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The Final Humiliation: Afghan Children Are Ignored

April 30, 2000|Robin Wright | Robin Wright covers global issues for The Times and is the author of "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran."

Farmers are not the real culprit; poverty is. Farmers interviewed expressed a strong desire to switch crops. Heroin is not widely used in Afghanistan. But like coca farmers in Latin America, nothing else is anywhere near as profitable, though profits for them aren't all that great. Partly because of a severe drought and poor quality, the going price is $30 a kilo, a fraction of the $100,000-$500,000 price on the streets for processed heroin in the United States or Europe.

"Why don't the Americans help us build other industries? They complain about narcotics from Afghanistan, but they don't help find alternatives," complained Gul Khan, an aging farmer and father of 10 children in the village of Sir Shahi near Jalalabad. "I have no choice if I want to feed my children."

The second main source of income in Afghanistan is smuggling between Pakistan, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. A World Bank study estimated that trade to be worth as much as $2 billion.

Yet, neither illicit industry has done much for most Afghans. So, despite stiff Islamic penalties imposed for theft, including hand amputations, Afghanistan's deteriorating economy has spawned a crime wave.

Afghanistan has to be almost totally reconstructed, right down to the Kabul Zoo, which once marked the war's front line and is now the only source of public entertainment for children since sports are virtually nonexistent and theater, movies, television, music and videos are banned. The zoo is almost barren since the elephant and two tigers died of shrapnel wounds, and the reptile house was blown up in the early 1990s. Marjan, the aging lone lion, lost an eye when attacked . Like two mangy monkeys, the few other animals appear emaciated and slightly crazed.

"Where else do I take my children?" a father of two small boys asked while wandering among the empty stalls last Sunday.

The fate of Afghanistan's children is trapped by a final tragic irony. The U.S. approved sanctions against Afghanistan for supporting terrorism, most notably for harboring Saudi renegade Osama Bin Laden, who is linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and other extremist spectaculars. The irony is that the United States gratefully backed the Arab zealots Bin Laden recruited in the 1980s to fight alongside the moujahedeen.

Last year, the United States convinced the United Nations to impose sanctions, too. Humanitarian goods--food, medicine, educational material and basic essentials--are technically exempt, as in Iraq. But the aura around Afghanistan, promoted foremost by the United States, now makes it a place where few want to get involved, even if only to help the children. *

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