BAMIYAN, Afghanistan -- Army Maj. Kenton Barber never planned to hand out a truckload of warm clothes to the desperate cave-dwellers in the cliffs where the famed Bamiyan Buddhas once stood.
Nor did he plan to team up with Afghanistans growing Scouting movement, an aspiring Eagle Scout from Maryland, an international charity or a multiagency federal aid program. He certainly hadnt planned to use military planes for transport.
All hed wanted was to put shoes and maybe a coat on a couple of the barefoot street kids he saw standing in the snow last winter outside NATOs downtown Kabul base.
He asked his wife to collect some clothes around the house, maybe buy a few things at Walmart. Nothing more grand than that.
But his wife asked neighbors in suburban Washington to help. Then one of them mentioned the informal clothing drive to Barbara Ferry, the librarian at National Geographic, whose 13-year-old son, John, was looking for an Eagle Scout project. She asked Barber to talk to him.
Last week, a year and many hurdles after Barber saw those kids in the snow, a truck loaded with bags of warm clothes, trailed by a minibus packed with Afghan Scouts, arrived at the caves. It completed Johns project. And what a project it had become.
These Scouts, Im very happy with them, said Marza, whose family of six lives in a small cave and who, like many Afghans, uses just one name. Other people never came to ask what our lives are like. But they did, and now we have clothes that will keep my children warm.
The caves stretch for miles on either side of the empty niches where the immense Buddhas stood, before the Taliban blew them up in 2001. Most estimates put the population at several hundred families, displaced by fighting, food shortages, or just plain poverty. A 2009 survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that three-quarters of them had been there for 10 years.
Poor doesnt begin to describe their lives, which get even harder in winter, when there are no jobs at the valleys potato farms. That means no money for food, let alone firewood or coal, at a place 9,200 feet above sea level, where the average high temperature in January is below freezing and nights often dip into the single digits or even lower. Many children sleep with sheep in their rooms to stay warm.
Marzas cave is little bigger than a walk-in closet, the stone bare except the floor, which is covered by several rough-woven dirty carpets. The closest thing to furniture is a shelf hacked into the rock for their few trinkets. Their luxury is a small stove, in which the family burns brush or animal dung a few times a week. Most meals are just tea and bread. If they have money for boiled potatoes, thats a feast.
With as many as eight people crowding each cave, respiratory and intestinal problems seem universal. When dozens of residents of the cave community known as Patokhlama, just east of the Buddha niches, lined up to receive the Scouts bags of clothes, the chorus of coughs was non-stop. Most kids had runny noses.
Marza said her family has lived in the cave 10 years. But district school officials refuse to consider them residents, so her children cant go to government schools, she said. Education is the only way out for her children. Im very sad, she said. I worry they will end up like us.