Electronic Quill

Undercovered (The Human Dimension of Afghanistan),

Kate Rogers Gessert

(Gessert's note: Since last fall I've been teaching U.S. civics to immigrants who are studying English. As we followed the war in Afghanistan, they kept asking what was happening to the people who lived there day by day. I realized I had no idea, and thus began writing an occasional newspaper column and compiling a list of Internet sites rich in information and sometimes in inspiration.)


Most of Western Europe's and Russia's opium hails from Afghanistan. Russian heroin use and HIV rates have soared. Thanks to Afghan heroin, Pakistan and Iran have the world's highest rates of addiction (Observer). Displaced Afghans living in and out of the country may turn to heroin as escape. Returning home, they bring their habits with them and addict friends and families. According to one estimate, 500,000 Afghans are addicted. Kabul has Afghanistan's only drug rehabilitation center, where patients are sometimes chained to their beds. "We didn't have any medicine and he kept running away. What were we going to do?" (IRINnews)

When the Taliban fled during this fall planting season, many farmers chose to plant poppies. Their reasons were numerous: strong demand and high prices after a year's ban by the Taliban, cash advances from opium traders, low seed prices. Also, with so much aid currently flowing into Afghanistan, some farmers expect there will be grain for everyone to eat and market grain prices will be low. Others hope they will be paid by the international community not to grow poppies. (United Nations)


85% of Afghans depend on agriculture, often at a subsistence level. Among internally displaced Afghans, many have left home because their crops failed. Deterioration and wartime destruction of irrigation systems has exacerbated effects of prolonged drought; Afghan food production has plummeted 50% since 1998. Afghanistan previously exported fruits and wood, but orchards and forests are gone. (United Nations)

Cattle plague, finally eradicated in Afghanistan last year, is still present in Pakistan; to build up depleted Afghanistan herds, many cows must come from Pakistan. Because of long drought, north Afghan locusts have migrated from pastureland to cropland, and last year destroyed 40% of crops in one province and everything in others; farmers are bracing for a new onslaught.

In North Afghanistan, Doctors Without Borders has declared a food crisis: doubled human mortality since August, severely malnourished children, more and more people leaving home in search of food. Many people have sold their land and animals and have only a few days' food left. One third of people have land to plant; 4% have seeds.


On March 1, convoys began to carry refugees home from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Afghan leaders and some aid workers are concerned that refugees may return too soon, before there is enough work, rain, and security. One estimate by the Livelihoods Initiative Program predicts the Afghan drought will last another year to eighteen months, with insufficient water for family use, crops, livestock, tree-planting and house building (with mud bricks). With more people, shaky water systems may collapse. In Kandahar, for example, water availability has recently dropped from eight hours a day to four (Refugees International).

Shomali Plain near Kabul, once a verdant oasis of orchards, vineyards, and farm villages, has been transformed by long war to a dusty wasteland of burned houses, poisoned wells, felled orchards, abandoned tanks and landmines (Independent). Of some 600,000 inhabitants who left Shomali Plain, 200,000 are expected to return this spring to rebuild their houses and plant their fields. Land mine workers are racing to remove mines; aid organizations will provide tents, shelter-building kits, fuel, kitchen kits and three months' food to many returning farmers.

In the words of one Afghan mother of five, "We hope and pray for peace now. We just want to get on with our lives and be happy." (IRIN news)


Gessert's rich resource of Internet sites about the people and problems of Afghanistan may be found on a new "Just Desserts" page: