Lack of Orderly Means to Distribute Aid Is Latest Setback for Afghan Village
By HABIB ZAHORI and AZAM AHMEDMAY 5, 2014
ABI BARAK, Afghanistan — An outpouring of aid has come to the remote village of Abi Barak, where a devastating landslide is likely to have claimed 2,100 lives and instantly left thousands homeless. Tents, water, food and blankets have streamed in from all quarters, including community donations and international contributions.
But on Monday, it was clear that the effort to get that assistance to the hardest-hit was being hampered by a host of problems: competing interests among local leaders and politicians, a lack of infrastructure and effective management at the site, and an onslaught of villagers coming from nearby areas who were unaffected by the landslide but were needy nonetheless.
The scene was on full display in a makeshift camp set atop a plateau overlooking Abi Barak, where a mass of earth torn loose from a neighboring mountain on Friday buried roughly 300 homes. Thousands of villagers argued in the open air, with much-needed aid sitting in tidy piles just out of reach, while elders tried to sort out what has been perhaps the most crucial challenge in the aftermath of the landslide — confirming the names and details of those who most needed help.
“The biggest problem that we have here is that we do not have a clear and genuine list of the actual affected people,” said Abdullah Faiz, the head of the Afghan Red Crescent in Badakhshan Province, where the village is. “We do not know the villagers.”
While the scene in Abi Barak was relatively orderly, it underscored a challenge fundamental to helping the survivors here, and to the broader aid effort in Afghanistan. Given the massive footprint of the international community in the country over the past decade, there is plenty of aid to go around, officials said. But there is often limited capacity to sort out how to distribute it, given that rural administration, far removed from the Kabul ministries where technocrats work, is almost nonexistent.
Villagers in Abi Barak live without electricity, going about their lives as sheepherders and farmers nestled between two hulking mud mountains. There is no census, no family records, no government offices. Whatever records did exist before the landslide were obliterated.
The task of compiling the list was handed to a commission of elders formed shortly after the disaster, but by early Monday the process was falling apart. Villagers from neighboring areas had crept onto the list, and powerful elders and politicians were weighing in on who should be counted — or creating their own lists.
Realizing that many of the landslide victims were not receiving the goods, aid agencies temporarily halted distribution.
“We started the distribution, and villagers got angry and told us that some of those who have received aid from us or other aid agencies were not from their village,” said Ibrahim Mawzon, an aid worker from the Aga Khan Foundation. “I do not know why the commission is committing such a crime at this critical moment in the lives of these poor people.”
As the scene escalated in the camp, the provincial governor promised to dispatch his deputy to review the commission. When he arrived, he disbanded the original group and named a new one.
The aid groups ultimately decided to comply. They had no other option.
“We have two choices,” said one aid worker, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “We trust the elders and their lists and give the food to people, or we don’t trust the elders and hold on to the food.”
The lists have become a thing of obsession for villagers, many of whom who have eaten only bread in the past few days. Small groups of villagers have been compiling their own lists, flashing the pamphlets before the aid workers in the hopes of securing food.
“Yesterday evening they put my name on the list, but I am still waiting,” said Kharkash, 54, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and two nephews. “I do not trust any of the elders — they only put their relatives’ names on the list.”
Within earshot, Meser, a 32-year-old farmer, sat on three sacks of rice with two cans of oil resting by his feet.
“My cousin is an elder, and he put my name on the list, and I just received this rice and oil,” he said. “The distribution is going very well.”
Alongside the disaster, the biggest in at least a decade, has been endless news coverage. Afghan Army helicopters have been flying circuits between the site and the provincial airport, carting in crews of dignitaries and journalists to tour the area.
Both of the nation’s vice presidents have taken tours. On Monday, Ashraf Ghani, a presidential candidate, came to visit; on Tuesday, Abdullah Abdullah, the leading contender, is expected to arrive.
With so many luminaries flying into and out of the area, the site has become a prime opportunity for local politicians looking to share in the limelight. Pictures of Afghan politicians posing before the designated mass grave tore through social media on Monday, raising the ire of Afghans who condemned the photo-ops as tasteless.
The positioning has also taken a more dangerous turn. On Monday morning, a quarrel erupted between competing groups of gunmen, one loyal to a member of Parliament representing the area and another to a district governor. Both men claimed they were the true representatives of the victims.
The villagers, already shocked by the scale of the disaster and then again by the influx of attention, fled.