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Crisis of a Lifetime 

Afghanistan through the eyes of an aid worker

The Rev. Ray Buchanan was in Northern Afghanistan last month at a time when American B-52 bombers were still trying to dislodge Taliban troops from the hills near the Northern Alliance headquarters at Khojja Boddin.

Since his return, Buchanan, who heads a Raleigh, N.C.--based ministry called Stop Hunger Now, notes the Taliban has been routed, but the humanitarian disaster he witnessed remains.

With winter's onset, temperatures of 10 degrees will be common, accompanied by winds of 80 to 90 mph, Buchanan says. Millions of people are at risk of starving or dying of exposure.

Buchanan, crossed the border into Afghanistan from Tajikistan along with representatives of four relief organizations. With 22 years experience in relief work, Buchanan and the other experienced relief workers agreed that they were witnessing the worst humanitarian disaster of their lives and, because of the fighting and the onset of winter, the most difficult relief effort.

The American bombing complicated things, but it was not the chief cause of the disaster, he said. A three-and-a-half-year drought has crippled all of Central Asia, combined with years of fighting in Afghanistan that has forced millions of people to flee their homes and become refugees. Neighboring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan all have closed their borders for fear of infiltration by Afghan-based Islamic terrorist groups, and these displaced populations "are like fish circling in a bowl," Buchanan says, "because there is no place for them to go."

Geary: What was the terrain like where you were?

Buchanan: There's nothing but dirt. It feels like talcum powder. When the wind blows, it gets into everything; everyone there has skin infections.

Geary: What did you see when you crossed the border?

Buchanan: After you go through customs, you make a big turn and you go through the old village of Dashi Qala, which is abandoned. These are all adobe mud walls that are deteriorating -- all waist-high, chest-high, most of the roofs are gone, and this was a village of 1,000 families or so. It's like a ghost town. And you go about one kilometer or two, and there's a compound where we rented space, and then another kilometer and there's a new town of Dashi Qala. What happened is that with the fighting, they abandoned the original village and then built this one, which is about 1,000 or 1,500 families living in mud huts.

Geary: You went through Khojja Boddin?

Buchanan: Yes, that was about eight kilometers away, and there's a displaced persons camp there with about 1,000 families or so, and a little further, the village of Navabad, which seemed to have the most needs. Another 1,000 or so families were living there, a total of 5,000 to 7,000 people, and what you don't realize at first is that every family is a host family, and has displaced or refugee people living with them, and the host families themselves are at risk.

Geary: People are dying?

Buchanan: We didn't see anyone die while we were there. But above the camp was a hillside about half a mile long, and it was just covered with mounds, and every mound was a grave. And the camp had only been there a year and a half. And when you ask people about it, they say, "Oh, last winter every child two years of age or younger died of exposure or malnutrition."

Geary: Did you get any sense of how people felt about Americans?

Buchanan: When you're in an area where people are struggling to survive, politics is the farthest thing from their minds. Parents with starving children don't care -- if you're there to help -- if you're an American or a Martian. ... We asked some ladies how much food do you have, and what they brought out was enough to hold in their hands -- not enough for a day. Yet these people would invite you into their homes. ... In that part of the world, they have a culture of hospitality that -- and I'm from Texas -- puts Southern hospitality to shame.

Geary: You said this is worse than the famine in Sudan or Ethiopia?

Buchanan: According to the U.N., and I can agree from having been there, this is the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime because of the sheer magnitude of the area covered and the number of people at risk. The drought has affected all of Central Asia from North Korea to China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and even into the Caucasus. In Afghanistan, because of the years of fighting and the number of refugees, 8 million people are at risk of starving this winter. That's one-third of the population.

Geary is a writer for the Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C. Stop Hunger Now is sending winter clothing, blankets and money to relief organizations in the region. For more information, or to donate, call 919/839.0689 or visit www.stophungernow.com.

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