Faizabad, a capital without electricity or water

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Faizabad, a capital without electricity or water

30Oct00 By Jack Redden

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The capital of the internationally recognised government of Afghanistan is a town without electricity or piped water where the streets resemble boulder-strewn river beds.

Ever since the Taleban movement overran most of the next province to the west, Burhanuddin Rabbani, president of the beleaguered government still recognised by the world community, has been based in Faizabad, capital of the impoverished mountain province of Badakhshan.

The town, a straggling line of mud and timber houses along the churning Kookcha River, is home to some 75,000 people whose numbers have swelled with the influx of more than 7,000 people fleeing the advance of the Taleban.

While fighting continues to rage around the previous capital, Taloqan, Rabbani tells visitors to a simple, single-storey headquarters that was previously for the provincial governor, that the anti-Taleban forces will soon retake the city.

A helicopter on a nearby field is his only practical way of getting around a province where speeds on the best roads average about 20 km per hour (12 mph).

Faizabad itself is quiet, except for the occasional explosion or burst of gunfire echoing off surrounding mountains. Rabbani said troops were testing their weapons before departing for the front, some 100 km (60 miles) to the west.

There are relatively few gunmen on the streets for a town where U.N. offices have quietly drawn up contingency plans for evacuation if fighting heads here.

The commander of forces for the official government, Ahmad Shah Masood, rounded up most of the potential fighters during a visit to the town earlier this month and took them off to the war.

As dusk falls most of the population head to their mud-walled houses; the wooden doors into the walled compounds are barred and the unlit dirt streets deserted long before the 9 p.m. curfew. Only the barking of dogs breaks the silence.

In one of the world's poorest countries, this is the poorest part.

"If the war continues and winter comes this will make very big problems because Badakhshan does not survive on its own food production," said provincial governor Qazi Mohammed Sarvar. "If the war continues we must bring food from outside the country."


The road west, to the rest of Afghanistan, is now under the Taleban, which controls 95 percent of the country but has yet to win international recognition.

To the south, a truck with medical supplies for Masood's stronghold in the Panjsher valley left last week to ensure it crossed the Hindu Kush passes before they are blocked by snow.

One route to neighbouring Tajikistan from the enclave held by Rabbani's government runs along a rough road dangerously close to Taleban lines. That leaves only a road east, also to Tajikistan, which fortunately for civilians seeking food and soldiers needing ammunition was upgraded by the United Nations to transport aid.

"We always have problems in winter but this year the problems are bigger than ever because things are more and more expensive," said Qudrattallah Durkhany, director of eduction for the province. "How can a teacher live on a salary of $2 a month?"

In fact, other teachers said their salary had fallen to $1 a month -- and were not being paid anyway. The currency, the afghani, has fallen from about 60 to the dollar 15 years ago to 117,000 now.


In the market, a line of tiny shops that stretches a couple of kilometres, there is a weariness with the war that does not echo the official call for a struggle until the Taleban is defeated.

"We hope for peace because when it comes the roads will be open," said a cloth merchant squatting in his two-metre-square (six-foot-square) shop. He said five customers a day stop, less buy.

There are more donkeys than cars manoeuvring along the market and through the stream that flows over the main road. Most vehicles are four-wheel drive trucks of the multitude of United Nations and other humanitarian agencies trying since long before the current crisis to combat the poverty.

There are not even the battered buses of most poor areas. Many refugees in Faizabad arrived on foot after walking for days through the mountains. The governor asked if a car could be sent to bring him to an interview as his own had broken down.

The town's Soviet-era metal runway downstream from Faizabad receives only small passenger planes from the United Nations on Tuesday and Thursday, plus occasional planes that might be ferrying military supplies from allies like Russia.

Poverty among the estimated million people in this remote corner of Afghanistan was always severe but 21 years of war has ensured that nothing has improved.

The World Health Organisation has targeted the area for extra attention in its world-wide campaign to eradicate polio. It is also trying to pipe drinking water to the town, where residents casually drink from ditches.

"When you go down the streets there are eight and nine-year-olds working carrying heavy loads. They might be the only ones supporting their families," said Fawzia Koofi, a local woman representing the U.N. Children's Fund.

In the schools children overflow classrooms and sit on mats on the earth in the courtyards. A student watched a television cameraman taking pictures of his school -- mud-brick walls with a roof of logs and mud. He was in a classroom devoid of everything except the logs he was sitting on.

"People come and interview us, but afterwards nothing changes," the youth said bitterly.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 30, 2000

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