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RESPONSE TO TERROR | WAR AND DIPLOMACY

To Some Afghans, U.S. Aid Is No Bundle of Joy

Relief: An airdropped pallet brings the roof down on one family. Officials say shipments soon will be brought in on the ground.

November 24, 2001|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON and JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

POLEH KHEIMI DOOZAN, Afghanistan — American goodwill flew into Gholam Mohammad's home early Friday morning, bringing with it a shower of mud bricks that once made up the building's roof.

With the force of a wrecking ball, a parachuted U.S. aid pallet carrying blankets and sacks of wheat smashed into the single-room building on the outskirts of Herat about 2 a.m., buckling the roof supports in the process, the 30-year-old farmer said.

"We were sleeping when I heard something and then felt the roof all around my head," the father of seven said. "The children were underneath the mud, and I dragged them out."

Why Americans were dropping heavy items from the sky in the middle of the night was lost on the Mohammad clan, much as it is on other Afghans whose homes have been damaged by the U.S. aid packages that began arriving near the western Afghan city of Herat four days ago.

Pentagon officials say they have little alternative but to drop the food from the air given the dangerous conditions on the ground. Spokeswoman Susan Hansen said that the Defense Department doesn't have enough people on the ground to confirm reports of errant airdrops injuring people and damaging buildings but added that pilots are being as careful as possible.

"We realize that airdropping food is not the most appropriate way" to deliver it, she said Friday. "We wanted to make sure that rations were available to the starving population."

Pilots have dropped 1.8 million humanitarian rations--each containing food for one day--so far and have expanded deliveries to include blankets, leaflets and other items.

That task is likely to grow easier and safer for those on the ground now that anti-Taliban fighters have seized control of three-quarters of Afghanistan.

Barges have begun carting food from Uzbekistan across the Amu Darya river, and the shipments can now be safely trucked across most of the nation, even in winter, Joseph J. Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs, said last week.

In fact, a 16-truck convoy of aid from the United Nations and the Iranian Red Crescent Society rumbled through Herat on Friday for the first time since the Taliban abandoned the city. Residents said the trucks that cart in supplies are indeed more efficient than the airdrops in delivering food to those in need.

Interest in Prepared Rations Waning

The prepared rations that the United States has been sending don't even taste good, complained Mir Merza Zarifi, 45, who came to see the damage that one of the aid packages had inflicted on the Herat tomb of a noted philosopher.

There is little doubt that local interest is waning in the bright yellow food packets, which contain everything from Pop-Tarts to vegetable stew. On Friday, enterprising Afghan youngsters who had collected the packets were selling them for about 30 cents, a third the price three days earlier.

Mohammad said the pallet that crashed into his house didn't contain any of the daily ration packets.

Minor injuries were virtually all Mohammad and his family ended up with. The pallet broke apart on impact, spilling the contents outside their home, Mohammad said. Neighbors who heard the commotion quickly absconded with blankets and sacks of wheat, he said.

Two sacks of wheat that his family retrieved were split open. "It's so dirty we can only feed it to the chickens," Mohammad said.

The only undamaged items the family kept were the two Army green parachutes. Mohammad said he has yet to figure out a use for the canvas chutes that lay tangled in a corner.

"What do we do now? We had only one room, and this has been destroyed by them," he said. "We have no house left."

*

Nelson reported from Poleh Kheimi Doozan and Hendren from Washington.

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