Village near Kabul feels cut off from aid

USA Today
February 12, 2002, Tuesday, First Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 8A
LENGTH: 1451 words
DATELINE: KOBAKAI, Afghanistan

KOBAKAI, Afghanistan — Sometimes it takes a world to rebuild a village. That seems true in Afghanistan, in places such as Kobakai.

Although just a few hours drive from Kabul, where aid from the rest of the world is arriving daily, Kobakai and its estimated 1,800 residents have gotten little help so far, even though their needs are enormous.

It is almost 4 miles to the nearest bazaar to sell and buy goods, a trip made by walking or riding a donkey along a dusty, pitted track down a mountainside strewn with huge boulders. No one owns a vehicle.

The nearest school is an hour walk, the nearest health clinic is 90 minutes by foot. For those who are paying the price of stepping on one of Afghanistan’s millions of land mines, getting an artificial limb adjusted means a long, complicated journey by truck or bus to Kabul. It’s only 25 miles or so as the crow flies to the city. But a winding, tortuous journey over mountains on crumbling roads makes the trip an adventure.

“The city gets everything,” sighs Mir Afghan, age about 42, one of the village leaders. “We are very far from everything.”

He says that not out of greed, but out of need. Things that are routinely available in the USA — food, education, medical care, water and easy travel — are luxuries here.

At the end of the line

The world’s richest nations met for two days last month in Tokyo to determine how much money to pledge for rebuilding Afghanistan and to begin the debate on how it should be spent. So far, they’ve pledged $ 4.5 billion, of which $ 1.8 billion is supposed to be delivered this year.

Remote villages such as Kobakai will be at the long end of the aid pipeline because they are difficult to reach and sparsely populated. But it could be what happens in these places that will ultimately be the measure of Afghanistan’s success or failure at getting back on its feet.

Kobakai (ko-BAH-ki) has some new reason for hope. It was a good feeling, for example, for Mir Afghan and the other residents to wake up one day last month and remember that they would not have to walk down a 2-mile hill to fetch water from a stream where their farm animals drink and defecate. Thanks to CARE, an international humanitarian group, there is now a water pipeline that leads to four taps in the village.

The CARE project brings the water from a reservoir in the surrounding mountains. To those in the village, the water had been a far-off, unreachable oasis. It’s a two-hour walk, up a steep incline, to reach the reservoir. Much of the water would likely have spilled on the return trip.

“We needed the water because people were getting afraid, and they were going to leave the village,” says Majidullah, 35, another village leader. Like many Afghans, he uses one name.

Also last month, the first shipment of food aid, roughly 200 pounds of wheat flour sent in by the World Food Program, arrived on the backs of donkeys. The outside world has begun to trickle in. But much more is needed.

“Each humanitarian group has a role to play,” says Alina Labrada, a spokesman for CARE. “There are so many things that need to be done, we’re not going to run out of things to do for a decade.”

Country’s recovery

In many ways, the needs of Kobakai symbolize the needs of the country.

It will take $ 45 billion to rebuild Afghanistan’s war-shattered economy and infrastructure and launch long-overdue development projects, government ministers say. One-third of that would finance reconstruction and rehabilitation needs over the next two years. The rest would go for long-term projects, including railway links to Iran and Pakistan and new dams for irrigation, the ministers say.

The ministers’ $ 45 billion estimate is far higher than the forecasts of some international aid groups, which have estimated the cost will be $ 3 billion-$ 15 billion. But all the predictions assume the top priorities include reconstructing the heavily damaged areas of west Kabul, the farmlands of the Shomali Valley north of Kabul and war-torn provinces farther north.

Shouldering most of those tasks will be the United Nations and “non-governmental organizations,” or NGOs.

Once aid money starts flowing more freely into Afghanistan, there will be numerous groups and organizations that could be of help to a village such as Kobakai. Doctors Without Borders is hoping to build and organize medical clinics around the nation. The British humanitarian group Oxfam is prepared to build and operate schools. Mercy Corps, a U.S.-Scottish coalition, has experience in building irrigation systems. U.N. groups such as UNICEF and private organizations such as Save The Children hope to provide hygiene training and supplemental feeding for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

But how soon all that could happen is unclear. “You do what the money is funding,” says Jordan Dey of the World Food Program and the U.N. spokesman for humanitarian affairs in Afghanistan. The World Food Program, which began its work in Afghanistan in 1964, feeds roughly 6 million of Afghanistan’s estimated 23 million people. It has rented up to 800 donkeys to deliver food to remote areas across the country.

Awaiting the ‘big money’

The residents of Kobakai have vaguely heard of the “big money” coming to Afghanistan, but they have few clues as to how it could affect them. Village elders do have a wish list: A good road to the village is on top. A steady supply of food is next, then a clinic or some kind of health care service. In the spring, they would like an irrigation system and a school.

The children have their own request: “Volleyball,” they shout when asked.

They want a volleyball net and some new balls. Now, though their net made of string, twine and branches is in disrepair, it still gets used for rousing games. They play with one well-used soccer ball.

Kobakai is a farming village, a little less than a mile long and wide. Wheat, potatoes, carrots, turnips, beans and onions are grown here. But potatoes are the only food produced in sufficient quantities to be a cash crop in the bazaar. A drought that has hit most of Afghanistan is in its fourth year here.

A few people work in Kabul. It takes them three hours each way to get there. The travel requires walking to the bazaar, hitching a ride to the main road and then climbing on a bus or truck. Some try to make the trip back-and-forth in a day, but given the haphazard nature of transportation in Afghanistan, it’s likely many end up staying in the city for days at a time.

One blessing is that there are no more land mines in the area. Experts have removed them.

The village has about 130 houses, their walls constructed of mud and straw, their roofs of straw and wood. Each house, village elders say, contains at least eight people. No one knows how old the village is — “it was here before us,” Mir Afghan says — and the oldest resident is 103. Kobakai sits on a small, dusty ridge with the steep mountainsides surrounding it terraced to grow crops.

CARE learned of the village’s needs through one of its surveys of rural areas. CARE workers go to bazaars to gather information about rural areas in need of help and visit the villages to assess what can be accomplished.

The group’s workers visited in March 2001. They returned in May to survey the location and draw up preliminary plans, but the water project did not get underway until November. It will be finished, with concrete poured around the pipes and taps to stabilize them in the loose soil, when the weather warms in two months.

Cost of the project: about $ 25,000.

The water pipeline ends the twice-a-day ritual of women and children bringing water from the polluted stream up the hill to the village. It also means children will have more time during the day to attend school, when one finally opens. Residents already have more restful nights because they’re less apt to be stricken with diarrhea or other water-borne illnesses. And the tea tastes much better.

The tea is a staple of Afghanistan, and, like it or not, guests must drink when it is offered or risk causing great offense. In Kobakai, the tea served to guests has a vibrant color, a zestful smell and an addictive taste thanks to the clean water that can now be used.

Majidullah says villagers were worried at first when CARE officials did not immediately come back and build the project after first promising it last March. “We had little thoughts that they had forgotten us, and we were waiting and waiting,” Majidullah says, pouring another cup of tea. “But as you can see, now we are fine.”