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Afghanistan: New Hardships Face War Weary Citizens

  • Robert McMahon

New York, 4 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's war-weary citizens -- long accustomed to living life on the edge -- face an especially precarious winter.

The ongoing civil war between Taliban forces and an alliance that supports the last recognized government continues to force the resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghans and prevent the repatriation of tens of thousands more. The United Nations says it will soon be nearly impossible to provide food and shelter for many of those displaced persons when winter snows block normal supply routes through the mountains.

And in less than two weeks (Nov. 14), the ruling Taliban faces the imposition of sanctions by the UN Security Council unless it expels suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to a country where he could be brought to trial.

In separate comments yesterday (Wednesday), the UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan and the Taliban's representative in New York expressed concern about the impact these developments would have on Afghan citizens.

The UN's humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, Eric de Mul, told a briefing in New York that there is particular concern about the plight of people living in the Panjshir valley, where he said tens of thousands of people have fled because of fighting in the Shamali valley.

The United Nations estimates there are three more weeks left to transport food, shelter and coal to the displaced persons through mountain passes before snowfall blocks those routes. De Mul says the UN has been trying to impress on the warring sides the urgency of permitting relief workers to reach the Panjshir valley across battle lines.

"We are still hopeful it will happen, that we'll get this permission, this agreement. If not, we will have a serious humanitarian disaster on our hands come December."

The UN says if the warring sides refuse to allow relief agencies access across their battle lines on the plains, then the civilians in the valley face widespread malnutrition and related health problems. Most of the displaced people are women and children who fled the fighting in the northern Shamali Valley.

But the Taliban's representative in New York, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, told RFE/RL that the United Nations has exaggerated the humanitarian crisis in Panjshir, saying the valley cannot hold the number of people claimed by the UN Mujahid said Taliban officials were concerned that the United Nations would use access to the region to provide assistance to the Afghan opposition forces. He said this had happened in previous humanitarian missions, such as in Bamiyan province in 1997-98. And he said opposition warlords such as Ahmad Shah Masood stood to gain more from UN relief aid than needy civilians.

"We are afraid that the same thing will happen here in Panjshir, that they will provide supplies for Masood instead of the common people."

The Taliban representative also expressed concern about the impact of possible UN sanctions taking effect later this month. Mujahid said Afghanistan already has limited road routes across its frontiers. If the sanctions go into effect, he said, they would severely cut back flights of the country's main airline, upon which many Afghans depend for remittances from relatives abroad.

Mujahid expressed serious doubts that his government would be able to reach an agreement with the UN Security Council in the case of Osama bin Laden before Nov. 14. The main sticking point, he says, is the insistence by the United States that bin Laden be turned over for trial.

"If they are following only one track and that is to hand Osama bin Laden to the United States or another country, it will be difficult I think."

Meanwhile, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, de Mul, noted one area of recent progress under the Taliban women's rights.

De Mul said at the news briefing that opportunities for women in Afghanistan have improved in areas such as health care and education. De Mul said there has been a notable increase of women doctors allowed to practice in the country and that there are more schools available for instruction for girls. He said the situation is still far from ideal for women under the rule of the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban, but that it was interesting to see some clear progress.

"There is a slow but hopefully sustained increase of opportunities for women to go to work."

De Mul added that the problems of employment for women were more pronounced in the cities than in the Afghan rural areas, mainly due to the high overall unemployment in urban areas. He said in the countryside women participate more freely in daily work.

Mujahid was dismissive of the UN characterization of women's rights in the country, saying it is not an issue. He said Afghan women have full employment opportunities as well as access to proper medical care in the country's hospitals. International aid agencies have repeatedly expressed concern about that the strict Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government has suppressed women's rights, especially in regard to equal medical care and access to education and jobs.