Children as Barter in a Famished Land
By BARRY BEARAK
ANGORI, Afghanistan, March 2 — Haunted by want, depleted from hunger, Akhtar Muhammad first sold off his few farm animals and then, as the months passed, bartered away the family's threadbare rugs and its metal cooking utensils and even some of the wooden beams that held up the hard-packed roof of his overcrowded hovel.
But always the hunger outlasted the money. And finally, six weeks ago, Mr. Muhammad did something that has become ruefully unremarkable in this desperate country. He took two of his 10 children to the bazaar of the nearest city and traded them for bags of wheat.
Gone now from his home are the boys, Sher, 10, and Baz, 5. "What else could I do?" the bereft father asked today in Kangori, a remote hamlet in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. He did not want to seem uncaring. "I miss my sons, but there was nothing to eat," he said, casting a glance sideways to prove that his misery was hardly unusual.
In the nearby foothills, enfeebled people were coming back from foraging wild spinach and even blades of grass — a harvest of hideously bitter greenery that can be made edible only if boiled long enough. "For some, there is nothing else," Mr. Muhammad muttered.
Afghanistan, cradle of tragedy, is now in its fourth year of drought, and with the drought has come its inevitable offspring, famine. The hungry, spiraling deathward, try to cope in pitiable ways, selling all, eating fodder, wandering away to beg.
Yet a measure of solace accompanies the abundance of despair. Last fall, when American bombing raids hindered emergency food deliveries, humanitarian groups were concerned about mass starvation. As winter comes to a close, the famine has not proved as lethal as feared, leaving millions in the vicinity of the grave without quite pushing them in.
"Always, in any situation like this, people are going to die, but we've done a lot to minimize the loss of life," said Alejandro Chicheri, a spokesman for the World Food Program of the United Nations. "If there is starvation, it's only in small pockets."
The World Food Program and various aid groups are generally credited for a laudable mobilization. Wheat — and occasionally beans and cooking oil — have been distributed to 6.5 million Afghans, the goods sometimes sent in a relay from trucks to camels to donkeys.
This charity has kept huge numbers from a final spill into nothingness.
"It's really quite weird," said an aid worker, Christopher S. F. Petch. "You go to places where people are only eating bread made out of barley and grass. The people don't look good and they don't look strong. But they also don't look skeletal. They are managing."
It is hard to estimate how many lives hunger has recently claimed. The situation is complex, and information incomplete. This is not a nation of record-keepers. Besides, hunger is often an indirect killer, letting disease provide the finishing blow.
In Afghanistan, two decades of war have also left it hard to distinguish between the bad times and the worse. Even without famine, more than one in five children die before the age of 5 and the average life expectancy is a mere 44.
The largest of the unanswered questions are complicated by topography.
Hundreds of villages are far from roads, tucked away in steep ravines and mammoth peaks, cut off further by snow. Some Afghans are several days journey from any site of food distribution.
What has happened to the isolated?
"We call them internally stuck people," said Ahmed Idrees Rahmani of the International Rescue Committee. "Wherever the roads stop, disaster seems to start. Reaching some villages requires 4-5 days on a donkey. People might be starving. We wouldn't know."
Kangori, in Sar-i-Pol Province, is a modest village of mud-walled dwellings that seem to blend seamlessly into the parched, unyielding earth. It is a three-hour walk through rolling hills to Sholgarah, the nearest town of any size, and that has proved an impossible distance for some. The old, the infirm and the morose are paralyzed with deprivation.
Not all in Kangori are suffering, however. Ajab Khan, a prosperous shepherd, provided a welcoming hand and an energetic tour of the sickly and dispossessed.
"Look, she is eating the grass," he said at the first stop, introducing a frail woman who was sitting near her only food, a bowl of weeds. "She has nothing, nothing at all."
The woman, Gul Shah, said she had sent her five children out to gather more wild greens from the landscape. For her, Sholgarah, where wheat was once given away, might as well be Timbuktu. "How would I know when or where there is free food?" she said.
Mr. Khan then directed the way to someone even more pitiful. "I can show you a woman whose husband and two children died of hunger," he said, pacing toward another hovel.
There sat Khali Gul, a tearful woman with a bowl of grass at her feet and nearby a young daughter whose face was blemished with sores. She said her family had become foragers two months before and now seemed to be succumbing one by one to diarrhea. Five days after her husband died, a son, 3, and a daughter, 4, perished as well.
