Kandahar's Army Of
Widows Eat Cattle Feed

By Indo-Asian News Service

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Magul collects cattle feed in a bag under her voluminous head-to-toe burka and feeds it to her seven children.

"Animals eat this stuff, but it's all I have to take home to them," she says, plunging her hands into the bag and pulling out bunches of grass and weed.

She doesn't remember when she last had a hot meal of rice and beans, let alone meat.

Thirty-eight years old, Magul lost her husband and one child to U.S. air strikes on Kandahar last month, and the bombing took away any form of regular income.

She ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence, washing other people's clothes when she gets a chance. Her 16-year-old son, the eldest, is looking for work, but so far hasn't found any.

Every morning Magul joins an army of several thousand burka-clad women besieging the interim government's planning department in the southern city of Kandahar. All its officials can do is record their names. So the widows sit in the wintry sun and wait. And hope.


Syed Shah, a young American of Afghan origin, left New York and interrupted his engineering degree course to work unpaid for the planning department, hoping to be of some help to his people. Even he is close to despair.

The empty, chilly offices are piled high with fat files -- with lists, lists of wrecked roads, broken bridges, destroyed farms and factories, collapsed irrigation systems, and above all, lists of the hungry, the homeless and the unemployed.

"Of the four million people in the southwest, we reckon about three million need help in one form or another," Syed Shah said.

"We are assisting 2,500 families, but it's nothing compared to the size of the problem, the numbers of people we see here every day."

Outside, a legion of poor widows hammers on the doors, their voices a river of protest, of cries for help. They don't understand why there is no money, why foreign aid agencies are not sending the cash they need to fill their children's bellies.

Afghans have suffered 23 years of revolution, civil war, foreign occupation, anarchy, Taliban autocracy and finally, weeks of U.S bombing triggered by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed more than 3,000 people.


Azrato's nine children, aged one to nine, are also fatherless.

The family's breadwinner died in a raid by B-52 bombers as the United States and its Afghan allies of the Northern Alliance closed in on Kandahar, last bastion of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies led by the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.

"If I'm lucky I get $20 a month. I try to work as a washerwoman or cleaner when I get the chance, but my kids are always asking me for food," Azrato says. "We had nothing today. Last night our supper was bread and tea."

Shakako, 45, says her husband was forcibly conscripted by Taliban and killed in fighting the Northern Alliance a few weeks later. "I don't even know where his grave is," she said.

She has eight children. The youngest, six months old, is a girl. "We haven't eaten meat for a month. We live on bread and tea."


Syed Shah and his colleagues estimate the minimum level of income needed for the average family of seven is $100 a month, but many of the women squatting outside the government office are subsisting on $0.50 a day -- or even less.

The planning office -- Afghans simply called it "Plan" -- is supposed to be the central point for all foreign aid. Its task is to coordinate all national relief and reconstruction efforts in conjunction with the United Nations and foreign aid organisations.

But instead of a flood of donations, the cash is barely a dribble.

"Plan" has no fax machine, no direct telephone line. The address is simple enough: Planning Department, Sharinau, Kandahar. To speak to the department by phone, callers must ask the Kandahar city operator.

If they can get through, that is.

"We want to speak to foreign aid organisations, to governments and charities," says deputy director Habibullah. "We want to tell them how desperate the situation is, how urgent we need help in this country."


Western politicians, notably British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have pledged not to forget Afghanistan, not to turn their backs on its more than 20 million people as they did when the Soviets withdrew in 1989 after a decade of anti-Soviet guerrilla war funded by Washington and Saudi Arabia.

Leslie Olquist, U.N. co-ordinator for six provinces of southwest Afghanistan, said the widows formed one of the most vulnerable groups.

"They survive by begging, and they and their children are often badly malnourished," he said.

Of the 4.5 million people in his region, 1.5 million are classified as internally displaced people, or IDPs -- Afghans who were not where they were supposed to be, but had fled their homes, villages and farms for other areas.

Some families live in the open and have no breadwinner.

Aid is starting to arrive, and the United Nations was carrying out a survey of the most needy among the IDPs.

In the meantime, the hungry widows of Kandahar will continue to pick weeds, wash clothes and beg.
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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