Afghanistan, March 2 — Haunted by want, depleted from hunger,
Akhtar Muhammad first sold off his few farm animals and then, as
the months passed, bartered away the family's threadbare rugs
and its metal cooking utensils and even some of the wooden beams
that held up the hard-packed roof of his overcrowded hovel.
But always the hunger outlasted the money. And finally, six
weeks ago, Mr. Muhammad did something that has become ruefully
unremarkable in this desperate country. He took two of his 10
children to the bazaar of the nearest city and traded them for
bags of wheat.
Gone now from his home are the boys, Sher, 10, and Baz, 5.
"What else could I do?" the bereft father asked today
in Kangori, a remote hamlet in the mountains of northern
Afghanistan. He did not want to seem uncaring. "I miss my
sons, but there was nothing to eat," he said, casting a
glance sideways to prove that his misery was hardly unusual.
In the nearby foothills, enfeebled people were coming back
from foraging wild spinach and even blades of grass — a
harvest of hideously bitter greenery that can be made edible
only if boiled long enough. "For some, there is nothing
else," Mr. Muhammad muttered.
Afghanistan, cradle of tragedy, is now in its fourth year of
drought, and with the drought has come its inevitable offspring,
famine. The hungry, spiraling deathward, try to cope in pitiable
ways, selling all, eating fodder, wandering away to beg.
Yet a measure of solace accompanies the abundance of despair.
Last fall, when American bombing raids hindered emergency food
deliveries, humanitarian groups were concerned about mass
starvation. As winter comes to a close, the famine has not
proved as lethal as feared, leaving millions in the vicinity of
the grave without quite pushing them in.
"Always, in any situation like this, people are going to
die, but we've done a lot to minimize the loss of life,"
said Alejandro Chicheri, a spokesman for the World Food Program
of the United Nations. "If there is starvation, it's only
in small pockets."
The World Food Program and various aid groups are generally
credited for a laudable mobilization. Wheat — and occasionally
beans and cooking oil — have been distributed to 6.5 million
Afghans, the goods sometimes sent in a relay from trucks to
camels to donkeys.
This charity has kept huge numbers from a final spill into
"It's really quite weird," said an aid worker,
Christopher S. F. Petch. "You go to places where people are
only eating bread made out of barley and grass. The people don't
look good and they don't look strong. But they also don't look
skeletal. They are managing."
It is hard to estimate how many lives hunger has recently
claimed. The situation is complex, and information incomplete.
This is not a nation of record-keepers. Besides, hunger is often
an indirect killer, letting disease provide the finishing blow.
In Afghanistan, two decades of war have also left it hard to
distinguish between the bad times and the worse. Even without
famine, more than one in five children die before the age of 5
and the average life expectancy is a mere 44.
The largest of the unanswered questions are complicated by
Hundreds of villages are far from roads, tucked away in steep
ravines and mammoth peaks, cut off further by snow. Some Afghans
are several days journey from any site of food distribution.
What has happened to the isolated?
"We call them internally stuck people," said Ahmed
Idrees Rahmani of the International Rescue Committee.
"Wherever the roads stop, disaster seems to start. Reaching
some villages requires 4-5 days on a donkey. People might be
starving. We wouldn't know."
Kangori, in Sar-i-Pol Province, is a modest village of
mud-walled dwellings that seem to blend seamlessly into the
parched, unyielding earth. It is a three-hour walk through
rolling hills to Sholgarah, the nearest town of any size, and
that has proved an impossible distance for some. The old, the
infirm and the morose are paralyzed with deprivation.
Not all in Kangori are suffering, however. Ajab Khan, a
prosperous shepherd, provided a welcoming hand and an energetic
tour of the sickly and dispossessed.
"Look, she is eating the grass," he said at the
first stop, introducing a frail woman who was sitting near her
only food, a bowl of weeds. "She has nothing, nothing at
The woman, Gul Shah, said she had sent her five children out
to gather more wild greens from the landscape. For her,
Sholgarah, where wheat was once given away, might as well be
Timbuktu. "How would I know when or where there is free
food?" she said.
Mr. Khan then directed the way to someone even more pitiful.
"I can show you a woman whose husband and two children died
of hunger," he said, pacing toward another hovel.
There sat Khali Gul, a tearful woman with a bowl of grass at
her feet and nearby a young daughter whose face was blemished
with sores. She said her family had become foragers two months
before and now seemed to be succumbing one by one to diarrhea.
Five days after her husband died, a son, 3, and a daughter, 4,
perished as well.
