By Kathleen Knox and Robert McMahon
Most aid workers familiar with Afghanistan agree the country's humanitarian crisis has worsened since the U.S. started dropping bombs on the country on 7 October as part of its war on terrorism. But they also acknowledge that the suffering of the Afghan people did not start on the first day of the bombing. RFE/RL correspondents Kathleen Knox and Robert McMahon explore how much of the Afghan people's plight is attributable to the air strikes and their aftermath.
Prague, 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- At the edge of an Afghan refugee camp near the border with Iran, some 1,000 people are making do without food or shelter.
The displaced Afghans made their 750-kilometer journey on foot to escape the bombing and the fighting between the ruling Taliban and opposition Northern Alliance forces. But the refugee camp is overflowing, so they'll likely remain cold and hungry, at least for the foreseeable future.
Christian Aid worker Dominic Nutt says these unfortunate civilians represent a small portion of the hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- whose lives have been made worse by the month-long, U.S.-led air strikes on Taliban and terrorist targets.
"They were in a bad state when they arrived. They will be freezing and hungry and therefore susceptible to a number of diseases. That, I think, is a direct example of the consequences of the conflict."
The chief UN relief agencies had estimated that 5 million Afghans were in need of foreign assistance before the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Now, they say, that figure stands at 6 million people; and if you add in the border areas of Pakistan and Iran, the figure is closer to 7 million.
They say global relief efforts began to suffer as international staff fled Afghanistan shortly after 11 September in anticipation of U.S.-led military strikes.
The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, estimates that about 70 percent of the Afghans in greatest need of food and other assistance are women and children.
A UNICEF spokesman, Alfred Ironside, tells our correspondent that even before 11 September, the child mortality rates in Afghanistan were among the worst in the world. He says one in four children under five years old -- or more than 200,000 children -- die each year from a combination of starvation, exposure, and disease.
Ironside says UNICEF fears the disruption in aid deliveries caused by the U.S.-led military campaign and ongoing fighting could lead to another 100,000 deaths of small children.
"The security situation in the country brought about by the bombing principally but also with the ongoing conflict there has made moving supplies into the country a more complicated, a more challenging, task than would otherwise be the case. So that we are probably only getting in a little more than half of what's really needed by the population in terms of food and other supplies."
Christian Aid's Nutt says the air strikes have exacerbated the misery in three main ways:
"First of all, people are very, very afraid of the bombing as you can imagine, so people are running away from cities into either refugee camps within Afghanistan or trying to cross borders or running away from cities into villages and the villages don't have any food. So there's that. Secondly, it's increased the conflict on the ground between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Obviously, the Northern Alliance now sees this as a big boost, so that's brought violence to the ground, it's brought terror and anarchy. The third and most important thing as far as Christian Aid is concerned is that we cannot now get enough food into the country because of this insecurity. Truck drivers are too afraid to drive into some areas because of the bombing and the violence. That means that people are running out of food. They were running out of food before, and they're running out of food now. I think these are the crucial factors that relate to the bombing."
Nutt was in Afghanistan in August to research the drought and says he saw several villages where people were already dying of starvation and hunger-related diseases.
"But what's happened now is that there are whole areas where food cannot get through. One area where there's a big problem is Ghowr, in the center-west of Afghanistan. When I was there in August, some people had only a few weeks left of food. Our understanding from direct sources is that aid cannot get through at all because of the conflict between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban and the bombing. If you bear in mind you have a massive area with many thousands of communities, and they're already down to their last few weeks of food, and no food has got through, it's not hard to imagine that many people will be on the verge of death now if they haven't died already. That is a direct result of this conflict."
Macarena Aguilar is a press officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has seen its Kabul warehouses bombed twice by U.S. planes.
"I would say [there's also] the whole psychological effect of being bombed. There is an element of stress. People are under stress. [There's] confusion, the winter coming up and many people maybe having their windows broken not knowing what's going to happen -- all that insecurity and psychological effect is also very important."
To be sure, however, aid workers and United Nations officials say Afghanistan was already facing a vast humanitarian catastrophe before the U.S.-led bombing campaign began, due to a prolonged drought and years of civil war.
A spokesman for the UN's World Food Program, Khaled Mansour, told RFE/RL this week that, at least now, the crisis is getting some long-overdue attention.
Oliver Ulich, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, tells our correspondent that, while the air strikes are certainly not making matters easier, serious humanitarian problems existed in Afghanistan long before 7 October.
"I think it's important to realize that the bombing campaign is really only one of several constraints we're facing at the moment. And if the bombing campaign were to stop, that would certainly not imply that the other constraints would suddenly go away. Among those other constraints are the fact that we can't communicate with our staff on the ground, that our warehouses have been looted, vehicles have been taken away, primarily by the Taliban but also by other armed groups."
But Ulich says the bombing campaign's focus on urban areas has disrupted the UN agencies' system of using cities as hubs for storing and delivering relief supplies. That has made it especially difficult, he says, to deliver aid efficiently to rural regions.
"Because some of the cities have become quite dangerous, the law and order situation has essentially broken down. Our staff in those cities is no longer able to operate. Some of the warehouses have been taken over so that the distribution mechanism has more or less broken down. "
Ulich says an indirect consequence of the U.S.-led strikes is the intensified fighting between the Northern Alliance -- backed by the United States -- and the Taliban. That fighting is affecting distribution efforts to the most remote populations in need in northern and western Afghanistan.
The UN 's World Food Program calls northern Afghanistan the "hunger belt" of the country and is working to help about 3 million people stay alive there until next year's harvest.
The WFP is trying to improve access to the area from across the border in Turkmenistan. On 7 November, the WFP announced it has begun to use two Ilyushin cargo aircraft to airlift more than 2,000 metric tons of food from Pakistan to the Turkmen city of Turkmenabad. From there the food is to be transported into remote areas of northern Afghanistan.