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Afghanistan: UN Warns Of Looming Refugee Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned this week that hundreds of thousands of Afghans could be displaced in the next two or three months by the continuing drought in Afghanistan and the annual spring upsurge in fighting between the Taliban and opposition forces. Annan also warned that foreign assistance for the Afghan refugees is falling far short of what is needed. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with a representative of the UN World Food Program in Islamabad for an update on the Afghan refugee crisis.

Prague, 27 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN secretary-general's warning comes amid ever increasing signs that Afghanistan's two warring sides are preparing major spring offensives.

This week Ahmad Shah Massood, the opposition's top military strategist, said opposition leaders have dispersed to key points across Afghanistan to disrupt an expected Taliban push in the coming weeks.

The opposition leaders include several figures returning to the country after several years' absence. One is ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, now back in his home province of Jozjan in the northwest. Another is Ismail Khan, who once ruled in the western city of Herat and is now organizing opposition in that area.

Each year fighting surges at this time because both sides hope to take advantage of the weeks between when the snows melt and when the new foliage begins to thicken, something which makes launching attacks more difficult.

The Taliban, which controls 90 percent of the country, hopes to launch a decisive drive this year that will break the hold of the opposition in the northeast.

But the opposition aims to open up many new fronts and force the Taliban to disperse its forces enough to prevent it from launching any final drive against the northeast.

The imminent spread of fighting in Afghanistan is particularly worrisome to UN refugee agencies because it coincides with a severe drought that has plagued Afghanistan for several years and shows no sign of ending. The drought combined with fighting last year to displace half-a-million people inside Afghanistan and send an additional 200,000 into Pakistan.

Khaled Mansour, the regional spokesman for the UN World Food Program (WFP) told our correspondent by telephone from Islamabad that in recent months the number of displaced people has continued to grow.

"The level of need is rising. More people are being displaced from their villages to urban centers, looking for food and looking for water. Just in Herat, in western Afghanistan, about 1,500 people from the nearby provinces come every day to one displaced persons camp near Herat. By some estimates (now) we have 800,000 people in and outside Afghanistan who have been displaced from their villages."

He says the extent of the displacement is a reliable sign of the worsening of economic conditions in many parts of Afghanistan:

"Displacement is a very strong indicator of how badly the economy is deteriorating and how badly the people are faring, because once they leave their villages they have lost the planting season and they have lost the harvest this year, which means the earliest food that they can grow for themselves will not be until July 2002. They sell their implements, they sell their tools, their hoes, (and) they eat their seeds because they are not planting them."

Mansour says that the continuing pattern of displacement has caused UN agencies to appeal for more aid from donor countries this year.

"When we started late last year, the UN organizations here, thinking about funding, we asked altogether for one year to help more than four million Afghans in health, food, education and other sectors -- we were talking about $220 million for one year only. When the situation deteriorated, we increased our appeal to the donors to $254 million."

But he says that, so far, the response to this year's combined UN appeal for Afghanistan has been disappointing:

"Until now, we have received only $82 million out of the $254 million. We have been promised $82 million and the rest we don't know."

That repeats a chronic shortfall in international donations for Afghan refugees over the last decade. International donations were abundant immediately after the 1979 Soviet invasion and during the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war but have fallen off as the seemingly endless factional fighting continues.

Mansour says that last year all the UN agencies working with Afghan refugees received just 54 percent of the some $220 million they requested.

The WFP spokesman says his agency -- which provides emergency food assistance -- is one of the few UN programs which does get most of the funds and in-kind food assistance it needs for Afghan refugees. But it remains unclear whether that amount will be sufficient this year. Khaled Mansour says:

"The last two years we have been almost more than 90 percent funded, so we are optimistic that we will be over 90 percent funded again this year. Will that be sufficient or not? It is a little bit too early (to say). We issued a survey yesterday (25 April) saying that Afghan farmers this year planted only 60 percent of the land they usually cultivate."

He continues:

"This is a very negative sign for the kind of harvest we will receive this year, when the harvest starts in July. By the time the harvest comes we will have a better idea of how much food the Afghans have been able to grow for themselves and how much more food we need to provide so we can avoid a famine situation in Afghanistan."

The WHP official says that other UN programs have much poorer prospects of getting the money they seek. He says that many agencies, particularly those striving to patch up Afghanistan's collapsed agricultural and health infrastructures, routinely receive only 10 to 12 percent of what they request from international donors.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said earlier this week he will make a trip to Afghanistan to assess the condition of refugees there and raise international awareness of their plight.

At the same time, he will visit Pakistan and Iran, where together there are some 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees. The date of Lubbers' trip has not yet been announced.