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Crisis in Afghanistan: A report from the front line

Afghanistan, March 28, 2001

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    Qurban and his family, now homeless and living in an abandoned school. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps. Photo:

Escalating conflict has rendered an estimated 80,000 people homeless. Many were forced to flee their homes on foot, with only the clothes on their backs.

Hundreds are suffering from malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid and at least 40 people have died since October from hunger, disease, war wounds and sub-zero temperatures. Many have been forced to sleep in the open, with no blankets, and insufficient food and drinking water.

Many other internally displaced families have been forced to move in with friends and relatives. Yet these host families have themselves been financially and economically devastated by the worst drought to hit the region in 50 years. Firewood, coal and kerosene are expensive and scarce. For those still homeless, the situation is impossible - food, medicine and shelter are almost non-existent.

Mercy Corps responded to the crisis immediately, distributing clothing packs and blankets to more than 3,700 homeless families. Additional distribution of kitchen utensils, stoves, fuel and other lifesaving items is underway.

Chris Hyslop, Mercy Corps' Global Emergency Operations Program Officer, recently returned from assignment in Faizabad and provides a devastating eyewitness account from a local school serving as temporary shelter for homeless families.

"To say conditions at this school are horrendous would be an understatement," Chris reports. "There is no water, no windows, leaky roofs - the list goes on and on. It's freezing here, and heating fuel is so expensive that for the average homeless family, it might as well be non-existent. Add to that very little available food, and the situation just gets worse and worse."

Thirty families now live at the school, with 22 people in one room. Broken windows abound, and the only barrier between the leaky roof and the shivering people below is a thin layer of bamboo matting. There is no electricity and the smell of wood smoke is overpowering. All the families must share two cooking pots, two lamps and a few other buckets and tea kettles.

"Qurban's" (not his real name) story is typical:

"My wife died on the way from Rostok to Faizabad," Qurban told Chris. He and his family were forced to flee when fighting broke out in early September, as their home and fields burned behind them.

The family's only light is a small glass kerosene bottle. Their worldly possessions consist of a kettle, a knife and fork and five glasses, all of which were given to them by local families. "We have had to borrow food from local people to have something to eat," Qurban says. "So when our family finally received two bags of wheat, I had to return one bag to the family who had loaned me some earlier."

"If I could go back home, I would," he continues. But with fighting again erupting around Qurban's home, there is little chance that the family will be able to return any time soon.

Mercy Corps has been working in Afghanistan since 1986, and our staff is both extremely knowledgeable and experienced. We have excellent contacts with local governments and community leaders, and are able to reach many of those who most need our assistance.

But there are still thousands more in need of our help. Mercy Corps needs to raise money to supply blankets, kitchen sets, tools, stoves, fuel and lighting. Yet we cannot do it alone.

Mercy Corps will not desert the Afghan people in their time of extreme need. "The situation is pretty grim," says Chris. "It seems like the world has forgotten about Afghanistan during one of its darkest hours."