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Afghanistan: Relief Agencies Warn Of Humanitarian Disaster

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled drought and civil war in the last five months, finding shelter in makeshift refugee camps in western Afghanistan and in neighboring countries. International relief agencies are calling upon donor countries to help, warning that further delays in allocating much-needed funds could precipitate the worst humanitarian disaster in the country since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- International aid agencies are warning that Afghanistan may be facing its worst disaster since the end of the Soviet occupation 11 years ago.

The humanitarian agencies say hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons are starving and freezing to death in relief camps inside and outside the war-torn country.

The Geneva-based United Nations World Food Program, or WFP, estimates that a half million people left their homes after a severe drought hit Afghanistan last year. The drought affected half of the country's 20 million people, many of whom were already suffering from chronic poverty and a six-year-old civil war. The internal conflict is between the ruling Taliban militia and forces loyal to former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who are known as the Northern Alliance.

An estimated 80,000 displaced persons have found shelter in relief camps throughout Afghanistan.

In addition, about 150,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Pakistan in the past five months, joining the one million Afghans who arrived during the past 20 years of fighting in their country. Pakistan late last year tried to close the border to new refugees, but in January alone more than 70,000 people arrived at the makeshift Jalozai camp in the North West Frontier Province.

The WFP said Friday (Feb. 2) that at least 480 people -- almost half of them children -- had died from severe cold in camps near the western Afghan city of Herat.

The Taliban claims that more than 600 have died in Herat, but relief organizations are unable to confirm this figure. They say the Taliban may be tempted to inflate the death toll to blame international sanctions imposed on their regime.

Whatever the true figure, international aid agencies warn that the situation in Herat may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Speaking by telephone from Islamabad in Pakistan, WFP spokesman Khalid Mansoor told RFE/RL that aid delivered to relief camps is too scarce to protect many refugees and displaced persons from disease, starvation and cold.

"We were able at the World Food Program to provide some food for them up until now. But they need much more than food. As you very well know, they need shelter, they need blankets, they need fuel. And last week it was unseasonably, very, very cold for three days in Herat. And this is mainly what led to the death of over 100 people in this area."

Mansoor was referring to the reported death of 110 persons in a single night last week when night temperatures plunged to below minus 25 degrees Celsius.

UN agencies say each day brings between 300 to 500 new people to the camps, making living conditions there even worse.

The fate of another group of refugees stranded along the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, estimated at about 11,000, also gives aid agencies cause for worry.

Huddled on two strips of land -- generally described as "islands" -- on the Pyandzh River that separates the two countries, these refugees have been denied asylum by the Tajik authorities since they arrived there in October. The Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan's territory, is fighting the Northern Alliance forces in mountainous areas close to the Tajik border.

The UN has offered to support the refugees for six months if they are allowed into Tajikistan, but Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov has turned down the offer, saying security considerations justify his refusal. Apparently fearing that Afghan rivals may be tempted to use the refugees as a cover to bring war into his country, Rakhmonov has instead pledged that his government would help transport aid supplies to the refugees.

The Tajik government is also reluctant to bring thousands more refugees into the country that already hosts thousands of displaced persons. Relief agencies argue that should the Afghan refugees be allowed to proceed further into Tajikistan the agencies would be in a much better position to take care of them properly.

Rupert Colville is a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. He tells RFE/RL about the so-called Pyandzh "islands."

"One of these in particular, the eastern most one, has about 2,000 people and they've been in really bad condition. They're living in holes in the ground, basically, covered with leaves and temporary shelters. The aid agencies have managed to get a bit more assistance to them recently, but they are also within range of the Taliban guns on the [Afghan] bank of the river. And shells have been falling and they have had very high rates of sickness and disease. So this group is in pretty poor shape."

How many refugees have died from stray rockets fired from the Afghan bank of the Pyandzh is unclear.

Tajik officials say gunfire from Afghanistan has killed three refugees and wounded several others, but these figures could not be independently confirmed. The Taliban launched an attack on one of the two refugee camps last week, but no casualties were reported.

The UNHCR says that more than 40 people are reported to have died from disease or war wounds in the past four months. At least four refugees have died of malaria. Some also have typhoid, infectious diarrhea, dysentery and meningitis.

The British-based Medical Emergency Relief International, or MERLIN, provides medical assistance to refugees located on the smaller of the two Pyandzh "islands" through delegated Tajik health workers. The organization made three visits to the camp between November and January.

MERLIN spokesman Craig Burgess told our correspondent how difficult it is to assess with certainty the refugees' health condition.

"When we did our first, initial visit in November, there were two cases of meningitis and there had been reported cases of typhoid. And there were really quite bad health indicators. Our team went to do another assessment, but you really can't assess everyone. What you have to do is take random samples of population and think that you can extrapolate those findings to the whole population. So the surveys in December [actually] showed they had better health indicators."

But MERLIN remains quite concerned by the poor quality of water supplies and sanitation on the smaller "island."

Adequate shelter is also a great concern for international aid agencies as weather conditions further deteriorate along the border, with night temperatures near minus ten degrees Celsius. The UNHCR's Colville explains:

"In Pyandzh, they have snow there as well. So, I mean, it makes it even worse -- if you're living in a basically unhealthy place anyway and you haven't got proper shelter. And it's not a place where you can really start sticking up tents, because if you stick up tents they make a nice target -- which is one reason why they dug holes in the ground and covered them with reeds and grass, so it wasn't an obvious target. That's simply not the kind of conditions women and children should be living in."

Russian border guards who patrol along the Afghan-Tajik border have denied MERLIN and UN workers access to the largest "island," which reportedly shelters Northern Alliance fighters and their families. The Russian military says it is anxious to ensure the safety of international relief teams and Tajik health workers.

As a result, the 10,000 people now living on the largest strip of land -- half of them reportedly women and children -- have been left without assistance of any kind, and no one has been able to assess their precise needs.

There are also widespread fears that the two "islands" will be flooded when the spring thaw comes.

The UNHCR complains that donor countries have made little effort so far to help Afghanistan and neighboring countries cope with situation. Colville points out:

"There has been a little response at the beginning of this year. But, generally, over the past three or four years, the funding for anything to do with Afghanistan has been really very, very limited. But there's been clearly a loss of interest by many donor countries. And I think they have been very slow to realize that this crisis is really, very extreme."

Colville says that if funding and aid remain limited, many more displaced Afghans will die.

The United States last week announced it would send 75,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan through the WFP and would consider additional assistance if needed.

Russia said yesterday that it would sent more than 200 tons of food, clothes and tents to Tajikistan. But it is unclear whether this aid is meant for Afghan refugees stranded on the border.

On 2 February, Erick de Mul, the coordinator for UN relief programs in Afghanistan, renewed an urgent appeal to donor countries for $3.5 million. The WFP said the international community had pledged only $200,000 when de Mul spoke.

Only Norway has so far responded to de Mul's latest request with a pledge of $1.4 million.

(The Tajik service contributed to this report)