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Afghan path: self-sufficient to hand-out dependent

Internal refugees fleeing drought and war may number as many as 800,000.

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Over the past two years, drought has steadily killed off Muhammad Sharif's herd of goats and fields of wheat. Nine months ago, mortar shells destroyed his simple home. And over the past four months, hunger and illness have taken three of his children in a squalid aid camp in northern Afghanistan.

Now, Mr. Sharif's oldest remaining son is quite ill, and this farmer can't bear the thought of mourning again. "One morning I went off to town to beg for food, and when I came back, two of my children were dead," says Sharif, breaking into tears in a cramped, concrete-floored room his family shares with two others. "We had animals and wheat and plenty of water in the streams. Now I've lost everything."

Once a self-sufficient nation, Afghanistan is steadily turning into a land that cannot survive without a helping hand. It's a tragedy fueled by human and natural forces - including some 23 years of Soviet invasion and civil war, international isolation because of human rights abuses and alleged support of terrorism, and a continuing drought that is the worst in 30 years.

Over the short term, these woes hit hardest at rural Afghans, forcing migration both internally and outside of the country. But long term, Afghanistan's dependency may irreparably fray the proud tradition of mutual-reliance, charity, and hospitality that held it together for centuries.

"We're facing a widespread disaster ... and a breakdown in the social fabric," says Barbara Rodey, acting regional director of Habitat, also known as the UN Center for Human Settlement in Mazar-i-Sharif.

"What has enabled Afghans to survive in these harsh conditions is their society of mutuality," adds Mrs. Rodey. "If a neighbor does something for you, you have an obligation to repay. Even if you don't, you have an obligation to do something good for someone else who is in need.... The resources of the Afghan people have been getting lower ... they don't have anything to give, or to sell."

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