War and Food

Aya, Iraq

I remember how difficult were those days of war in Baghdad, the seven years that shook Iraq, when children, especially poor children, did not get proper food, and so many died – of their hunger and of their poverty.

Things did not improve after I got married. My in-laws did not have regular work. We barely managed to eat, but did not receive any outside help. My husband was a police officer. He was thrown out of his job. After his termination, his friends from the police station would bring us food. I can sing, so I began performing at qawwalis, weddings, parties, religious events and local gatherings, in order to earn money for feeding my family. Often no one bothered to arrange musical accompaniment, so I would sing accompanying myself by beating on a dhapli. My husband had given permission, and he was proud that I was earning. Also, I entertained in women-only spaces so there was no problem or family objection. I was called to different functions and I became a bit well known in the social circuit as a performer.

Thanks to my earnings our living conditions gradually began to improve. My husband started driving his car as a taxi. Those days the roads were regularly bombed and more than once our car was almost hit. Then in one such situation it overturned on the road and my husband was injured. He was out of business for quite some time.

The government had provided us with a ration card, through which we could buy subsidized grains, oil, pulses. These were divided within a large family, so I would have a very small share left with which to cook for my own children. There was no vegetable subsidy, so I had to get those from the market. I went to known shopkeepers who trusted me enough to give me vegetables on credit. Later, when I got a job, I was able to pay off those debts.

Our daily diet was very minimal – rice and yoghurt. The rice was of very poor quality and not really edible. It was a difficult task to clean the wheat I used for making rotis, because most of the time it was full of insects. Through the seven years of intense conflict, often there was no gas or electricity supply. Each family would build its own wood-fired stove and make rotis on it. I was very fond of my stove, which was painted green.

My husband now works in a Gurgaon restaurant that serves Middle Eastern food, and with his earnings we are able to rent a house. The quality of our lives here has turned out to be better than what it would have been had we stayed in Iraq and continued to suffer. During the difficult days of the conflict I could serve roti only with a kind of salad, prepared with tomato chutney and a few mild spices. Here in India, we are now able to eat roti with shakshuka.

Ladan, Somalia

I come from a small village in which people traditionally belong to various qabilas (clans) organized under a chieftain. My qabila was one of the smaller ones of that area, and as a result our influence and status was low. My family owned a small farm and we grew vegetables mainly to feed the family, keeping a very small portion to sell in the market.  

When the civil war conflict began, everything – from our farm to our everyday customs – went into a state of confusion. We did not know how to react to it. Violence by opposing political forces led to the disruption of our normal lives. The smaller fields of less powerful qabilas

(clans)were attacked by men from the larger qabilas (clans), thus looting the already poor of their land and produce. Constant stealing made it a huge problem to grow vegetables on the farm, because they would be uprooted overnight and the farm itself destroyed by armed men from the influential local qabilas. They threatened us with weapons and ordered us to leave the village or to face dire consequences.

I had two younger sisters, and a baby brother who had barely begun to walk. My mother decided to move to the town in order to escape the dangers. Settling into life there, we noticed that the conflict did not affect urban people the way it did the villagers. The city was home to a lot of people from different backgrounds, and the fact of belonging to a small or big qabila hardly mattered. It was a struggle for us in the city as well, but we managed with whatever we got. My mother and I worked at a small shop in the market and fended for our family.

But political violence also started spreading into the city. Markets were closed; it was very difficult to procure grains and vegetables. Fearing the worst, we stayed in our small rooms to protect ourselves. At times we had nothing to eat. My mother suffered most when she saw her young children hungry. She would quickly mix water and semolina and feed us that gruel. For days on end we ate nothing else.

Amidst these tensions, my mother somehow managed to come to India, first landing in Mumbai and staying with a relative. She was glad of the refuge, but found the food a bit too spicy for her taste. She then moved to Delhi. The first time she entered a vegetable market in Delhi, she was really surprised at the variety because we do not have such a range of produce in Somalia. She still has not got to spicy food or the use of green chilies in Indian cooking. She has seen other Somali migrant women using chilies when they cook their traditional food, giving it a spicy ‘Indian’ twist, but she herself avoids doing so. 

My mother likes it in Delhi, She says, “At least here I get to feed my kids properly, without the conflict knocking at my door.”  

