Dec 17, 2008

World - Pleas of Afghan ex-poppy farmers

Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Sherzad district, eastern Afghanistan

A two-hour drive from the city of Jalalabad, on a brain-bruising dirt road, lies Gandomak.

Farmers in this remote village in Sherzad district in eastern Afghanistan say they stopped growing poppies last year, and are now growing wheat, vegetables and maize instead.

More than a year ago, the Afghan government backed by international forces eradicated their poppy fields.

But locals say they are still waiting for the help they were promised.

When I was last in Nangarhar province a couple of years ago I was surrounded by poppies - pungent and many coloured - but this year I could see only golden wheat, green maize and fruit.

Farmers in Sherzad agreed to eradicate the poppies after they were promised a road, an irrigation channel and a clinic for their village.

Sheen Goal Raza Kar was one of 1,000 farmers whose fields were wiped out - but a year on he is still asking for what was promised to him.

"Once they dropped some medicine from their planes, it destroyed everything. Then they eradicated our fields and promised us projects, but look nothing has been given to us," he told the BBC recently.

'Powerful people'

The tall, bearded Sheen Goal is holding a meeting among the villagers on this windy afternoon.

From the roof of his house overlooking his fields he lists his complaints.

"They destroyed my fields because I was poor and they couldn't destroy those fields belonging to the powerful people at the time. Now I have grown tomatoes and other vegetables, but by the time I transport them to Jalalabad, they are all rotten."

I interview the villagers over a tasty lunch of eggs, potatoes and yoghurt; as we eat we can hear American drones patrolling the nearby White Mountains which border the Tora Bora cave complex on the Afghan side and Parachinar in Pakistan.

That's when Sheen Goal points to his fields and says: "See for yourself what has happened to this fertile valley - there is a drought and when we collect the harvest, we can't take it to the city in good shape."

And everyone agrees with Sheen Goal, all trying to put forward their views.

Qari Osman Sherzad, the eloquent 39-year-old village chief, says: "The Afghan government told them a year ago to stop growing poppies and the villagers were promised alternative crops and reconstruction projects.

"As we say in Sherzad, it's give and take, not just take. Our women die before they get to hospital, we don't have water for our fields and the road is in bad shape."

Another villager is clearly frustrated, and wants the Afghan government to asphalt the Sherzad-Jalalabad road, so farmers like him can sell their products in Jalalabad and even transport them to Kabul.

"I haven't been able to sell anything I grow this year, so we have sent our kids to brick factories in Kabul, Jalalabad and Pakistan to earn money. Is this justice?" the villager asks angrily as he strokes his beard.

One Afghan official in Nangarhar who requests anonymity admits the government could not deliver on its promises.

"We promised farmers roads, irrigation channels and alternative crops, but sadly those were empty promises. Farmers feel they have been deceived."

'Where is my road?'

Sherzad district is just 55km (34 miles) east of the city of Jalalabad.

It was one of the biggest poppy-growing districts in the remote White Mountains. Like many other districts, it's an agricultural area and thousands of families rely on their fields for their income.

It's thought the Afghan government has made a dramatic improvement in cutting the poppy crop in Nangarhar - only a few years ago it was one of the country's biggest poppy-producing provinces.

Another farmer accuses senior Afghan officials and some tribal elders of stealing the reconstruction money.

"The world gave millions of dollars, but our government and elders stole that money. Where is my road and the irrigation channel?" says the farmer from the village of Toto.

Poor farmers and long-suffering villagers are paying the price, says another man, Ajmal.

"I have three sons, and I have sent them all to work in brick factories.

"Since my crop was destroyed, I have been borrowing money so my family can have the money to buy food, but people want their money back and I don't have any money."

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