By Peter Wilson, Program Support Officer, Afghanistan
As the warmth of springtime settles across North America and Europe, northern Afghanistan is just now thawing from what many consider to be the worst winter in living memory – the destruction it leaves behind will be felt for some time to come. In February this year, stories emerged that children were dying in Kabul’s displacement camps because of the extreme cold, while in Badakhshan, a province in the far northeast corner of the country, heavy snowfall triggered catastrophic avalanches, burying entire villages in feet of snow.
However, little has been told about what the people of Badakhshan endured this winter and how they continue to be at-risk as the snow begins to melt. This is largely because it is so incredibly difficult to access. An extremely remote and mountainous region, communities in Badakhshan can be entirely cut off from the outside world for up to seven months a year. Most villages can only be reached by horseback or foot across treacherous paths dotted with ravines, rockslides, and landslides.
After a string of avalanches left dozens injured and trapped in their homes, Concern Worldwide launched an emergency response program to bring lifesaving assistance to some 30,000 of the most affected and isolated people. Because people had no access to markets, Concern began to clear snow roads using donkeys and horses and provided fodder to some 2,000 households in 30 villages to help their animal’s feed – and sole livelihoods – survive the winter.
Last month, I travelled some 12 hours by horse to six different villages with a team of remarkably committed and courageous Afghan colleagues that to reach one village to the next – or even one part of a town to another – is nothing short of a miracle.
In Sori village, there is a two-foot wide path connecting sections of the town, straddling a cliff roughly six-stories high. I was told ten people died in 2011 by falling off of these paths or by being hit by falling rocks. A farmer firmly gripped my arm and guided me along around the trails the entire time to keep me from breaking my neck. This was something I resisted at first, until I fully realized how lethal this place is.
In this unforgiving terrain, it is impossible to ignore the impact that erosion has had on the roads and the people who live there. In the village, I met a family of eight who were living in shelter meant for animals because their house collapsed into a ravine.
Jamaluddin, his wife, and six children have been living in the one-room shelter for the last five months. With no chimney and only two tiny windows for insulation, any fires for warmth or cooking leave the entire house filled with smoke.
When I walked inside, the air was suffocating.
A shallow pool of water roughly three inches deep greeted me when I walked in. Because water trickles in from the hill, the entire house is damp and a thin stream of water covers the floor, except from a small raised platform in the corner of the room where the entire family sleep. “What use is it of talking about human rights when people are living like animals?” Jamaluddin said. “We are living worse than animals.”
Jamaluddin’s story is a common one among the poorest in Badakhshan. Without money or land to build a new home, he and his family face grave and very real risks. In Sori village and across the province, dozens of children died this winter because of respiratory diseases like pneumonia. Malnutrition and exposure to damp, cold conditions amplify a child’s risk of falling ill. With at least two children in each family younger than seven years old and two of the children suffering from hacking coughs when I visited, the delicate edge that Badakhshan’s poorest children live on became very real to me.
Other children, like Rashid Ahmad, 12, are forced to become adults far too quickly. When I met Rashid, he and his neighbor were stripping the wood beams from his old house before it fell down a six-story ledge. Throughout the winter, he had cleared the snow from the roof of his family’s house every day to prevent it from caving in. Unfortunately, his efforts were fruitless after a landslide crashed down on the side of his house, destabilizing it to the point where it was no longer inhabitable.
Just like Jamaluddin and his family, Rashid, his mother, and his sister were forced to move into an animal dwelling. Like so many men across Badakhshan, Rashid’s father moved to Iran to find work. They have only had sporadic contact with him since and very little financial support.
For Rashid, that means he is now the man of the house at only 12 years old. He and his family are relying on hand-outs to survive. The wood beams that he was salvaging when I met him would become one of his family’s only and most valuable assets.
Jamaluddin and Rashid embody the struggles of what life is like for the poorest people in Afghanistan. Without the resources to relocate to safer ground, they are forced to constantly fight the elements just to survive. In particularly harsh winters like this one, they are the ones who are most vulnerable to winter-related illness and death and are at a high-risk of losing the few assets that they have, like houses and cattle, to sub-zero temperatures or landslides.
These are the people that Concern is working with in Afghanistan. The teams that I travelled with risk their own safety to ensure that communities have fodder to keep their livestock alive through winter. We also offer cash-for-work opportunities, and in some cases immediate cash transfers, to provide vulnerable families a financial cushion that helps them meet their basic needs.
Because the poorest do not have the means to relocate their families to safer terrain, Concern also works with them to identify areas that are most prone to avalanches, landslides, and rockslides and then take measures that help to mitigate the risk. As the land begins to thaw, these activities will continue to be just as needed, as the avalanches will gradually be replaced by landslides and rockslides when the snow begins to melt and the spring rains arrive.
After witnessing first-hand how unforgiving nature is on the people of Afghanistan, I can attest that these interventions are life-and-death. I left wondering what life would be like if no assistance ever reached them, how many more children would be dead and how many more families would be without livestock when winter ended. The journey to deliver this assistance is gruelling, and treacherous, but it is insignificant in comparison to the daily struggle that people like Jamaluddin and Rashid face every day, just to stay alive and protect their families.