Tajikistan's toughest New Year

This New Year's in Tajikistan was harsher than ever, the celebrations far from joyful - without a big festive spread to put on the table; with electricity cut in many villages because of old and malfunctioning equipment; now with as many as a million people worrying about where their next meal is coming from and many subsisting on just bread and tea.
In the capital Dushanbe, winter is relatively mild. But up in the mountain villages the earth freezes solid early in November, forcing many people to stay in their mud dwellings - warmed only by open fires built from straw, twigs and dung. Some people stay indoors for days on end simply because they have no shoes to wear; they might take it in turns to wear the only pair of rubber slippers the family has. No proper clothes, no decent food - this is now the norm in a Tajik village in winter.

Magnificent views of the Warzob mountains, ski resorts, hot springs and numerous rest homes once attracted thousands of people to this part of Tajikistan and provided jobs and income for local communities. That was then. Today, a gloomy vista of ruined and abandoned buildings with dark holes for windows recalls the civil war that ruined the economy and claimed more than 50,000 lives.

This silent disaster has been creeping deeper and deeper into peoples' lives. The country continues to suffer from the collapse of its socio-economic structures after independence from the Soviet Union, from the aftermath of the civil war, and from two years of severe drought. For about a million people - one sixth of the population - physical survival itself has become a struggle. "Winter is a significant element of the disaster that will make the lives of impoverished families much harder," says Ethiopia Wongel, relief administrator in the Federation delegation in Dushanbe.

But before the winter set in for real a few weeks ago, the Tajik Red Crescent Society and the International Federation started distributing food to the most needy households. The programme, to assist some 135,000 people, is supported by ECHO, the World Food Programme, and the Finnish and German governments through their nations' Red Cross societies.

Elderly people living alone, orphans and families with a large number of children are receiving 25 kilos of flour, five litres of oil and a kilo of salt, to last until the next distribution in March.

"I am not alone!" exclaims Zoya Lykishina, as Red Crescent workers arrive with Christmas greetings. "You are with me, thank God," she says as she cooks mashed potato dumplings made from the wheat she got from the Red Crescent.

Zoya, 78, is from Russia. She was evacuated to Tajikistan during the second world war and stayed on. "I like this country and I will never leave it. It's my second motherland," she says. But probably the main thing that keeps her here is the memory of her husband and three children, all of whom died in Tajikistan. She won't say how - civil war, disease, extreme poverty. One can only guess. Zoya worked hard all her life and now her miserable pension is hardly enough for the medicines she needs, even if they were available in the city. "To protect your health is the most difficult thing these days," she says.

Despite a sharp frost, hundreds of people - mainly women and children - come to the Red Crescent distribution points early in the morning to get a ration that will at least keep their children alive for the next couple of months. "December and March are the most difficult months and that's why we provide the most vulnerable with food now and in early spring when all their stocks are gone," says the Red Crescent programme coordinator. The Red Crescent delivers food commodities to the distribution points, from where people take it home themselves. Cars are a rare luxury and the villagers come with their wheelbarrows, the lucky ones with donkeys, and if necessary they carry things on their backs.

"Do you call this a life?" asks Kholu Kholik, from the village of Luchob. "Men have no jobs and no way of providing for their families. Many worked in the fields last summer, but in vain - the sun has eaten all our grain." Kholu, 70, used to work as a shepherd in a collective farm which no longer exists. His son was killed two years ago and Kholu is now taking care of his three grandchildren on a pension of less than three dollars a month.

Pivikhol Abdulova is 46. Her story is typical of people living in kishlaks (villages) in various parts of Tajikistan: no money, no job, no food, no hope apart from one - that a relative or a humanitarian organization will bring some help.

Pivikhol's husband left her with six children several years ago and she has not had any news of him since. She lost her job when the local textile factory was closed after war broke out in 1992. "Life is hard; everything is hard," she says quietly, reluctant to go into details and describe the deep poverty into which she has sunk. She points to a plot of land, with a remark repeated everywhere in Tajikistan.

"Last summer without any rain the land was just too dry for anything to grow." She used to have chickens but they ate them all when there was nothing to eat. The cow got sick and died. Her brother occasionally gives her some money with which she buys flour to make bread. As heat, dust and drought give way to the freezing Central Asian winter in an already impoverished and war-torn nation, only the Red Crescent stands between many Tajik villagers and total privation.