Tajik children facing starvation

Originally published
Youngsters in remote areas of Tajikistan are suffering as the regional relief effort focuses on Afghanistan.
By Turko Dikaev in Shobika, Kulyab region

The Ibragimovs eagerly awaited the arrival of their first baby, only for their hearts to break when it was born severely emaciated, suffering from heart problems.

Throughout her pregnancy, the infant's mother had been on the verge of starvation, which resulted in her child suffering hypotrophy - incomplete growth in the womb.

There are 46 such under-fives currently facing death in the poverty-stricken village of Shobika in the southern Kulyab region, seemingly forgotten by locally-based aid agencies who've increasingly been shifting the focus of their operations across the border to Afghanistan over the last year.

The shocking condition of the children was discovered recently by the NGO Action Against Hunger, AAH, on its arrival in this isolated area. Of Shobika's 1,730 youngsters aged under 14, nearly a third - 476 - were diagnosed as dystrophics or underdeveloped.

"We were absolutely horrified when we saw how bad the situation was here. These children are starving to death," said one AAN worker, who did not give his name.

The group is carrying out a detailed medical programme in the village, which lies in the Vosei district some 80 km from the Afghan border. In addition, it is providing food and check-ups in another four Kulyab districts.

In a local children's hospital, 30 km from Shobika, the NGO has set up a new 20-bed ward dedicated to the care of underdeveloped youngsters. In the three months since it opened, nearly 100 patients have passed through it.

It is believed that over two-thirds of Tajiks are living well below the poverty line. The World Food Programme has estimated that around a million people - a seventh of the population - were on the verge of starvation last year. That figure is only set to rise.

In the five years since the end of Tajikistan's bloody 1992-97 civil war, the republic's economic downturn has shown no sign of reversing. The rural areas have been hit hardest, and this problem has been compounded by a devastating drought that has turned entire districts into dustbowls. In such conditions, malnutrition and diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, and diphtheria are common.

Kholbi Samadova, who has worked as a nurse at Shobika's ambulance station for 17 years, has seen cases of hypotrophic children soar in recent years as the poverty levels have risen. With their mothers starving, the babies have no chance of being born healthy.

Her colleague Osim Karomatov told IWPR that his job is a depressing one, as the majority of patients have no money to pay for much-needed treatment. "We don't cure sick people. We only fill out registration cards and prescribe medicine," he said.

Money is the biggest problem facing these villagers. Besides seasonal work harvesting cotton, there is simply no way to earn a living in Shobika.

Knoja Mumin, the 1,250 hectare cotton collective that the community belongs to, makes heavy losses. Chief accountant Marokhim Valiev told IWPR that its members were paid on average of 14.32 somoni - 4.47 dollars - each for all of last year. But as various taxes are yet to be deducted from this paltry sum, the workers are yet to receive it.

Housewife Jamila Kurbonova, whose husband works on the Khodja Mumin farm, has five children and said that the family's situation has become increasingly desperate. "I am so ashamed to look in the hungry eyes of my children, especially our youngest, who was born very small and sickly," she said.

The people of Kulyab seem locked into a downward spiral. The scale of the catastrophe facing this poorest Central Asian state has long been recognised - but with the regional relief effort targeting Afghanistan conditions are unlikely to improve soon.

Turko Dikaev is a correspondent with Asia-Plus news agency in Tajikistan