Hazards on Afghan Aid Trail

Transporting humanitarian aid shipments to Afghanistan is fraught with danger.

Hazards on Afghan Aid Trail

Transporting humanitarian aid shipments to Afghanistan is fraught with danger.

They call them "ground spacemen" - a title admiringly bestowed on the truck drivers who negotiate the perilously high mountain passes of Central Asia to bring humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Not all of them complete the 760-km journey which starts in the Kyrgyz city of Osh and goes through mountains and glaciers more than 4000 m high in the Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan and then on to the Afghan city of Faizabad.

On December 14, a driver from Osh, Nikodam Davlatkadamov, plunged to his death after losing control of his vehicle in an aid convoy on a mountain road in Afghanistan. An official from the Kyrgyz emergency ministry said it happened after the convoy had passed Ishkashim, a settlement on the Tajik-Afghan border.

From Osh to Ishkashim the convoys move on a main road build during Soviet times. Though not maintained to its former standards, the route is still reasonably passable. Local drivers know it like the backs of their own hands.

"But right after the bridge over the Pyandj River, on the Afghan side, you get a section covered in gravel which is so narrow that two trucks can't pass each other," said Alifbek Azizmamadov, who drove the lead truck in the first aid convoy more than a month ago.

Azizmamadov has been a driver for more than 25 years. He has had a number of accidents but managed to survive. "It took us one day to travel the 167 km from the Tajik border to Faizabad," he said. "Our Russian convoy escorts were amazed we could travel along a rough route like this carrying such loads. They were also surprised to see that our drivers are jacks of all trades. It's not for nothing that our long-distance mountain drivers have been called ground spacemen."

During the 11-day trip Azizmamedov's truck was his home. He slept in the cab and got used to breathing the thin mountain air. He told how in Faizabad the Afghans still considered the drivers to be Soviet people. "They cried out 'the Soviets have brought us bread'," Azizmamedov recalled.

"You could see the poverty immediately. People in normal footwear are few and far between. The majority have feet wrapped in rags. There were also a lot of refugees on the roads. They were going off the road, up the paths and into the mountains. We didn't hang around - we unloaded and headed back."

At the end of his journey home, Azizmamedov had just three days off before starting another trip.

However difficult it may be, the Osh-Ishkashim-Faizabad route is the only way of sending Afghan aid in from the north. After a preliminary survey, a UN official in the region said this was the safest option.

Kamchibek Kurmanaliev, from the Kyrgyz emergency ministry, acknowledged the difficulties faced by the convoys. "There are several very high passes," he said. "On our territory you find Taldyk and Kyzyl-Art which are 3,600 m above sea level. Bakharak in Afghanistan is the same height. The highest is Ak-Baital in Afghanistan at 4,655 m."

There are also terrifying abysses, such as the one at the Khargush pass - a place that drivers have dubbed "Goodbye, days of my youth!". You can't see the bottom of it from the road. On many sections the road is a metre and a half deep in snow.

"For the first ten days we sent convoys of 30 trucks, now we're sending 35. We have to work fast before winter really sets in," Kurmanaliev said.

As if all this was not enough, drivers have to be prepared for avalanches and landslides. Convoys usually have one tractor to help out in emergencies and the truck tyres are looped with chains. It is not surprising that drivers can manage only 60 km per day.

At the moment, there is no other route for getting food to Afghans in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. It was here that people fled to escape the Taleban's northward advance after their capture of Kabul in 1996.

The ousted Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani was in exile in Badakhshan. Families of those fighting for the Northern Alliance also settled there. It is estimated there are now 1,5 million people in the province.

Since the beginning of deliveries on November 10, more than half of the planned 9000 tons of flour and grain have been transported from Osh where World Food Programme, WFP, set up its warehouses. The programme, organised by WSP in cooperation with the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia, is planned to run until July 2002.

As for Azizmamedov and his fellow drivers, they hope that despite all the perils they will be able to stay on and compete the task.

Alla Pyatibratova is an IWPR contributor

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