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UN: Humanitarian Crisis Coincides With Outrage Over Buddhist Statues

  • Robert McMahon

UN officials are trying to keep international donors focused on a deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, while at the same time world outrage builds over the destruction of the country's pre-Islamic relics. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are on the move again and, without immediate aid, relief officials say that they could be victims of a widespread famine this summer. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 13 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- They have endured more than 20 years of war, successive droughts, and the neglect of their economy, but an alarming number of Afghan civilians are now at risk from the cumulative effects of their country's long decline.

UN officials say nearly a million Afghans face famine this summer and are in urgent need of aid. Half of them have either fled the country or are in displacement camps in Afghanistan. The other half are mostly poor farmers battered by the country's worst drought in 30 years.

The situation has taken on a new urgency because the main relief groups in Afghanistan -- UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and non-governmental organizations -- are underfunded. The United Nations emergency relief coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, says $100 million is needed for immediate relief and at least $250 million in aid is needed for the year.

Oshima told RFE/RL in a recent interview that the drought hampered the planting season, and the harvest normally made in July will be woefully inadequate this year. About 85 percent of Afghanistan's 21 million people are directly dependent on agriculture.

Oshima says ordinary Afghans are finding the crisis difficult to cope with.

"All this combines to produce a situation where, I'm afraid, many ordinary Afghans have exhausted their coping means with hardship. They have very little left in their homes, so they leave."

Oshima traveled to Afghanistan last month, where he visited camps for displaced people in Taliban-controlled territory -- in Herat -- as well as in Faizabad, the main camp established in the northern region held by the United Front forces. Oshima later described the conditions of the displaced people as shocking. Many are lacking proper shelter, food, water, and sanitation.

"This is a very sad situation. This is a very complicated situation and it clearly is a situation that goes beyond the people's and the government's ability to cope."

The civilians' plight is made more complicated by a recent Taliban edict ordering that non-Islamic relics in the country be destroyed. These include two Buddhist statues in Bamiyan regarded internationally as cultural treasures.

UN officials, while deploring the destruction of the statues, say it has distracted attention from a humanitarian emergency. They have expressed concern that relief donations -- already low -- will decline because of outrage over the Taliban edict.

Oshima told RFE/RL that before the latest edict, UN agencies were already coping with lower aid levels caused by the Taliban stigma -- the main factors being its poor human rights record and refusal to hand over for extradition alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Further complicating the work of UN aid workers is the uneven cooperation they receive from the Taliban. New UN Security Council sanctions have not softened the position of some Taliban officials toward UN operations. Oshima says aid workers find crucial transportation routes sporadically blocked by the Taliban for long periods of time.

The coalition of forces opposing the Taliban in the north -- known as the United Front -- is recognized as the official UN representative for the country, despite controlling only a small portion of territory. The spokesman for the Afghan mission to the UN, Haron Amin, told our correspondent that Taliban leaders have neglected the misery of the Afghans to focus on their military campaign. He appealed for more cooperation.

"They should realize that they can't do this on their own, that in fact, if anything, their institution of this regime has only further exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, that they ought to further work with the United Nations and that they ought to let the United Nations and those NGOs that are willing to work in Afghanistan to render and provide the means of subsistence and food supplies to the internally displaced."

Amin says about 200,000 internally displaced Afghans have collected in camps in areas controlled by the United Front. He says the number is gradually swelling by Afghans fleeing Taliban-ruled areas.

Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 people remain stranded on islands in the Pyandzh River, which runs between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. An additional 170,000 refugees fled to Pakistan before it tightened its borders. Pakistan already has more than two million Afghan refugees who fled previous crises.

Pakistan has joined in the condemnation of the destruction of the Buddhist statues but remains a strong supporter of the Taliban regime and one of three countries to recognize its government. Pakistan's representatives have urged the international community to end the isolation of the Taliban and seek change through engaging the leadership.

That was the message of Masood Khalid, Pakistan's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, in a recent interview with RFE/RL.

"You can bring about a change to moderate the policy by engaging with them. Right now they are the subject of sanctions and international isolation. This kind of policy is, in our view, not helpful."

The UN General Assembly held a special session last Friday (9 March) and adopted a resolution asking the Taliban to act to prevent any more destruction of objects from Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Khalid used the occasion to urge UN members to end their ostracizing of the Taliban regime. He suggested the Taliban leader's edict on destroying relics could be a sign of its desperation brought on by the international denunciation of the Taliban.

Khalid told the assembly that the international community should consider commending the Taliban for its achievements instead of steady condemnation. For example he said the Taliban had taken clear steps to destroy its poppy crop -- which hurt Afghan farmers -- but had failed to receive any credit for these measures.