- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

KIZYL KUCH, Tajikistan A million people facing the threat of starvation this winter in Tajikistan, America's new ally in the war on terror, may have to stand by and watch as trucks full of food roll through on the way to Afghanistan, officials say.
"My worst nightmare is that the world's focus on Afghanistan will eclipse the need for help for the famine in Tajikistan," said Ardag Meghdesian, director of the World Food Program (WFP) in this former Soviet republic.
Donor countries pledged $600 million in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan in recent weeks. "But a million people are hungry in Tajikistan, and they will watch the [trucks] cross their country without stopping," Mr. Meghdesian said.
The need can be seen beside the wilting pepper plants in a two-acre plot in Kizyl Kuch, from where 19-year-old Nazokat Abdunazarova looked away and thought for a long time when asked when she last ate meat. "At least a month," she said eventually.
Then she went into her clay-brick house and came back with a loaf of homemade bread the size of a plate and not much thicker made from corn, a crop that traditionally is grown for animal feed.
"This is all we can afford to eat anymore," she said, and started to cry.
The immediate cause of the famine in Tajikistan which is cooperating with U.S. forces in their drive against the rulers of neighboring Afghanistan is a drought that began in the spring of 2000. The drought has affected a broad swath of Central Asia from Uzbekistan to western China and Afghanistan.
"People sold what they could last year, when the drought began," said Judiann McNulty, assistant country director of the U.S. relief organization Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE). "This year has been worse and they have nothing left to sell.
The situation is aggravated by the aftermath of the Soviet planned economy, in which authorities once told the people what to plant and when. Now, Miss McNulty, said, "they just don't know how to cope with it."
The hunger is most terrible near the Afghan border, where farmers depend heavily on irrigation, and in the Pamir mountain range.
The WFP says 90,000 tons of grain, mostly wheat, are needed to provide the poorest 1 million people with a loaf of bread a day. So far, donors have pledged only a third of the amount.
Miss McNulty said it is too late to buy wheat from the United States or Canada before snowfall makes the remote mountainous areas inaccessible. "If we can get some funding very soon, we can buy wheat in Kazakhstan and get it to them before November," she said.
In the nation's southwestern plains, near the Afghan border, dust lies thick on the leaves.
The scenery is almost uniformly ochre, and weeks can pass without a cloud in sight. Occasional herds of goats and sheep break the monotony of the hills, but it's hard to imagine what sustenance they eke from the yellow stubble.
Tajikistan relies heavily on the export of cotton for foreign exchange, and that is partly to blame for the catastrophe.
One Western diplomat said the ruling elite, which controls the flow of irrigation water, forces farmers to plant cotton in the expectation that foreign aid will see to the food needs of the farm population.
"The cooperatives charge so much for inputs that effectively the farmers work for free," added Benoit Bichet, of the French humanitarian organization Acted.
"But the people keep doing it because it allows them to keep their houses and their private plots. Cotton takes everything and gives them nothing in return."
But even cotton production is down because less water has come from the mountains.
Malnutrition has doubled hospital admissions in the past year, said Saifiddin Samodov, a surgeon at a hospital near Kizyl Kuch.
"When people only eat bread made from bad-quality flour, with all the dirt it contains, they get sick. Three out of four people have a serious B-vitamin deficiency, and 90 percent have some kind of stomach disease," he said.
In Miss Abdunazarova's plot, which provides the only sustenance for the family of nine outside six weeks of cotton picking, an exceptionally hot summer withered their crops of corn, potatoes and vegetables.
The chicks scratching the earth around a hen in her yard belong to someone else, she said. When the chicks are grown, they will be returned to their owner, along with the hen, and Miss Abdunazarova's family will keep two chickens.
To eat? No, she said. To sell, so the family can buy corn flour and cooking oil. When was the last time she ate chicken? She couldn't remember.

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