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Afghanistan: UN, NGOs Under Curfew, In 'Hibernation' Ahead Of Vote

By Laura Winter Millions of Afghans will go to the polls tomorrow to cast ballots for their country's first elected president. Different insurgent and terrorist groups have promised to disrupt the elections with violence. The United Nations and some aid organizations in Afghanistan have been speaking with RFE/RL about the threats they believe they face.

Kabul, 8 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Located directly across the street from the U.S. military's Kabul compound, the entrance to the United Nation's Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) is marked by giant gray sandbags stacked some 5 meters high. They are the best defense that UN staff working in the building has against a car bomb.

The United Nations is the coordinating force behind Afghanistan's historic election on 9 October and is employing more than 100,000 Afghans and foreign staff for the event. The UN expects about 10.5 million Afghans will enter 25,000 polling stations nationwide to select their first elected president.

But the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and their allies in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami insurgent faction are unhappy about Afghanistan's steps toward democracy. They are all vowing to violently disrupt the elections and have already killed at least a dozen election workers.

Jean Arnault is the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan. He said his staff is taking extra precautions for the election period. He said UN workers are feeling what he calls a "special sense of alert."

"For a range of extremist organizations, UN are high-value targets, and that has constrained us. And I tell you, we feel very unhappy about this, but that has constrained us over the past year -- to take increasingly conservative measures, to make sure that we don't expose our staff to outright killing or kidnapping and so forth," Arnault said.

The United Nations has obviously been listening to U.S. military and Afghan government officials. They fear car bombs may explode in the cities, and insurgent groups may attack polling stations in more remote areas of the country.

Foreign UN workers are now under what is ostensibly a dusk-to-dawn curfew. They must travel in convoys. And, unofficially, some UN workers say they have been told to avoid social gatherings.
"So how can you work? You can work a little bit from your house with your telephone and maybe your Internet connection. But the field work, you can't do anyway. So it is smarter to take vacation in that period."

It's not just the UN that has been feeling this pressure. Nick Downie is the project coordinator for the Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO). He said it's a dangerous time, too, for foreign aid and nongovernmental organizations.

"I'm aware of small and large organizations that have planned by contingency to remove nonessential staff from the country. And that's what they've been doing. Even today, we know that a number have just got out of the country -- getting out of the way -- and that's the best thing that they can do. And that's what they're doing in general. We're seeing them come in from the field, come in from the likes of Kandahar, from Jalalabad. And certainly, they are not going to be moving around. And I can tell you, there's a lot of fear out there amongst the NGO community," Downie said.

Downie's words are confirmed by the actions of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. Its top country management believes there has been a shift in terrorist tactics toward targeting NGO workers. Jesper Jensen, the committee's country director, said he has brought his 25 foreign staff members in from the field and has put his organization into what he calls a state of hibernation.

"Organizations that we normally compare ourselves with, like Care International and Dacaar, do the same as us -- reduce to the absolute possible minimum, push as many as possible to take their vacation now -- because we're going to 'hibernate.' So how can you work? You can work a little bit from your house with your telephone and maybe your Internet connection. But the field work, you can't do anyway. So it is smarter to take vacation in that period," Jensen said.

Jensen said that while he does not believe Kabul -- or Afghanistan in general -- will become a battleground again, he still wants to avoid the worst-case scenario.

Click here to see a "Factbox" on the presidential election.

For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.