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Peace activist brings aid as bombs fall


Feeling the earth shake from the concussion of exploding bombs only four miles away, Douglas Hostetter could think only of “the exquisite irony.”

Overhead were B-52 bombers, “exemplars of the postmodern world with their satellite-aided, global-positioning systems and their laser-directed bombs,” Hostetter said. And below in this displaced persons camp in northeast Afghanistan were people he described as “inhabitants of a pre-industrial world, without electricity or sewage or decent shelter, where the major form of transportation is the donkey. Here we have the most powerful nation in the world versus the poorest nation in Asia.”

The irony was intensified when his co-worker at the camp, Suraya Sadeen, pointed to the sky and said, “For the cost of two of those B-52s, I could feed, clothe and educate the whole population of Afghanistan for a year.” (Sadeen may have exaggerated. According to a U.S. Air Force fact sheet, a B-52 bomber costs $74 million; the population of Afghanistan before bombing caused an exodus of refugees and reportedly more than 3,000 deaths was about 26 million.)

When Hostetter and Sadeen entered Afghanistan in early November with 239 tons of food and blankets, they provided the first U.S. humanitarian aid to arrive by land since the September terrorist attack in New York. Their achievement was basically a two-person project.

Shortly after the attack, Hostetter, 57, former director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and former director of the American Friends Service Committee New England office, decided the peace and pacifist tradition needed to respond immediately. “I realized the poor people of Afghanistan would soon be paying a price for the terrorist activity, though they had nothing to do with it,” he said. “So I felt we had to reach out to the victims.”

He explained his idea of immediate massive aid to leaders of the Fellowship and the American Friends and together they made commitments of $40,000 for the project.

But he was told the borders into Afghanistan were sealed and no one could get in. He discovered, however, that a former contact, Sadeen, director of Help the Afghan Children, Inc., was also planning an aid mission and knew how to cross the border from Tajikistan. They both did further fundraising and pooled the total, which eventually came to $130,000. They then flew to Tajikistan, purchased enough food and supplies to fill 29 10-ton rented trucks, crossed over a mountainous area and passed through four Russian-manned checkpoints before entering Afghanistan.

“I think we were on real roads most of the way,” said Hostetter, “but it was not obvious. We had to trust the driver.”

Their target in Afghanistan was the open-air, displaced persons area in the Takhar Province. Here some 10,000 Afghans were spread out over a 10-mile-wide area only a few miles from where the Northern Alliance, aided by U.S. air strikes, was battling the Taliban. Some had been there for almost three years; others had recently arrived.

Their sole source of aid came from workers with the French-based Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development. Some families had built crude mud huts; others had constructed precarious lean-tos made of blankets, sticks and straw mats. With no sanitary provisions other than a field designated for sewage disposal, diseases such as cholera and malaria were endemic, Hostetter said.

Getting the supplies into the camp proved a problem. Access was possible only by pontoon boat across the mile-wide Amu Darya River. The boat, which could take only one truck at a time, transported four the first day. The other 19 trucks had to wait four days, said Hostetter, because the boat was needed by other groups. The Northern Alliance had to get armaments across, and U.S. network television personnel needed to haul equipment, including refrigerators, port-a-potties, food and alcohol. Disputes between various factions overseeing use of the boat also caused delays, he said.

Hostetter was surprised by the calmness and enterprise of the Afghan outcasts. Some people were plowing the land and planting wheat along the river where the soil had a little fertility. Some were baking bread in mud-ovens or weaving cloth. Children, he discovered, had made toys using clips from discarded ammunition boxes, the metal covers of dead batteries and plastic bottle caps.

“Life goes on even as the bombs fall. You have to survive,” said Hostetter, who spent a week in Afghanistan.

The food brought in by Hostetter and Sadeen was divided into packets, each containing enough wheat, cooking oil and sugar for a family of six for one month. The packets were distributed according to need, with assistance from the French aid workers. The cost of these packets came to $32.22, said Hostetter -- a vivid contrast to the cost of the highly publicized packets dropped by U.S. planes.

According to published reports, he said, U.S. food packets cost $79 each for contents and delivery, though each has food for only one person for a day.

Unfortunately, he reported, the fall from 10,000 feet resulted in splattered beans inside every packet he saw. In addition, said Hostetter, the people found the rice inedible and the peanut butter mysterious and suspicious-looking. Some were selling the packets they gathered, he observed, for the equivalent of 33 cents.

Now back in the Chicago area where he and his family recently moved, Hostetter, a Mennonite, said he plans to return for another humanitarian mission. “People of faith have a responsibility to reach out,” he said, “because I’m convinced the primary actors in this war on either side are interested in control only. They have no concern whatsoever for the people.”

Robert McClory is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001