.

Afghanistan has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world. One in four children dies by age 5, UNICEF says. Seventeen of every 1,000 women die in childbirth. Few children attend school, spending their days instead tending goats and cows.

``When you grow up, that’s when you learn everything,″ said Mohamed Esan, a militiaman with four sons and four daughters.

And the men?

``You can become a soldier or shopkeeper or subsistence farmer or smuggler. That’s about it,″ said Dr. Panna Erasmus, a child health specialist with Medical Emergency Relief International who is working in Faisabad.

Militiamen of the Northern Alliance, opponents of the Taliban movement that controls 85 percent of the country, are in charge of this region of northern Afghanistan.

``It’s been a long time since we’ve seen our salaries,″ said Esan, who is commander of the rag-tag contingent guarding the former Soviet airstrip at Faisabad. ``But the people help us, giving us food when we need it.″

The few locals with trucks that can negotiate the rutted, boulder-filled road give soldiers lifts. Usually it’s enough for the militiamen to wave the trucks down; sometimes a few shots in the air are needed to persuade the drivers.

Except in the case of disasters like the earthquake, international aid to Afghanistan has dried to a trickle. The United Nations’ annual appeal for the country has brought pledges totaling just 13 percent of the $117 million sought this year, said Rupert Colville, a U.N. spokesman.

War has made donors wary of investing much, and they have agreed not to begin any major infrastructure projects such as road-building until there is peace. The Taliban’s rough-handed implementation of its austere interpretation of Islamic law, including severe restrictions on women’s rights, has also dissuaded donors.

The people of Faisabad do have one road to a better life. Under painted signs reminding the few people in the area who can read English that the fight against narcotics is an Islamic duty, neatly tended poppy fields flourish. A 15-pound opium harvest nets farmers about $800.

``We have no choice but to grow it, because we have a lot of problems, and who’s going to help us?″ asked Nurulab, a father of seven watching a horde of ragged children who poured into a village street to stare at a photographer. ``Everyone is in bad shape economically.″

From here, the opium is carried to the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, and on into the rest of Central Asia, Russia and the West.

``Afghans don’t smoke it,″ said Saeed Jaylani, a soldier at the Faisabad airstrip.

``They use the money to buy a car, a motorcycle, a bicycle, maybe a clock,″ he said, conjuring up a wish list of goods he’ll never have.

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