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Afghanistan: NATO Begins Fund For Civilian War Victims

British ISAF soldiers in Afghanistan in August (epa) January 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of dollars in cash and relief aid have been given by the U.S. government in recent years as compensation to relatives of civilians accidentally killed by U.S. military strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. But since NATO took command of operations in Afghanistan last October, far less compensation has been given for innocent civilians killed in combat-weary provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.

British forces recently called for air strikes at a village in the Garmser district of Afghanistan's Helmand's Province when they discovered Taliban fighters were sheltering there.

An RFE/RL correspondent who visited the village in mid-January found a man in shock after the battle.

Field research in Afghanistan's more isolated battlefields is essential to ensure that compensation schemes are not delayed by disagreement over whether those killed were Taliban fighters or unarmed civilians.

Collateral Damage

"We lost six people in my family," he said. "They killed three cows, destroyed two houses and my car. This is a village and they are bombing the village -- even mosques and people's houses."

Other villagers in the district say they have yet to see compensation or promised reconstruction aid. Their complaints are taking on a political tone, with residents openly wondering whether life was better for them under the Taliban.
"I lost eight members of my family," said another. "[NATO forces] didn't come for reconstruction. If [Hamid] Karzai is president, how can we be in this miserable situation?"

Brigadier Richard Nugee, NATO's chief spokesman in Afghanistan, admits that the death of innocent civilians is hurting efforts by the alliance to win the support of the local population in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.

"I believe the single thing that [NATO's ISAF has] done wrong [in 2006] -- and we are striving extremely hard to improve on next year -- is [accidentally] killing innocent civilians," he said.

Those remarks have been welcomed by nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and the U.S.-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC).

Mechanism Needed

But CIVIC Executive Director Sarah Holewinski says NATO needs to create a simple compensation process for civilians in Afghanistan.

"In Iraq and in Afghanistan millions of dollars are given [by the U.S. government] to help rebuild communities," he said. "And the U.S. military has a compensation mechanism -- which means as soon as your house is bombed or you lose a family member, you can file a claim with the U.S. military. And that gets you a symbolic gesture of dignifying that loss. Now that NATO has taken over in Afghanistan, NATO doesn't have these mechanisms."

Major Dominic Whyte, a spokesman for the NATO-led ISAF, tells RFE/RL that the alliance is trying to change that. Though Whyte admits that compensation paid out so far through a new NATO scheme has been a pittance compared to the millions of dollars disbursed by Washington.

"NATO has moved forward on this issue of providing relief to those caught up in NATO operations," he said. "And indeed, before Christmas, NATO established a humanitarian relief fund which has already had different NATO members contributing money. Upwards of $65,000 was paid out to help relief efforts. It is also a national responsibility -- and individual nations within the NATO mission have different procedures and different approaches."

But Holewinski says a patchwork of different compensation schemes run by individual NATO countries is a mistake.

"What we don't want to see is each country taking it upon themselves to compensate and aid civilians," he said. "[If that happened] you're going to have it done differently all across the country. Some families [would] get more than others. Some families [would not] get anything at all, depending on where they are located. What we need is one unified program. That means collective funding and uniform guidelines to make sure that everyone who is harmed gets the help that they need. What we're asking for is a NATO trust fund. Each country can put in something like [$500,000 or $1 million]. And that is going to go a long way toward making sure that people who are harmed get the help they need."

New Process Starting?

To be sure, Major Whyte notes that compensation and reconstruction aid has been flowing more quickly into Kandahar's Panjwai district -- the scene of intense combat and repeated NATO air strikes during 2006 -- than funds for neighboring Helmand Province.

"More recently, $1 million of aid has actually been injected into the Panjwai district as ISAF forces have moved through there as part of Operation Falcon Summit," he said. "An important part of the operation was to ensure that as the ISAF troops moved through, that reconstruction, redevelopment, and humanitarian assistance materials were part and parcel of the whole operation itself."

That has allowed Kandahar Province Governor Assadullah Khaled to promise reconstruction funds to hundreds of displaced Afghans who have been returning to what is left of their homes in the Panjwai district in recent weeks.

"The farms which were destroyed by bombardment or by ground forces will be compensated," he said. "We will also pay compensation for trees that have been destroyed and other things."

The disbursement of funds to the Panjwai district has been quicker than in other parts of southern Afghanistan because of an Afghan government investigation into fighting there. NATO says it killed at least 500 suspected Taliban fighters there during last year's Operation Medusa. But the Kabul investigators reported that dozens of the dead were innocent civilians.

Such field research in Afghanistan's more isolated battlefields is essential to ensure that compensation schemes are not delayed by disagreement over whether those killed were Taliban fighters or unarmed civilians.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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