"I have no one to help me," she said, beginning to
weep. "There are some rich people in the village. When they
feel like it, they give me scraps of bread."
Mrs. Gul looked toward Mr. Khan, who nodded amiably and said
he himself was among the generous in this way. "But there
is hunger all over, and if I give someone food for a month, then
what follows after that?" he complained. "For how long
do you help?"
The same matter troubles the aid agencies. These days, food
is a lodestone, luring the hungry from their homes and into huge
camps where paltry monthly rations — usually just one hefty
sack of wheat per family — are nevertheless dependably
One such place has been set up in the city of Ser-i-pol.
After the first gift of grain, the population of the camp
doubled within a few days as destitute people eagerly forsook
their mountain villages for life in a makeshift municipality of
"The people won't leave and why should they?"
asked Ghulam Nabi
, director of the camp. He was standing amid long rows of
white canvas tents. In the distance were snow- topped
peaks. "Out there, there is no food or water or seed
In the past year, Mazar-i-Sharif, northern
Afghanistan's largest city, rapidly became home to 27
separate camps, with its own urban poor lining up for food
alongside famished migrants. The merely vulnerable feel as
entitled to a handout as the fully stricken.
Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead will be getting
people to go home, where their last memories are of
unendurable hardship, the burying of their dead, the dying
of their animals, the eating of the seed they direly
needed for the next season's planting.
Afghanistan is primarily a country of those who live
from the land. When rain falls once again, they will
require the replenishment of seed as well as fertilizer
and tools and draft animals.
"The key word is return," said Mireille Borne
of the aid group Acted. "If you just give away food,
you undermine the economy. You have to think about the
The long term is what most disconsolate parents are
thinking of when they sell their children. There is not
much precedent in Afghanistan for this heart-wrenching
sacrifice. Traditionally, girls are "sold" for
marriage, with the bride's family collecting a price. But
what is occurring now is closer to the practice of bonded
labor. Arrangements differ but most often the child is
exchanged for a continuing supply of cash or wheat.
"The family was very hungry and I needed help in
my restaurant," said Muhammad Aslam, explaining why
he bought two young brothers nearly two years ago. As he
sipped tea, Bashir, 13, and Qadir, 11, were cleaning the
cooking area in the narrow establishment in Sholgarah.
"It is cheaper to buy boys than hire boys. Actually,
I could have had them free."
Mr. Aslam described the transaction: the boys' father
had offered to give up his sons so long as they were kept
well fed. "But I know about human rights," said
the restaurant owner. "I knew I was obligated to pay
The compensation settled upon was 400,000 Afghanis per
month — about $5 at the time of the deal. "After
two years, I stop paying and the boys are mine
forever," Mr. Aslam said happily, presenting the
situation as something as benevolent as an adoption.
He asked the youngsters to sit at his side. He
requested a smile. They complied.
Abdul Hamid, a porter, was also seated in the
restaurant. "I've bought three children, all from
different families," he volunteered. Noor Agha is 8,
Amruddin 9, Malik 11. He sent someone to get the boys. He
said he considered himself a doer of good deeds.
"These families were all hungry," Mr. Hamid
said. "They cannot give their children what I can.
The boys work for me, but I also send them to school. They
are becoming my sons. If they get lonely, I have agreed to
let them see their real parents every six months."
Akhtar Muhammad, with his family starving in Kangori,
bargained harder than most. For his 10-year- old, Sher, he
now receives a stipend of 46 pounds of wheat per month;
for the younger boy, 5-year-old Baz, he receives half that
amount. The deal continues for six years.
"I have sold the two most intelligent of my 10
children," the father said insistently.
Six weeks had passed since his sons were delivered to
Sholgarah. He agreed to ride into the town, to search out
his older boy, to inquire about the lad's uprooted life.
By chance, father and son happened upon each other in a
crowded street. Immediately, they embraced. Sher was
astride a donkey, toting several metal jugs. He had been
sent to fetch a supply of water.
"They don't treat me well," the boy said
sorrowfully when asked. Indeed, looking away from his
father, his eyes moistened. He seemed close to sobbing.
"I work very hard and during the night they send
me into the mountains to sleep with the sheep."
His father listened silently with no telling expression
on his face. "I felt bad that I was sold," the
boy continued, staring down now, swallowing his shame.
"I cried. Sometimes I still cry. I cry at night. But
I understand why the selling of me was necessary."
He is his family's antidote to hunger.
"I must go now," the 10-year-old said, riding
off. "I must hurry or they will beat me."