President Ben Homan's report from his trip to Afghanistan

Food for the Hungry
Thursday, 14 February 2002

From the Desk of Ben Homan

There are no easy roads into Afghanistan these days. Just getting there requires dogged determination from many, many people. Obstacles must be overcome. Letters of invitation issued. Hurdles cleared. Passports stamped. Visas issued. Red tape de-tangled. Russian jets boarded. Checkpoints checked. Flat tires changed. And even, on this occasion, a flu virus to battle.

The team that Food for the Hungry assembled strode into chaos and instituted a determined and systematic way to show Afghanistan the power and love of the One True God. We forged partnerships with other organizations committed to show God's care to the Afghan people

Why in the world journey to such a hard, distant and difficult to reach place? Why take on such a challenge?

God calls and we respond until physical and spiritual hungers end worldwide.

Afghanistan in 2002 represents perhaps the epitome of dire hunger, both physically and spiritually. It is a land of raw, rugged beauty - and a land of ugly scars. No, not scars. Open sores. The healing process is barely begun -- if at all. The pain is not simply past pain. The awfulness is present tense. The needs are now. They are scraping bottom - and the wounds deepen even as you read these words.

What did I see in Afghanistan? I'll get there. But let me start with what I did not see. I did not see any paved roads. I saw no electrified towns or cities. I saw no running water. No indoor toilets. No private vehicles. No industry or manufacturing. No hospitals. Not one church. Hardly any women.

Instead, there were intimidating mountains, roads - and I use that word loosely - that sliced through riverbeds and jagged ravines. I saw a foot of falling snow - and shivering children. What else did I see? Fields that should have been sowed with winter wheat, but lay fallow (again). I saw the remnants of homes that had been dismantled by their owners desperate to sell the wood beams so that they could buy food. I saw children with no shoes in the ice. Most had no socks. Some wore flip-flops. I saw threadbare clothing and hungry, cold faces. I saw diseased and infected lesions. I saw the skin of children's cheeks and arms covered with filth, dry and reddened by rashes and the chill of the wind. I saw 9 and 10 year-old children leading donkeys about the countryside in search of wood and sticks for their family's warmth.

I also met a team of Food for the Hungry workers - some loaned to us - who had figured out a way to slow or reverse this spiral of descent. And they are in a section of the country where there are no other agencies helping. There is our Norwegian worker who in a week's time has opened a new office in a new city and hired a new staff. "Poof." A week before no operation existed at this locale. A week later a staff is busy surveying 50 or 60 surrounding villages to identify actual people who are at greatest risk - and arranging for their care through distributions of winter clothes, shoes and wheat. The first swatch of help will reach the most vulnerable. Orphans. Widows. The sick. The disabled and the elderly. For those who are at less risk, plans are afoot for "Food for Work" programs that will help improve community infrastructure, as well as preserve the dignity of the able-bodied.

People live in homes bordered by mud-caked walls. Behind the walls presumably are the women of Afghanistan. In public one sees the men and the teenage boys, often shouldering rifles and automatic weapons. We went to the village of Kh'sar - 12 hard, rocky and snowy kilometers from our "office" in Ch'ab. Half the buildings in the village lack doors or windows. Almost a third of the buildings are severely damaged (and this is in an area where the war has not reached). There are no health clinics or medical professionals - and the nearest place for medical care is a 3-hour walk. Tuberculosis rates soar among both children and adults. Between 80% and 100% (repeat: between 80% and 100% -- that is not a misprint) of the 260 families who live there have no income! There are few latrines. Rubbish is in abundance. One of the few women in the village who we saw said very simply, "There is no food." One of the men told us, "I've sold my land, my donkey, my horse, my furniture. Soon I will have nothing else to sell to buy food." Three years of drought have decimated the place. Their past crops were eaten by worms at their roots or been killed off from fungal disease. Most of their livestock have died of starvation or from the lack of veterinary care. As of yet they have no seeds for planting, and realistically, because of their short planting season, their next opportunity to plant will come next fall when next year's winter wheat is to be sown.

While on our visit to the village, we stood for about 45 minutes on the mosque's porch being stared at and studied by all the children and most of the men from the village. Do you remember those psychological tests that ask questions like, "Do you feel that everyone is talking about you?" We managed to joke afterwards that we would all have to respond "yes" to such a question had it been put to us that day! We then retired with a group of men in a side room of the mosque. Crouching on benches that rose perhaps three inches from the dirt floor, we heard more of the grisly details of the drought. "We used to be able to help each other, but now we cannot even do that." Another mentioned discovering the corpse of an older person who had either starved or froze to death. One man described how he now feeds his family - by selling the wood timbers from their home. He later showed us the part of his house that he was dismantling. Our staff in surveying the village determined that 220 of the 260 families are literally living from hand to mouth. The other 40 families have enough food for another month. The story is repeated sadly in village after village.

Can you imagine living in a place with a hard winter and facing the choice of taking your shelter apart so that you can put something in the stomachs of your loved ones?

If there is any good news in all this, it is in the fact that God has sent Food for the Hungry (and others) there to help. This crisis for the Afghan people has been in the making for years. The solutions will likely not emerge overnight. The country has fended off a Soviet invasion, battled through a civil war, endured years of drought, also suffering through the extremism and isolation of a Taliban government that conscripted their young men into battle. Many people have not lived to tell about it. Those that have survived are not yet out of harm's way. Indeed, people there still stand on the precipice of death.

There is more about which to report - about both Afghanistan and Tajikistan - and about some other more personal anecdotes. For now, I'll close this report with a simple thought about looking into the Afghanistan sky. You can stand at night surrounded by an acre and a half of snow in the middle of our office's courtyard. When you look up at the expanse of space, no other light competes with the glitter of the heavens. In my heart I asked, "Lord, could this be that "country" of Matthew 2:12 to which the Magi of the east returned? From where they followed the star?" I have no idea, but I had to wonder - and had to ask. Could they have really followed the star to worship Jesus from a place as remote as this? Whether or not the Magi emerged from Afghanistan - or another eastern land - is a secondary issue. What is clear to me though is this: that in the current tragedy and vulnerability there exists an opportunity for the loving character of God to shine as brightly as the constellations. It is of course just like God to cast His light into the blackness of night. And it is just like Him to reveal Himself at that darkest moment of the night. Indeed, it is only against that dark backdrop that one can best see "the Bright and Morning Star" (Revelation 22:16).

It is good to be back with you; I am grateful for your intercession for me and for your journeying with me to this hard place through your prayers.

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