Drought threatens Afghan Gypsy lifestyle
Associated Press Writer
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Associated Press Saturday, Februrary 2, 2002.]
QALA BOST, Afghanistan (AP) - With the end of the fighting, humanitarian aid is finally reaching Afghanistan's Gypsies. But after years of drought that killed their camels and flocks, the shipments may threaten their ancient way of life.
The nomads, who have moved throughout recorded time between mountain peaks and desert steppes, are now filling up tent camps established for war refugees - one of the few places they can find the necessities for survival.
If they become rooted in the camps in expectation of aid, their nomadic lifestyle could end forever, aid workers say. Aid agencies don't want the Gypsies to settle down simply in hopes that someone will come by bringing them food, medicine and other supplies.
"The challenge is, how do you get these people moving again?" said Lizzie Christy, a distribution manager for the U.S.-based Mercy Corps, one the main aid groups helping the Gypsies.
Staying alive is their first concern. The Gypsies, known in Afghanistan as Kochi, are crowding into camps that international aid agencies have erected on the border with Pakistan near the crossing of Spinboldak, said Gul Mohammed, a project director for Mercy Corps.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 55,000 people at one Spinboldak camp are Kochi.
Others are encamped inside fraying embroidered tents on cliffs over the wide Helmand River, now shrunken by the drought that has devastated their lives.
They squat, hungry, beneath crumbled ramparts and towers of ancient Afghan kingdoms where they once passed with their flocks each winter.
"We had a good life, and day after day after day it gets worse," said Kabula, blue dots of traditional tribal tattoos on her face and a baby with kohl-rimmed eyes coughing in her arms.
"We have traveled many places, have gone many areas," Kabula said, recounting the yearly caravans that took her people by the cities of Ghazni, Herat, Uruzgan, and across the valleys of southern and central Afghanistan.
"Now we have no camels, no sheep," Kabula said. "We have finished here."
Like other Afghans, the Kochi's problems haven't ended with the collapse of Taliban rule and the U.S.-led military campaign that accomplished it. Four years of scant rain and a lack of opportunity in a near Iron Age economy are blocking the return of 2 million refugees, aid agencies say. Hundreds of thousands more Afghans are displaced within the country.
But the Kochi nomads present their own problem - one troubling aid agencies that will be the spigots for the billions of dollars in aid that international donors have pledged to pour into Afghanistan.
Used to dealing with refugees or so-called internally displaced people - relief agency jargon for those made homeless within their own countries by crises - aid workers have dubbed the Kochi "internally stuck people."
Mercy Corps this week carried out one of the first aid deliveries, before or after the U.S. bombing, to the Kochi - largely missed in previous relief campaigns. Workers distributed U.N. refugee agency kits with pots, plastic tarps, and other goods. Distribution of wheat will come soon, Christy said.
For the Kochi, the crisis is not being uprooted - it's being rooted.
Their way of life is to be on the move - herding sheep and camels from summer pastures in highlands to winter homes in the warmer plains. Skirting the fringe of Afghan society and its mores, Kochi caravans - their women a flash of color with gleaming silver ornaments and swaying braids - pass by villages of shrouded women in black and veils.
But the drought has killed the majority of their livestock, stranding them. Animals that didn't starve were sold or eaten by Kochi desperate enough for a meal to sacrifice their livelihood.
At Qala Bost, on the dry banks of the Helmand, former nomads have staked their appliqued and embroidered tents under the ruins of a high fortress, palaces and villas built by the kings who ruled Afghanistan 1,200 years ago.
To live, they sell fuel of wood and dung in town in exchange for corn or wheat from town people.
Aid agencies categorize the Hochi as "vulnerable." None appear to be starving. Zarda, Kabula's neighbor, lifts her shawl from her head of braids, dangling beaded ornaments and charms to show the larder stashed inside for her children's next meal: scraps of dry bread.
"We don't remember meat," she said. "We don't remember milk."
A girl with matted hair, wide-eyed, wore a necklace with some of her family's little cash wealth - a necklace of Iranian silver coins bearing the profile of the late Shah.
Already, some of the Kochi are trading tents for walls. Khan Zada made the move from nomad to villager two years ago, after drought killed all but four of his 50 sheep and both camels. He plasters mud walls for a living.
Rags of his appliqued tent form a tarp that keeps his kitchen dry.
"If I could, I would go back to my life, before," Khan Zada said.