Fareeba, Afghanistan

I was 13 when the Mujahideen conflict first began, around 40 years ago. I was in 5th standard. I remember the day the bombing started in Kabul. I was in school and my father came there to take me back home. All of us were surprised, especially the children. The violence continued for a few days and then stopped. Everything came back to normal. After 11 months it erupted again, and has continued. From the day Russia invaded our country, and right up to today, nothing has been the same in Afghanistan.

The big markets were disrupted, but small shops opened in the lanes of each neighbourhood. Everything became very expensive. There was a shortage of wheat, our staple food, and so we stopped eating roti; khameri was not available. People lived on soup or forms of pasta, macaroni, etc. City women used to have a system of storing dry rotis at home, to be bartered for a particular herbal shampoo, made in rural areas, that prevented hair-fall. During the conflict, we ate those stored rotis at mealtime when for three months there was no wheat available at all.

Around 1371 Hijri, under the Mujahedeen, food became so scarce that people started selling household goods in order to get money to feed their families. It was really difficult, and it was impossible for some families. It led to desperate parents leaving their children, mainly their girls, on the roadside or at mosques. Suddenly one saw many children wandering on the streets, either homeless through being abandoned by their starving families or orphaned through their families being killed. Today there is no limit to the number of such children in Afghanistan’s cities.

After five years of Mujahedeen control, around 1375 Hijri, the Taliban gained power and their presence became very strong in the cities as well as the rural areas. The grain shortages continued. People began growing vegetables in their courtyards – mainly tomatoes, potatoes and onions. These were the main ingredients for simple dishes we survived on during the conflict.

Rabia, Afghanistan

I was a child at the time of the Mujahideen conflict. I remember when I was eight or nine, bombs falling around our three-storey house in Kabul. I would hide for long hours underground in a cellar with my sister, three brothers and other family members. My mother would go up to the kitchen and bring back food for us from time to time during the bombing raids. Once during a week of bombings we survived on rice and potatoes.

Under the Mujahideen there was no compulsory veiling and we did not have to cover ourselves when we went to the bazaar to buy food and other things. And we could move around on our own. Restrictions on women became total during the time of the Taliban. We all had to wear the chadari – a blue cloak with eye-mesh – that covered us from head to foot whenever we went out, duly accompanied by a male relative. I witnessed two women being flogged in the street by the Taliban because their feet were too visible under the chadari. And one day I was walking with my brother in the street when a car stopped beside us. The couple in the car warned me that my feet could be easily seen, and that I should adjust my chadari over them before they were noticed by any Taliban member or informant.

When I got married I moved to my husband’s village. For some time I lived there peacefully, away from the city. But that did not last. My husband was in the police department. Throughout the conflict, for one reason or other we were always on the run, moving from one place to the other. Finally we found shelter with my husband’s relatives in Ghazni. But here too we stayed in hiding. My husband did not go out, and of his relatives’ family only my brother-in law would go to fetch food and other household goods from the market. Unlike in Kabul, meat, milk and vegetables were available in Ghazni, and all of it was fresh, tasty and of good quality. Even though our lives were under constant threat, we at least had regular and sufficient food.

Hoor, Afghanistan

In 1352 Hijri, during the Mujahideen conflict, everything came to a stop in Paruan. People’s salaries also stopped, and this affected our monthly income and what we could spend on food. Only the government employees used to get subsidized food.

One day during some violence my school was set on fire. We escaped to my sister-in-law’s house in Gorbandh village. There was never lack of food for us in her house because she habitually stored food. One main item was mutton, which we salted and hung in the balcony to dry in the sun. Then we would keep it in the store, and the dried meat lasted us for at least 15-20 days in the winter.  

I got married when I was 19, and at that time all food items were still in short supply and tightly controlled. Wheat was unavailable. Rice was imported from Bangladesh but the quality was very poor. It was smelly and tasted bad. The rice was very cheap and easily available in the local market, so it became one of our main foods.

My husband used to go out in the middle of the night, first to the masjid, where he met his friends, and they would go together to a shop next to the masjid to buy food, trying to stay out of sight. Any private forbidden activity could bring the worst punishment. We grew some vegetables in the yard but found ways to water them secretly, because if the Mujahideen had noticed us they might have shot us down.

During Bakr-Eid, Arabistan used to send dates and gosht to families in conflict-stricken areas. In fact, once Arabistan even donated1,00,000 rupiya to some families, but the value had depreciated so much that it was only equal to about 1000 rupiya per family.

