Feb. 3, 2002

A child's death illustrates misery engulfing Afghans

By Brian Murphy

St. Louis Post-Dispatch;
The A.P.

  MIRQASIMJAN CAMP, Afghanistan - The boy was nearing his first birthday. Manzelah was desperately sick, but still trying hard to walk. His father found him a pair of cracked plastic shoes, worn by another toddler who had just died.

Manzelah never tried them on.

During a furious sleet storm before dawn Saturday - while refugees struggled to hold their shelters together - Manzelah was convulsing in a nonstop coughing fit. He stopped, whimpered a bit and was gone.

The tiny shoes were given to another family with a sick boy getting ready to walk.

A child's death and the sad tale of his hand-me-down shoes are simply lost in the panorama of hardship across Afghanistan. But - for a moment at least in a cemetery and a refugee hovel - it served to draw together all the woes and fears crushing the spirits of millions of Afghans separated from their homes: loss, hunger, sickness and the feeling that they are forgotten.

"What did my son die of? I don't know. There is no doctor here," said Manzelah's father, Rahmatullah, who goes by one name, as is customary with many Afghans. "I can only say this: We have no food, no money, no medicine. I couldn't even give my dying son a tablet for his fever. You cannot get lower than this."

Aid groups are pouring supplies into Afghanistan in one of the most massive humanitarian mobilizations in decades. But the scale of need appears even bigger. Almost every family has been touched by one of the country's scourges - warfare, drought and extreme poverty.

The best estimates say that between 1 million and 2 million Afghans are displaced around the country. The International Organization for Migration believes that about 20 percent of the population, or about 5 million people, are "vulnerable," meaning they have already left their homes or could soon if conditions worsen.

While aid groups are struggling to press into remote mountains in central Afghanistan, acute suffering still exists much closer at hand. Only one shipment of wheat flour has reached the Mirqasimjan camp, about nine miles northwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, camp leaders say. Mountain villagers began moving into vacated military barracks two years ago during the Taliban's rule. In recent months, the camp's population has swollen to almost 5,000 across a plain plucked bare of any scrub to burn or plants to eat.

The path to the cemetery is well worn. About 75 people have died since November - more than half of them children, camp leaders say. The boy's father wrapped Manzelah's small body in a brown shawl and placed it on a dirty pillow. A procession of about 40 men stood barefoot on the wet ground as an imam chanted a Muslim prayer before burial. The grave was set amid dozens of little mounds marking the burial spots of children. It took only 45 seconds to fill the shallow grave with dirt. The boy's father, Rahmatullah, smoothed the cold soil with his hands as the mourners drifted back to the camp. "Look at that. Look at all those little graves," said a camp leader, Mohammad Yusuf. "Maybe all our children will die like this."

Rahmatullah walked slowly to the place he has fashioned for his family: a plastic tarp thrown over the remains of a truck cabin and chassis wedged against the side of the barracks. Soviet mortar casings leftover from the 1979-89 occupation help support the opening. "It was a mistake to come. We see that now," said Rahmatullah, whose family arrived last year from a village in the Albors Mountains west of Mazar-e-Sharif. "But we have no choice now. It's just as bad, maybe worse, back in the village."

His wife, Ruzihal, wept in memory of the youngest of her six children. Her tears left dark stains down her green shawl. "I love you, my son, my Manzelah, my littlest one," she sobbed. "I'm sorry. We couldn't help you. We just couldn't help you."

Her husband did not try to comfort her. He cradled 3-year-old Shukrullah in his lap. The boy has a deep cough and has become listless. It was the same with Manzelah before he died. "On this night, after the death of his son, he has nothing to give his children to eat," cried a relative, Ghulman Hussein. "Doesn't anyone care about us? Has even God forgotten us?" The shoes that were meant for Manzelah rested in front of another family's home of mud walls and rags. The family was inside making a meal of bitter grass shoots and pieces of a rotting onion. 

Published in the A-section section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday, February 3, 2002.
Copyright (C)2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch