It is like stepping back in time. Back to a bygone age where you might have expected life to be unremittingly hard, and the struggle to make ends meet relentless. But this is the 21st century, and anyone who has been there will tell you that even today, the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan Province are among the most unforgiving places on the planet in which to live.
Recently, we have all felt the winter cold in Scotland. Bad as it was, it pales by comparison with what that season brings to Badakhshan’s mountain villages. In this remote place, snow and sub-zero temperatures last for months on end and the only access is often on foot or on horseback.
There are no roads, electricity supply, roads or running tap water. In the weather-beaten faces and calloused hands of the fiercely proud people who live in Badakhshan, the tell-tale signs of a life spent eking out a living from its harsh landscape are all too evident.
I remember coming to this region in 1998 in the days following an earthquake that killed thousands in Badakhshan and neighbouring Takhar Province. In one tiny village near a place called Rustaq, a whole mountainside had slipped down, engulfing a ramshackle school and killing scores of children. Where the school once stood, there was only a mass of boulders.
Every day there, I would see one local man, a farmer, walking back and forth endlessly in a forlorn search, his mind unable to comprehend that his children were gone forever. In this remote place life is a high-wire act without a safety net. Here, people fend for themselves, rarely inclined to ask for handouts.
Afghanistan’s war may have made few inroads into Badakhshan’s mountains, but day in, day out, there are other life-and-death battles to contend with:the battle to feed yourself and your children, to combat disease, and toovercome the effects of drought or flash floods that wash away communities and crops. More than 80% of Afghans depend on subsistence farming to feed their families. In Badakhshan’s mountains almost everyone does.
When crisis strikes, the government is often unable to respond or lacks the resources. A few months ago, with the help of the humanitarian agency Oxfam, I journeyed by jeep from Badakhshan’s provincial capital, Faisabad, to some of the most remote mountain communities. Our route took us along dried up riverbeds and steep dirt tracks flanked by sheer drops. Everywhere, we passed subsistence farmers working from dawn to dusk in a backbreaking effort to harvest the crops crucial to their survival throughout the savage mountain winter.
In one community a group of village elders, or “greybeards”, told me of the difference Oxfam’s help had made to their lives as farmers. “Before Oxfam came we had difficulty with the water for our crops, but now we have irrigation. Also, it has helped us build walls to prevent floods from washing into our houses and destroying what we grow,” one greybeard told me.
In village after village people spoke of the impact such projects have made, allowing them to improve the health of their livestock through veterinary clinics or develop nurseries from which seed distribution helped them grow produce.
Across these and other impoverished Afghan communities Oxfam has also built roads, schools and latrines. It has, with the help of its dedicated local staff, supplied diesel generators, agricultural training and support for literacy projects. “My life has changed, and so has that of people in the villages around here,” one man told me proudly, standing in the nursery that helped supply many local communities with the seeds and plants that prevented them from going hungry while also bringing a sense of solidarity.
Last week the Sunday Herald launched its Oxfam Scotland Afghanistan Christmas Appeal. We began by telling of the way in which the lives of many of Kabul’s street children have been changed through the support Oxfam gives to care centres and other projects for these youngsters.
But this is only a small part of the work the agency does in Afghanistan. From the crowded metropolis of Kabul, with its many vulnerable youngsters on the streets, to rural livelihood projects in the mountains of Badakhshan, Oxfam is at the heart of the fight against poverty and injustice.
Long before the current war that engulfs Afghanistan, this was a country plagued by hardship and suffering long-term chronic poverty.
This Christmas we are asking Sunday Herald readers to wage a different kind of war in Afghanistan, a war against poverty. Every penny you donate will go to help support the whole range of development and emergency projects Oxfam runs there.
In the past you have given generously. We hope you will do the same again. Be in no doubt, your contribution makes a tremendous difference to countless lives. Thank you for your support.