S.33 -

U.N. - reconstruction of Afghanistan

HL Hunger leaves Kabul on razor's edge of survival


Credit: Los Angeles Times

DD 05/07/89


Edition: 2 STAR

Section: A

Page: 30

Origin: KABUL, Afghanistan

LP KABUL, Afghanistan - For 13 sacks of flour, pregnant women tore at each other and children screamed and beat each other. Infants were crushed in their mothers' arms as the women reached out desperately. TX It was the final day of a two-month-old U.N. effort to feed the most desperate people in Kabul - pregnant women and mothers of children under age 3. When the last sack of flour was thrown off the truck just after 11 a.m., completing a program that was as controversial as it was critical, the riot that erupted outside the Alluddin Clinic in southern Kabul provided a stark illustration of human despair in this besieged capital. It also illustrated the results of the politics of food in Afghanistan, where the decade-old war between Islamic guerrillas and the pro-Soviet government has deteriorated into a stalemate. Flour and sugar have become as important as rockets and field artillery. Since the ``mujahedeen'', as the rebel force is called, began trying to cut Kabul off from the rest of the country in February - a move timed to coincide with the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops Feb. 15 - the price of basic commodities has doubled and in some cases tripled. Shortages, bread lines and undernourishment quickly became commonplace in the city's poorer quarters. The little food that is getting in apparently is going largely to the military and members of the ruling party, who themselves are on a razor-thin margin of survival. Reacting to the crisis, the U.N. coordinator for the * reconstruction of Afghanistan, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, issued an appeal in February for an internationally financed emergency program to feed the people critically in need. The only country that responded was the Soviet Union. That country, President Najibullah's closest ally, which had pledged $600 million to the U.N. reconstruction fund, delivered 225 tons of wheat and 300 tons of sugar to Kabul to get the emergency feeding program started. An additional appeal from Sadruddin for volunteers to airlift food supplies into Kabul fared even worse. Many nations feared that the rebels would try to shoot down the aircraft. Others refused for political reasons. The only other country to respond was Ethiopia, which itself is plagued by famine. And even Ethiopia dropped out after one flight and the delivery of 26 tons of wheat in February. Unofficially, the United States and other Western governments, which refuse to recognize the Najibullah government and are supporting the ``mujahedeen'', made it clear that they would not support the program because it would prolong Najibullah's rule. But they offered no objection, provided the food program was limited to pregnant women and children. ``You can call it food politics if you wish, but the fact remains that we cannot be seen supporting this regime in Kabul in any way,'' a Western diplomat said, asking not to be identified by name. ``The food is distributed through government clinics, and that helps legitimize Najibullah. But I assure you, no one is going to starve to death in Kabul.'' Ross Mountain, project director for the U.N. Development Program in Afghanistan, is not so certain. A New Zealander, he oversees the emergency food program in Kabul and is aware, he said, of the intricacies of food politics. Like the women and children involved, he cannot see how it applies to them. ``What you see here,'' he said, ``is a totally humanitarian operation, one that is distributing non-strategic goods to a non-strategic population.'' Asked why the Soviet Union had not contributed more wheat and sugar to keep the program going, he said, ``The U.N. coordinator is appealing to all donors now to help, and that, of course, includes those who have given before.'' Few are as aware as Mountain of how little the program has accomplished so far. ``We have no illusions about the scope of what we are doing,'' he said. ``We know we've just scratched the surface.'' Under the program, the United Nations has distributed about 20 pounds of flour and six pounds of sugar apiece to 20,000 of the hundreds of thousands of women who qualify for the aid. The supplies have been handed out through the 36 official government maternity clinics in Kabul. In order to qualify, the women must produce certification that they are pregnant or that they have had their children inoculated against disease. Because of the limited supplies, the U.N. people have had to ration the flour and sugar. They have issued coupons to only 500 of the more than 3,000 mothers registered at each clinic. Even so, the supplies were enough for only a single distribution at 30 of the 36 clinics. Moreover, scores of destitute mothers always turned up too late for the ration coupons, and they pleaded desperately from the sidelines at distribution time. Last Tuesday, at the Alluddin Clinic, the angry crowd was larger than ever. ``What about me?'' one woman demanded, clutching at the jacket of a U.N. official. ``I have a small child. My husband was killed in this war. He was a soldier.'' In her arms she cradled a 2-year-old, its face covered with scabs. It was one of her five children, she said, and added: ``We are starving too. What about us?'' Until its final moments, the two-hour distribution at the Alluddin Clinic was for the most part orderly and efficient. Sher Jan-Mayar, the Afghan supervisor of distribution, and his staff had worked out an almost foolproof system after several incidents of forgery in the first weeks. The problem came at the end, when 13 of the 500 women registered either failed to show up or got lost in the mass of humanity surrounding the truck. As the men in the truck hefted the last 13 sacks of flour and tossed them into the sea of outstretched hands, the riot started. One woman nearly lost her clothes when she climbed up a chain at the back of the truck, reached in and grabbed a sack of flour, only to have it torn from her hands when she reached the ground. ``This is the worst I've seen it,'' Jan-Mayar said, pulling free of the crowd as dozens of women shrieked and wept and reached out for him. ``I feel lucky to have got out whole.'' For the people who feared that the food program would shore up President Najibullah, there was an ironic message in the way the program came to an end. As the truck pulled away, some women muttered angrily and kicked at the dust in the narrow lane. But they did not blame the United Nations, and they did not blame Jan-Mayar. They blamed their government.

@Art: Photo: Residents of Kabul jostle one another while waiting for their daily allotment of bread from a baker; Refugees from Jalalabad @Art Credit: All by Associated Press

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