Later, under the Taliban, public movement was strictly controlled and people were not allowed to freely buy anything. If men were seen carrying food items on the streets, they were beaten up and the food snatched away. The Taliban also did not allow any interaction or exchange between neighbourhoods. However, they would not physically search women, so we found ways to smuggle food and other items under our chadari.

There was no regular supply of meat from the villages to the cities because the Taliban had blocked the roads. This was a very big problem.

One morning my niece was really desperate for meat, so in spite of our fear of the authorities we went out to look for some. On the road we saw a man carrying meat pieces in a plastic bag. We stopped and asked him where he had got the meat. He directed us to a place along a nearby wall. We went up to it, and a hand came over the wall, took our money and gave us meat in a plastic bag. We took it and rushed home, but we found that meat very stiff and slimy and had to throw it away.

During Ramadan in these times of conflict, we used to begin and break our fast with just tea. Neither my husband nor I had a job and the family often did not eat for days at times. Even today, here in India, we go to sleep some nights on an empty stomach but we do not go to anybody for help. When I first came to India, I made rotis that my son would sell in the locality. That earned us about Rs 400 per day, and I learnt to run my household on that meagre amount.

Shuba, Somalia

In Somalia, my grandparents owned some land. I lived with my parents elsewhere, but during holidays we spent time in my grandparents’ village, among fields planted with spinach, tomatoes, papayas, mangoes, bananas and other vegetables and fruits. There was a well on one side of our land, and we had regular harvests of tomatoes, coriander, fenugreek, etc. Many local vegetables were available but a certain amount of produce was imported from Kenya. Cardamom was also imported, as was Italian pasta. Traditionally we cooked only in sesame oil, but after some time other oils were introduced and we used those in our food.

After marriage I started working at a market in Mogadishu, the capital city. That market was as big as Delhi’s INA market. I worked there for 22 years. My house was very far from the market and commuting was stressful because political tensions were spreading everywhere. I rented a two-room house near the market and moved in with my husband and children. At first I just had a makeshift stall but I gradually turned it into a shop, selling fresh juice that I prepared for people visiting the market. At times my son helped me. After a while I also started selling ice slabs in order to earn extra money.

Now nothing is left of our village land or house because of the continuing conflicts in the area. But even before that we had always experienced a lot of tensions between different qabilas (clans/tribes), the basic social unit and form of personal identity in Somalia. When being introduced one is asked one’s qabila along with one’s name, and only then does further conversation become possible. The qabila are differentiated on the basis of traditional occupation, and this leads to a lot of inequality and prejudice. When the conflict began, this discrimination increased to the point that people would often escape from their villages to the cities, where one lived among all kinds of communities and one’s background and qabila affiliation was not important.

In the city the mornings were peaceful with everyone going out for work and to school. But as soon as it became dark the streets became very dangerous. Also, squads of armed anti-government militias would forcibly enter houses, interrogate, assault and even kill without hesitation. They terrorized us with their tribalism. If they learnt that a husband and wife belonged to different qabilas they forced them to separate under threat of death. We were really afraid to step out of our homes. There was no police or government help and killers were never brought to justice.  

Everyone had traumatic stories of deep suffering. And we all had stories of hunger, after the tensions began peaking in 1995. Some people fled from the cities to the villages, where there was much less violence and food such as milk, spinach and meat was available. Later, America, Turkey, Pakistan and India intervened in the conflict zones by sending peacekeeping troops, and UN organizations, WHO and UNICEF entered Somalia to support us with food, medicines and other forms of aid. Unfamiliar foods also became available – red, green and yellow lentils, tuna and hot dogs. From the aid workers I learnt to make dal, using tomatoes, chilli and other spices, and I would very often quickly cook this when my children were hungry. My husband found a job as a driver for an NGO working in the area of maternal and child health. But I lost him and my daughter to the conflict, which raged on without any sign of abating. I could not continue that desperate existence, so like many others I accepted someone’s help in order to come to India and rebuild my life here.


I. “AFC” (Afghanistan Fried Chicken)

American fast food is popular in Afghanistan, as everywhere else in the world, but the global giant KFC was not allowed into the country. However, a local chain called AFC (Afghanistan Fried Chicken, a near-total copy of KFC) was permitted to operate. It was very successful, despite fear of the Taliban and the daily risk of being destroyed in a bombing.

