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Troubled Bid to Aid Balkh Beggars

A government plan to try to get them assistance from relief agencies does not seem to be working.
By Khaleq Azizi
Shopkeeper Mohammed Ibrahim gives every beggar a piece of candy. He gets several a day but lately their numbers have been growing.



“It used to be that a bag of candy would last for three days,” he said. “Now I go through a whole bag every day.”



Last November, the government passed a resolution that was supposed to remove beggars from the streets and direct them to aid organisations.



But in Mazar-e-Sharif, the major city of northern Afghanistan, and the capital of Balkh province, there has been no noticeable improvement.



Many of them hang around Mazar-e-Sharif’s prominent Blue Mosque.



Dozens of beggars gather every day in the shadow of the imposing turquoise dome, where Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed, is said to be buried. If a passerby is reckless enough to give one of them a coin, the rest demand their share.



Samira, 41, is breast feeding her baby under her dirty burqa. She turned to begging on the street when her husband fell ill a year ago. “It is the only way to feed my children,” she said.



News about the new government programme has yet to penetrate Mazar-e-Sharif’s community of street people, according to Samira.



“No one has been told to go anywhere,” she said.



Several ministries are tasked with implementing the government plan. Officials are supposed to be directing poor people to the Afghan Red Crescent, the aid organisation funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross.



According to the government, the measures were necessary to “maintain human dignity and social order”.



In Mazar-e-Sharif, local officials sent their plan for getting the beggars off the street to Kabul, said Fawzia Hamidi, the head of Balkh’s social and labour affairs directorate.



“But we haven’t heard anything back,” she said.



Hamidi said that she does not know exactly how many men and women are begging on the streets of Balkh province. She does have some statistics on children: according to her department, 465 children in the region earn money by begging.



No other government institution in Balkh has exact figures for the beggars, either, making planning difficult.



Instead, officials try to push responsibility for the beggars onto other agencies.



“It is the job of the police to pick up the beggars from the street,” said police chief Abdul Rawuf Taj.



“But we can’t feed them or accommodate them. Other government institutions are responsible for this.”



The government directive said the Red Crescent should provide food and shelter but the organisation’s director in Balkh, Asef Khair Khwah, says he has no money for it.



Nevertheless, the local director of women’s affairs told IWPR that her department was sending women to the Red Crescent for assistance.



Hamidi said that her department plans to seek funds from donors to help the beggars, but so far there has been a limited response.



Aiding the indigent is a daunting prospect in Afghanistan, where, according to a 2008 survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the unemployment rate hovers around 30 per cent.



Every city has its small army of women in burqas who tap on car windows while motorists are stalled in traffic jams, or else sit despondently in the middle of the road while cars flow around them. Disabled men also appeal to passersby. Young boys and girls who beg sometimes become aggressive with people who refuse.



Given the general weakness and ineffectiveness of the government, there is little confidence among Afghans that the problem will be addressed, let alone corrected.



“The government plan exists only on paper,” said Asadullah Zia, who teaches psychology at Balkh University. “The money will go straight into the pockets of the people who are supposed to implement the plan.”



The number of beggars is a disgrace and an offence, said Ahmad Shoaib Muslimyar, an expert on religious affairs.



“In our country illiterate and uneducated people have obtained high positions in the government,” he said. “They are only interested in personal gain.”



Begging is not allowed under Sharia law, he insisted; the government was obliged to take care of the poor.



But for the beggars of Mazar-e-Sharif, there is little relief in sight.



Widow Halima begs to feed her eight-member family. Her husband was killed 10 years ago.



When asked about the government plan to help her and the other beggars, Halima’s answer is short and to the point.



“Nonsense,” she said.



Khaleq Azizi is an IWPR trainee in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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