"I have no one to help me," she said, beginning to weep. "There are some rich people in the village. When they feel like it, they give me scraps of bread."
Mrs. Gul looked toward Mr. Khan, who nodded amiably and said he himself was among the generous in this way. "But there is hunger all over, and if I give someone food for a month, then what follows after that?" he complained. "For how long do you help?"
The same matter troubles the aid agencies. These days, food is a lodestone, luring the hungry from their homes and into huge camps where paltry monthly rations — usually just one hefty sack of wheat per family — are nevertheless dependably supplied.
One such place has been set up in the city of Ser-i-pol. After the first gift of grain, the population of the camp doubled within a few days as destitute people eagerly forsook their mountain villages for life in a makeshift municipality of donated tents.
The people won't leave and why should they?"
asked Ghulam Nabi
In the past year, Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan's largest city, rapidly became home to 27 separate camps, with its own urban poor lining up for food alongside famished migrants. The merely vulnerable feel as entitled to a handout as the fully stricken.
Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead will be getting people to go home, where their last memories are of unendurable hardship, the burying of their dead, the dying of their animals, the eating of the seed they direly needed for the next season's planting.
Afghanistan is primarily a country of those who live from the land. When rain falls once again, they will require the replenishment of seed as well as fertilizer and tools and draft animals.
"The key word is return," said Mireille Borne of the aid group Acted. "If you just give away food, you undermine the economy. You have to think about the long term."
The long term is what most disconsolate parents are thinking of when they sell their children. There is not much precedent in Afghanistan for this heart-wrenching sacrifice. Traditionally, girls are "sold" for marriage, with the bride's family collecting a price. But what is occurring now is closer to the practice of bonded labor. Arrangements differ but most often the child is exchanged for a continuing supply of cash or wheat.
"The family was very hungry and I needed help in my restaurant," said Muhammad Aslam, explaining why he bought two young brothers nearly two years ago. As he sipped tea, Bashir, 13, and Qadir, 11, were cleaning the cooking area in the narrow establishment in Sholgarah. "It is cheaper to buy boys than hire boys. Actually, I could have had them free."
Mr. Aslam described the transaction: the boys' father had offered to give up his sons so long as they were kept well fed. "But I know about human rights," said the restaurant owner. "I knew I was obligated to pay him something."
The compensation settled upon was 400,000 Afghanis per month — about $5 at the time of the deal. "After two years, I stop paying and the boys are mine forever," Mr. Aslam said happily, presenting the situation as something as benevolent as an adoption.
He asked the youngsters to sit at his side. He requested a smile. They complied.
Abdul Hamid, a porter, was also seated in the restaurant. "I've bought three children, all from different families," he volunteered. Noor Agha is 8, Amruddin 9, Malik 11. He sent someone to get the boys. He said he considered himself a doer of good deeds.
"These families were all hungry," Mr. Hamid said. "They cannot give their children what I can. The boys work for me, but I also send them to school. They are becoming my sons. If they get lonely, I have agreed to let them see their real parents every six months."
Akhtar Muhammad, with his family starving in Kangori, bargained harder than most. For his 10-year- old, Sher, he now receives a stipend of 46 pounds of wheat per month; for the younger boy, 5-year-old Baz, he receives half that amount. The deal continues for six years.
"I have sold the two most intelligent of my 10 children," the father said insistently.
Six weeks had passed since his sons were delivered to Sholgarah. He agreed to ride into the town, to search out his older boy, to inquire about the lad's uprooted life.
By chance, father and son happened upon each other in a crowded street. Immediately, they embraced. Sher was astride a donkey, toting several metal jugs. He had been sent to fetch a supply of water.
"They don't treat me well," the boy said sorrowfully when asked. Indeed, looking away from his father, his eyes moistened. He seemed close to sobbing.
"I work very hard and during the night they send me into the mountains to sleep with the sheep."
His father listened silently with no telling expression on his face. "I felt bad that I was sold," the boy continued, staring down now, swallowing his shame. "I cried. Sometimes I still cry. I cry at night. But I understand why the selling of me was necessary."
He is his family's antidote to hunger.
"I must go now," the 10-year-old said, riding off. "I must hurry or they will beat me."
Article from iabolish.com the Anti-Slavery Portal