BAGHAPUL, Afghanistan — With their Y-shaped divining rods and uncanny sense of the desert, the nomads of the Rigestan could find water almost anywhere.
But for three years the winds have brought no rain, and now even the hardy wandering people known as the Kuchis are coming in from the desert.
"My father is buried in the desert, and my grandfather's father is buried in the desert," said Raz Mohammed, a 96-year-old nomad who had stopped with his family along a riverbank here. "Never did they tell us of a drought like this."
Mohammed, a turbaned, white-haired man whose green eyes lie deep within his weathered face, brought his family to this spot on the Arghandab River, miles from their normal route. In a good year, Mohammed would be well on his way toward the center of Afghanistan by now, bringing his sheep and camels out of the desert to the market, pitching his quilted tent wherever he wanted to rest.
But this year, all but three of Mohammed's animals are dead from thirst. He and his family have come to this spot north of the city of Kandahar with about 30 other Kuchi families, praying for help and thinking of ways to start again.
"I swear by God and my beard that my animals died in the desert," Mohammed said. "Now we are at the mercy of Allah."
By Mohammed's reckoning, the Rigestan hasn't seen a good rain in three years. The conditions are much the same in the rest of Afghanistan, suffering through its driest spell in more than 30 years. Relief officials say the drought threatens 3 million lives.
The drought already has destroyed virtually all of the crops in the south, west and northwestern parts of the country, and in some areas, 80% of the livestock is dead. This year the shortfall of wheat, the Afghan staple, is expected to top 2.3 million tons.
Relief officials say the drought is exacerbated by the country's 11-year-old civil war, which began when forces of the now-defunct Soviet Union withdrew from the nation.
"A country like this can survive a drought, but it can't survive a drought and a civil war," said Peter Goossens, deputy director of the U.N. World Food Program in Kabul, the capital.
The United Nations and others are mobilizing to bring relief to the Afghans, but by their own account they won't be able to provide for everyone. The U.S. government, which has imposed sanctions on Afghanistan, recently promised 50,000 tons of wheat--in addition to the 80,000 tons already pledged.
Even with the new aid, Afghans probably will find themselves more than a million tons short of food. Officials predict that the worst could come this fall, when another disastrous harvest seems certain.
"Our fear is that eventually people are going to starve," Goossens said.
For the Kuchis, the drought is the latest in a series of disasters that have forced them out of the desert. For centuries, the nomads wandered Afghanistan and Pakistan, oblivious to borders. In recent years, the governments have gotten stricter, cutting off normal migratory routes and reserving the better grazing areas for farmers who stay at home.
One shock came in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country. Many of the Kuchis smuggled guns for the moujahedeen, the holy warriors who struggled against the invaders. But the war drove many Kuchis into the cities and refugee camps in Pakistan, and some never returned to their old way of life.
As many as 2 million nomads wandered over the country in the years before the Soviet invasion, and most experts agree that by now the number has fallen dramatically, perhaps by half.
As the drought pushes them from their desert home, the Kuchis are beginning to ponder a different life.
Hamidullah, 32, sat under a tent recently and chatted with his friends. The tails of foxes, a Kuchi good-luck charm, hung from the roof. Hamidullah took a city job in 1989, brought his parents in from the desert and sold off their three camels and 30 sheep. Now he drives a truck in Kandahar, boasts two wives, 10 children and finer clothes than his friends.
The other Kuchis in the tent seem interested; one says he will go into the city to try his luck.
Hamidullah offered that he is happy living a sedentary life but that he couldn't resist coming to the Kuchi tents when he saw them pitched outside of town.
"We lost our way of life," Hamidullah said, stroking his long black beard, "but I came to sit with my buddies. I will always be a Kuchi."