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Afghanistan: Displaced Persons Face Crisis Without Aid

  • Elizabeth Weinstein

Prague, 6 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - As forces of Afghanistan's Taliban Islamic movement close in on the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, humanitarian agencies that have left the area and the capital of Kabul are warning that tens of thousands of displaced persons face a humanitarian crisis.

More than 200 aid workers from 38 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) left Kabul two weeks ago after the Taliban ordered them to evacuate to a war-damaged building on the outskirts of the capital. Talks early this week with Taliban officials did not produce a solution for bringing the NGOs back to the city. And with the Taliban poised to take over Mazar-i-Sharif, those Afghans who have been forced out of their homes need relief workers now more than ever.

The Taliban said it will be able to manage without the aid of foreign NGOs, but the impact may be more than the government can handle. Aid agencies are particularly concerned about the supply of drinking water in Kabul. The French aid agency Solidarite paid for fuel and spare parts for water pumps serving more than 200,000 people in northwest Kabul. Fuel has now run out and the pumps are broken.

Despite the Taliban's edict, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) have maintained small staffs in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. Robert Breen, the UNHCR's senior desk officer for Afghanistan, says the water breakdown has resulted in a sanitation crisis.

"Probably the first impact we're seeing is with a water system that had been repaired and maintained by an NGO which broke down within 48 hours after the departure of the NGO. This (system had) provided safe water to a large portion of the population. Most immediately you'll see (the effect) in water-borne diseases (due to) unsafe water supplies and the absence of medical supplies in the hospitals."

The UNHCR says that in Kabul alone 50 percent of the population, or around 500,000 people, depend on international aid. Breen says that the UN is also worried about the arrival of winter if the Taliban continues its siege on Afghan cities.

"Of most concern is that we are approaching the winter in Kabul. The programs that were to address the needs of the most vulnerable people during the cold winters --distribution of plastic sheeting, blankets, quilts and food supplies will be where the impact will be greatest. So the idea is that the NGOs return so they can maintain the services they've been providing and to be prepared for the needs that come with the winter."

Breen says another form of aid for displaced persons comes from Afghan families themselves. He says that most of the displaced persons flee cities for rural villages where they seek food and shelter from their own tribes or ethnic groups. The UNHCR and NGOs mainly serve displaced people who are unable to get to rural villages, or those who have lost their family members.

Relations between the Taliban and the foreign-aid groups have been strained since 1996 when the militia imposed harsh Islamic law on Kabul. The Taliban closed schools for girls, limited health care and education for all females, and forced foreign Muslim women to be accompanied by a male. The expulsion of the NGOs last month marked the culmination of tension between the Taliban and the aid community, which is particularly focused on helping women.

The UNHCR contracts with NGOs to provide aid to those displaced. Breen says that the loss of the NGOs has had a debilitating effect on his agency's work. More than 100 national and international staff are now suspended from work. In cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, where the UN has not had an international presence since 1996, the UN relies on reports from local Afghan staff to monitor humanitarian needs.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, the ICRC pulled the last of its foreign-aid workers out of the city on Tuesday. Despite the pullout, ICRC spokesperson Corinne Adam says that approximately 90 Afghan local staff remain in Mazar-i-Sharif together with international staff coming in and out of the city. She says that the Taliban's battles outside the city are driving refugees out.

"We are monitoring the situation there. We have delivered medical assistance to the medical hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif. That's what we do on a regular basis. And we have distributed material to the war-wounded. What is preoccupying us right now is that a lot of people are leaving Mazar-i-Sharif and we are monitoring the situation of these internally displaced people and remain ready to assist them if need be."

Adam says it's too early for the ICRC to assess what displaced persons need most, but that food, water and plastic sheeting for shelter remain the most desperately needed items for those in transit. The remaining staff in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul are continuing to visit people in detention and provide limited medical supplies to five hospitals.