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Afghanistan: Onset Of Winter Poses Deadly Threat For The Most Vulnerable

The first snows have fallen on hills near the Afghan capital Kabul, signaling the fast approach of the harsh Afghan winter. The onset of winter will pose new challenges to the U.S.-led military campaign. But as RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, it presents an even bigger threat to the thousands of Afghans who are fleeing the bombing as well as the effects of a drought.

Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Long before bombs started to drop a month ago, some 5 million Afghans were already on the edge of famine, the victims of drought, poverty, and many years of civil war.

Since the start of the U.S.-led air strikes hundreds of thousands have fled the bombs, many of them heading to the refugee camps and cities of neighboring Pakistan. And now winter is about to descend, making their plight all the more dire.

Aid agencies say the onset of winter is going to make the difficult task of feeding the hungry in Afghanistan even harder. And they say they're running out of time to bring supplies before snow blocks the roads used as aid routes.

The UN's UNICEF children's fund has warned that as many as 100,000 children will die in Afghanistan this winter unless food reaches them in sufficient quantities in the next six weeks.

Khaled Mansour is a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which distributes food to millions of people in Afghanistan. He spoke to RFE/RL on the phone from Islamabad and described the challenges ahead, particularly for people in the central highlands, the Panjsher Valley and Badakshan province in northern Afghanistan.

"Come early December, [these] three areas in Afghanistan will be cut off by snow. The mountain passes will be impassable for trucks. There are 700,000 Afghans who live in these areas and they need something around 40,000 tons of food for the winter months. We are trying to bring as much as possible of that food by truck to pre-position it in these areas by early December. We're also trying to keep some of the mountain passes open later using bulldozers and other equipment. If we cannot bring all the food that needs to be pre-positioned we're also planning to drop food by air."

Mansour said air drops would begin next month if necessary to ensure people get the 52,000 tons of food they need each month.

He said the WFP brought in just over half that amount in October. But he said deliveries have picked up this month and have reached 11,000 tons already. However, Ardag Meghdessian, the WFP's country director for Tajikistan, said today that high fuel prices, a shortage of trucks, and the early onset of winter were greatly reducing WFP's deliveries to northern Afghanistan.

Mansour said it's vital there is no disruption to the deliveries: "There are 6 million people dependent on food aid in Afghanistan. If we are unable to work or provide them food for a month or two, I'm sure millions of them will face severe food shortages."

James Nichols is an Islamabad-based spokesman for the aid agency Oxfam, which has some 100 local staff in Afghanistan. He says many people will have to walk several kilometers through snow -- in many cases across dangerous mountainous terrain -- even to get to the aid distribution points. He estimates that some 400,000 people are at risk of starvation.

"We've heard of reports from people inside Afghanistan that people are reduced to eating some of the wild grasses that grow in various areas. That was actually reported about a month ago, that people were already eating grass and in some of those areas the grass isn't even growing, so the situation was desperate already."

Yesterday, the ruling Taliban called on the United Nations and other agencies to help more. But the UN counters that the Taliban are uncooperative, and are even hindering their efforts by stealing equipment.

Mansour says the Taliban have proved more of a hindrance than a help in distributing aid to those who need it: "I'm sure the Taliban know very well how to help the international community provide more assistance. The first step would be to allow our aid workers on the ground unimpeded access to our communications equipment that has been sealed, taken from our offices, by the Taliban after 11 September."

Both Mansour and Nichols say the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan began long before the U.S.-led strikes began. They say it's difficult to quantify how much of the crisis is a direct result of the air strikes and how much existed already.

But Mansour says there may be one positive aspect to the bombing campaign: "I think one of the positive side effects of the current crisis, if one can see any positive elements to it, is the fact that the world attention is now focused on Afghanistan and the humanitarian crisis. [Many] people were dependent on food aid even before 11 September -- as a matter of fact, for the past three years. Before 11 September, the World Food Program was appealing for food aid for 5.5 million people inside Afghanistan come December. After 11 September, and fearing a new influx of displaced persons within Afghanistan, we increased this number to 6 million people. But basically the crisis in Afghanistan -- as far as food security is concerned -- started long ago, before 11 September."

But Mansour adds that as much as the U.S.-led strikes have helped draw attention to the plight of Afghans this winter, the military campaign has made humanitarian aid work all the more difficult.