International aid agencies say the specter of widespread famine is looming over Afghanistan, as food stocks dwindle rapidly and tens of thousands of Afghans attempt to flee to neighboring Pakistan. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Islamabad on the humanitarian plight Afghans face ahead of a possible military strike by a U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.
Islamabad, 1 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fear that the United States is going to make massive military strikes against Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington has led thousands of Afghans to flee their country to neighboring Pakistan.
Tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, are trying to get across the border that Pakistan has desperately tried to seal.
The UN's emergency relief coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, arrived in Pakistan today to meet immediately with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, has predicted up to a million Afghans will try to reach Pakistan if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan. The UNHCR is also warning of widespread famine inside Afghanistan. The UN's World Food Program says more than 300,000 people in the provinces of Balkh and Fariab are already on the brink of starvation.
Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west, is also bracing for an influx of refugees. Officials there say as many as 400,000 Afghans could enter in the coming months, joining 2 million Afghans already sheltering in Iran.
One of the largest non-governmental organizations providing relief to Afghanistan is British-based Oxfam. Its spokesman in Islamabad, Alex Renton, says food is running out and agrees with the UN prediction that thousands of Afghans could die in widespread famines on the scale that hit African countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia:
"I don't think [an estimate of hundreds of thousands of casualties is] an exaggeration. From UN figures, there are 1.6 million people who will run out of food by early December unless we start getting it in very fast. The problem for the World Food Program and agencies like Oxfam that distribute their food is that there are two very small windows and they're closing fast. One is the window before a conflict and the other is the window before winter begins."
Afghans fear the U.S. will attack in response to the refusal by the country's Islamic-fundamentalist Taliban government to hand over Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington that killed close to 6,000 people.
The Taliban yesterday admitted bin Laden is in their country. A Taliban spokesman said bin Laden was under the protection of security men who were the only ones who know his precise location. The Taliban says it will not hand over bin Laden without evidence he was involved in the terrorist attacks.
America has said any country that harbors terrorists will be treated as an enemy. In Afghanistan, the result has been huge numbers of people, fearing a possible war, fleeing cities like the capital of Kabul, Kandahar in the west, and the eastern city of Jalalabad near the border with Pakistan.
Reports today from Jalalabad said much of the city, usually a busy market town, was virtually deserted. Jalalabad was hit by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998 during a previous, unsuccessful, U.S. attempt to destroy bin Laden and his alleged terrorist bases.
Renton said Oxfam has been delivering food to 500,000 people in Afghanistan for three years. He said even before the present crisis, aid agencies had been feeding 3.8 million Afghans. Now they estimate that double that number will require food aid.
The United Nations in recent days resumed sending humanitarian aid into Afghanistan for the first time since cutting shipments after the terrorist attacks on 11 September.
Two shipments left from Pakistan -- one bound for territory controlled by the Northern Alliance and the other headed for Taliban-controlled Kabul.
UNICEF, the UN agency for children, sent a convoy of food and clothing into a Northern Alliance-controlled area bordering far northwestern Pakistan.
UNICEF representative Eric LaRoche said his organization is still seeking Taliban guarantees of protection to allow UNICEF deliveries in areas ruled by the militia:
"UNICEF is currently negotiating with the Taliban to try to have a kind of security measure that could be provided by the Taliban so that we could go across into [Taliban-controlled parts of] Afghanistan. That may take days to track all the places where these internally displaced people are."
The World Food Program shipped 200 tons of wheat to Kabul as a test to see if supplies could proceed smoothly. Oxfam's Renton says that must be followed soon up with larger shipments.
"In our view, 200 tons is great because we've established the principle [that] we've already shown ourselves that food can be brought into Afghanistan. The problem is that 200 tons is enough to feed the needy population for less than 12 hours. We need massive shipments. We have the networks that we've been using for years to distribute a lot of it. We think there's very little time to get the food in before we see the sort of famine we recognize from Saharan Africa."
Many areas of Afghanistan are inaccessible by vehicles, and aid agencies are trying to gather 4,000 donkeys for deliveries in those areas. Although America has suggested air drops as a way of delivering aid, Renton says most relief agencies do not believe that is a practical option:
"The problem is that Afghanistan is very much closed air space. But even to feed the existing population we were feeding before, we've calculated we'd need 125 Hercules [transport plane] flights per day -- that's an operation way beyond our or indeed any agencies' bank balances. It would have to be a military operation. And again it has to be done before the snow comes. Because when the snow arrives even air drops aren't going to defeat all the distribution problems caused by closed roads."
Renton says the only solution is massive transports of food supplies into Afghanistan now:
"We have to get a lot of food into Afghanistan now unless we want to see the horrifying things really by early winter. The best way to stop all of this, equally, is to open the borders with Afghanistan and allow the refugees to get the help and refuge that under international law they deserve. But that at the moment politically does not seem an option."
Aid agencies would like Pakistan to reopen its borders to allow Afghans free passage to camps already operating across the border, but Pakistani officials have been reluctant to do that. Nevertheless Oxfam is already preparing refugee sites near the Pakistani border city of Quetta in case Pakistan does open its frontier.
"The New York Times" reported today that U.S. President George W. Bush had authorized $100 million in relief aid to Afghan refugees to try to quell growing resentment in Pakistan.