The chicken pieces are marinated in murch saps (dried green pepper) or ghore angur (dried small green grapes) finely ground into a brown powder which is sprinkled on fish, meat, kababs, etc. It lends a delicious, slightly sour taste to the food. Amchur (powdered mango seed) and packaged chicken masala powder can be used in place of ghore angur.

The marinated items are then coated in sukhari (breadcrumbs) made by crushing dried rotis into powder. Packaged breadcrumbs can also be used. Another option is to coat the items in crumbs made by crushing packaged snacks such as Kurkure, Masala Chips or Mad Angles, as these are already well spiced and add to the taste.

The chicken is fried till the sukhari turns crisp and golden-brown.

II. Iraq

When war broke out in Iraq during the time of Saddam, it slowly became more and more of a problem to move around. Nobody dared to go into the public spaces or to the markets and shops. The skies were full of military helicopters and we were scared of going out the house because we knew the city could be bombed at any time. During the bombings, which were fierce and frequent, we hid in cellars and basements underground.  

As soon as we realized that war was breaking out, we began to store food. It was difficult to obtain food because it was so dangerous to be out in the open. Each time we went to the market we were risking our lives. At any time and on any street one might face bombs, bullets, rockets, grenades, mortars. 

There was a total lack of essential supplies. No wheat, no meat, no vegetables, not even sugar or salt. Whatever we managed to store, we used in very, very small amounts to make it last as long as possible.  Our staple morning food was a kind of porridge made with vermicelli and dates. We ate this for breakfast and lunch. For dinner we made roti from ground corn and had this with tea. 

Rice types used in local cooking: amban (from Iraq); basmati (from India); varieties from Thailand and America.

III. Soor (Semolina)

Ladan’s memories of her childhood in Somalia include those of the community oven that stood in the back yard of a rich house. The oven was used by women from the neighbourhood to make rotis to sell in the local market. It was also a place for socializing, and the women met around the oven during festivals, family celebrations, etc.

When the violence began, wheat became scarce. The community oven was no longer used by women to cook rotis for sale but instead to cook daily meals for their households.

Through the conflict many families survived essentially on soor cooked with water into a salty porridge. Very often this was the only food available. Earlier in peaceful times soor used to be mixed with milk and sugar and made into a delicious sweet dish.

Ingredients: semolina, salt, water

Warm three cups of water on low heat and add two cups of semolina. Add some salt and mix thoroughly, stirring continuously to prevent the semolina from clumping. When the mixture has come to a boil and thickened, cover it with a lid, turn off the heat and let it rest for five minutes. After that it is ready.

IV. Brenj Kurme Kachalu (Rice with Potato Curry)

During the war in Afghanistan there was a great scarcity of wheat flour, the staple grain, so everybody was forced to change to eating rice. Meat was also very scarce, so rice was eaten with potatoes, tomatoes and onions which were either grown in backyards or bought in the market. It was difficult to find fresh items because while capturing villages the Taliban usually destroyed all fruits and vegetables in the surrounding orchards and fields. Produce had to be imported from Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan at that time (today the situation is reversed and Afghanistan exports apples, pomegranates and grapes to these countries as well as to India).

Ingredients: rice, onion, tomato, potato, salt, pepper, turmeric

Pour very little oil into a pan and put on slow heat. Chop the onion into small pieces and fry in the oil. Chop four or five potatoes into small pieces and mix with the frying onion. Add some water, stir well. Finely chop four small tomatoes. Mix them with the onions and potatoes. Add turmeric, salt and black pepper. Add one glass of water and cook for 15 minutes till the potatoes are soft and the tomatoes have softened and thickened into gravy.

Everyone had traumatic stories of deep suffering. And we all had stories of hunger, after the tensions began peaking in 1995. Some people fled from the cities to the villages, where there was much less violence and food such as milk, spinach and meat was available. Later, America, Turkey, Pakistan and India intervened in the conflict zones by sending peacekeeping troops, and UN organizations, WHO and UNICEF entered Somalia to support us with food, medicines and other forms of aid. Unfamiliar foods also became available – red, green and yellow lentils, tuna and hot dogs. From the aid workers I learnt to make dal, using tomatoes, chilli and other spices, and I would very often quickly cook this when my children were hungry. My husband found a job as a driver for an NGO working in the area of maternal and child health. But I lost him and my daughter to the conflict, which raged on without any sign of abating. I could not continue that desperate existence, so like many others I accepted someone’s help in order to come to India and rebuild my life here.

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