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Cold, Hunger, And Disease Wreak Havoc In Afghanistan’s ‘Rooftop’ Community

A recent, but rare, aid mission delivered food, vitamins, medicine, and blankets to 154 families in Wakhan, which is home to one of the most remote communities in the world.

BROUGHIL, Afghanistan -- One of the world’s most isolated communities in northeastern Afghanistan is facing unprecedented hardships because of disease, a harsh winter, grinding poverty, and food shortages.

Residents of the Wakhan Corridor say the coronavirus pandemic has considerably increased their problems in the region, which already suffered from isolation and underdevelopment.

Wakhan is a narrow strip of territory that includes the Pamir Mountains. The sparsely populated region connects Afghanistan to western China while separating eastern Tajikistan from northwestern Pakistan.

Considered the world’s rooftop because of its elevation, the region is so remote that it was hardly touched by the various cycles of war in Afghanistan over the past four decades. Violence never made it to Wakhan. But the problems of the impoverished country are manifold for the region’s estimated 15,000 residents.

Wakhan’s predominant Wakhi farmers and Kyrgyz nomads have no healthcare, education, or other services. Winters snow cuts the region off from the rest of Afghanistan for months. Last year, the pandemic kept most of the adventure tourists away, which virtually dried up the local revenue stream.

“We have buried at least 70 people because of the disease caused by the coronavirus,” Abdul Qudus, head of a development committee in Broughil, one of the few villages in Wakhan, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “These included women and children.”

Qudus buried his 25-year-old daughter last week after she died from a protracted illness. “We still have many people in a coma, many have chest infections while other suffer from bloody diarrhea, headaches, and other chronic symptoms.”

In the absence of any hospitals or testing facilities it difficult to confirm Qudus’ claim or the prevalence of COVID in Wakhan, but the region’s residents had some contact with outsiders last summer when the pandemic raged across Afghanistan. Coughing children and wheezing adults are everywhere.

Residents of Wakhan say too many children have been falling victim to disease and malnutrition.
Residents of Wakhan say too many children have been falling victim to disease and malnutrition.

Amid the grinding poverty, keeping oneself warm against the subzero temperatures is a major challenge and makes the difference between succumbing to or surviving the harsh winter. Subsistence farming and animal husbandry barely keep the Wakhanis alive. Many suffer from severe vitamin deficiencies and a lack of other vital micronutrients.

Mah Geen, a 67-year-old grandmother, recently lost two of her five grandchildren to respiratory illnesses. “My three grandchildren are sick with chest infections right now, but we don’t have medicines or a hospital here,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We cannot even leave our house because it is so cold.”

Eirgen Berdee, a leader of the Kyrgyz nomads in Wakhan, says their community is losing too many children to diseases. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that his community is paying a high price because of hunger and disease.

“We usually only eat flat bread with black tea and are deprived of nourishing diet,” he said. “We do often lack vital vitamins,” he added. “This is why we lose many of our newborn and young children every winter.”

Afghan officials in Wakhan estimate that cold, hunger, and disease has so far killed more than 100 residents of the remote district this winter. The number showcases the extreme vulnerability of residents who are too far from anywhere to even contemplate migration.

Officials in Badakhshan Province say they are doing whatever they can to help. Mohammad Noor Khawari, a physician and provincial head of the Public Health Ministry, visits Wakhan whenever he can get a helicopter ride from the provincial capital some 400 kilometers away.

“There is no road access here. The people here do not even know fruits and vegetables, which results in chronic vitamin deficiency,” he said. “I have now brought them ample vitamin supplies to help them overcome this,” he added, as he tends to many coughing children and women inside a dimly lit room.

Last week, Ghulam Bahauddin Jilani, the state minister for disaster management and humanitarian affairs, attempted to alleviate some of the region’s suffering by bringing in food, blankets, and medicines in a rare aid mission.

“Today we witnessed the distribution of cash, food, medicines, and other material to 154 families of Pamir Khurd,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while alluding to a part of Wakhan that is locally known as Small Pamir. “We expect to extend similar assistance to some 1,900 families across Wakhan and other vulnerable regions.”

Although Wakhan residents welcome the assistance, they say it is not enough. They say the region needs to be connected to the rest of the country through a road link that can be kept open year-round and Kabul needs to provide them with healthcare, education, and other basic services.

Kabul, however, has few resources to undertake such investments on its own. A proposed trade corridor linking Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan to China through Wakhan could eventually change its destiny.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nimatullah Ahmadi’s reporting from Badakhshan, Afghanistan.