Drought Takes Toll on War-Weary Tajiks

KUMSHOQ, Tajikistan Tochmat Khassanov is 76 and his eyesight is fading, victim of the blinding sunlight of southern Tajikistan.

He has left his village in this former Soviet Central Asian country only once for any length of time as a Red Army conscript during World War II, first in Murmansk in the Arctic and then in Poland. He returned straight after the war.

He then lived quietly for years, but during the last decade the old days and the old certainties disappeared for good. The Soviet Union collapsed and a civil war destroyed much of the countrys infrastructure.

Now there is a new challenge the worst drought in living memory. The United Nations fears people will go hungry this winter.

Not far from Khassanovs village, perhaps 30 kilometers away, lies the border with Afghanistan, a scene of war and source of potential instability for more than two decades.

Add to that the civil war, which pitted government forces against Islamic separatists from 1992 to 1997, setting Tajikistans economy back by years.

And now drought. Kumshoq, like many villages in the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics, with an average national income last year of just $9.40 per month, is dying.

"Things werent good here before," Khassanov told visiting journalists. "But times have never been so bad."

One 2-year-old girl was unable to walk and has never eaten meat or milk.

Near him, among a group of curious villagers, a young mother held a 2-year-old girl who has never walked: Her shriveled legs will not support her.

The girl has never eaten meat, vegetables or milk, her mother says, and lives on nothing but bread. The childs potbelly shows malnutrition is already taking hold in this village.

Until recently, 65 families lived in Kumshoq. Drought has driven out all but eight. The others have left with the doors, windows and even roofs from their homes, leaving the village a wreck. It is a scene repeated across the country.

Ironically, Tajikistan has huge reserves of water in its high mountains. Its baking hot summers and abundant water make it an ideal place to grow cotton.

The Soviet Union gave priority here to cotton over grain and other food crops, building an impressive irrigation network to nourish the thirsty fields, still the source of Tajikistans main foreign exchange earner.

Years of war and economic decline have seen the network deteriorate badly. But in any case, it still mainly supplies cotton.

Food crops, some of which were previously imported from other parts of the Soviet Union, see little benefit from irrigation. They depend instead on rain.

But none has fallen since March.

Much of this years food crop has already failed. The United Nations, which has launched two appeals for international assistance since last November, fears hunger will strike as early as this winter.

The United Nations took a group of journalists on a tour of the country recently to see the extent of the problem. In villages everywhere, people expressed the same concerns.

"No water. No wheat. No clothes for our children," said an elderly woman in the southern village of Pobedi, speaking in Uzbek one of many languages spoken in Tajikistan.

"We cant send them to school because theres no transport. In any case, theres no paper or pencils or schoolbooks there. And we have no access to medical care," she added, speaking through an interpreter.

She held out little hope that the central government, just getting back on its feet after the war, would be able to help.

A visit to School No. 3 in Tajikistans Sovietsky region was a sorry testament to the countrys troubles.

"The main problem is the state of the school itself," said Abdi Yassin, local area manager of the UN Development Program. "Its almost collapsing."

Almost every pane of glass in the building is broken. Classrooms look as if they have been derelict for years. Roughly a quarter of the children enrolled have simply disappeared, nobody knows where. Yassin says that for most families, survival rather than education is now the priority.

The teachers, whose salaries are pitifully low and rarely paid, turn up to school only occasionally, he said. They depend on the land like everyone else in Tajikistan and must also try to grow food against the odds in this time of drought.

In one classroom, some English words were written on a blackboard mother, father, grandmother and other words for family members.

"I like my family very much," the board read.

The northern city of Khudjand, founded by Alexander the Great and one of Central Asias most ancient settlements, is the most economically developed in the country, richer and more cosmopolitan than the sleepy capital, Dushanbe.

It is the capital of Leninabad region, home of the countrys largest reservoir, a source of hydroelectricity and so of industry. Like most of the country, Leninabad is also an important farming region. And the rains have failed in Leninabad too.