KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Thieves raided the city flour market in broad daylight a few weeks ago, shooting and wounding two people before escaping with their loot.
"We are not feeling safe," said Haji Hayatullah, one of the flour merchants, sitting on the floor of his shop with sacks of flour stacked around him. "We don't have security and we don't trust the government to provide it." The merchants got together and hired eight private security guards.
Yet their fears remain, not only about gunmen, but because they sense a growing hunger and desperation in the general population. While there have been no riots yet in Afghanistan over spiraling food prices, the economic pain and hunger are hitting the poor and unemployed, aid agency officials are warning. Teachers have threatened to strike, and there have been some angry demonstrations.
"Prices are a big problem for our people. People do not grow enough and so we rely on imports from Pakistan, and the prices are going up daily," Haji Hayatullah said. "It is very hard for the people, unemployment is the biggest problem, people are very poor.
"I fear if this continues, people will loot the market," he said.
Afghanistan is in a particularly unforgiving situation, Anthony Banbury, director for Asia with the U.N. World Food Program, said during a recent visit to Kandahar. It is not only one of the poorest countries, but is grappling with a prolonged conflict, and all the attendant problems of lawlessness, displacement, poorly developed markets and destroyed infrastructure, which leave the population especially vulnerable to price shocks, he said.
"For millions of Afghans, the poorer segments of society, who spend up to 70 percent of their meager income on food, these food price rises put the basic necessities simply out of their reach," Banbury said.
Six million people in Afghanistan, out of a population of about 32 million, are already receiving food aid, and the World Food Program is gearing up to help more.
It has agreed with the government to reopen an assistance plan through bakeries for the urban poor, a program that it ran during the years of the Taliban government but discontinued after the American-led invasion in late 2001. The government is also asking for help in providing food aid to 172,000 teachers countrywide, some of whom are not coming to work because they cannot make ends meet. That alone is an indication that things are getting harder, he said.
"Every school we went to, in every classroom, the teachers were saying we need more salary or food," Banbury said.
"The people are dying of hunger," said a beggar, Sardar Muhammad, 80, squatting in a Kandahar flour shop. His two sons worked as day laborers in the market and they did not earn enough to feed the family, he said.
Flour and bread prices suddenly doubled in the space of two weeks in May, after neighboring Pakistan blocked wheat and flour exports. The traders said they smuggled in the flour via mountain roads. Government distribution of flour in Kandahar city and outlying districts has since eased fears slightly and the price of flour has dropped a bit.
Yet with inflation at 22 percent prices remain too high for many.
Haji Hayatullah described how one customer came to his shop and asked the shopkeeper to load a sack of flour onto his bicycle. "Then he said: 'Don't ask me to pay. All my life I did not take bribes, I did not take anything from anyone, and now I am forced to take it without paying. My children have not eaten,"' the shopkeeper recalled the man saying.
"He said, 'I will return it if God gives me money,"' he continued.
The episode was unusual because the man was a respectable, educated person and it is deeply shameful in Afghan culture to take something like that, the shopkeeper said. "I realized he had a real problem," he said.
"Things like this will get worse and worse, because what do you do if you have no money and have a wife and children?" he said.
The Afghan government was among the first to see the looming food crisis, and in January appealed for help from the World Food Program, which raised $75 million for six months of supplementary assistance, Banbury said. The government is spending $50 million on general distribution of flour. Planning is under way to increase World Food Program assistance for the next six months.
World Food Program officials said food aid was not a long-term answer to Afghanistan's hunger.
Despite the billions spent in Afghanistan over the last six years, international donors have failed to invest substantially in agriculture, the sector on which the majority of the population survives, Banbury said.
He called for a large-scale, countrywide program to distribute improved seeds and tools to farmers to help increase food production. "Farmers are the most rational people in the world," he said. "If you give them the seeds, they'll do it."