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UN: Relief Agencies Race To Rebuild Aid Networks Inside Afghanistan

As anti-Taliban forces have taken control of most of Afghanistan, UN aid agencies are seizing the moment to send increasing quantities of food and other supplies into the country. The agencies are also racing to rebuild their teams of foreign and local workers inside Afghanistan ahead of the coming winter.

Islamabad, 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- UN aid agencies say they are making good progress in rebuilding their aid distribution networks inside Afghanistan following the collapse of the Taliban.

Much of the international aid effort for Afghanistan had been on hold since 11 September and the subsequent start of U.S. air strikes against the Taliban and the forces of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Amid the crisis, all foreign aid workers left Afghanistan as the Taliban seized communications and other equipment belonging to UN agencies and their affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

But now, foreign workers are beginning to return to some areas to rejoin local relief workers and revive the aid programs. And for the first time in five years, some of the locals coming back to work publicly are women -- something that was forbidden under the Taliban regime.

Chulho Hyun, regional spokesman for the UN children's agency UNICEF, told reporters in Islamabad recently that the UN aid network is being revitalized in many parts of the country.

He said there has been particularly rapid progress in the western city of Herat, where UNICEF is making contacts with both previous and potential NGO partners to deliver food supplements to small children and to women who are either pregnant or have just given birth. He said that a UNICEF supply convoy from Quetta, Pakistan, recently delivered 12 metric tons of high-protein porridge to women and children in the city.

At the same time, he said UNICEF is applauding reported statements by officials in Herat that young women and girls can resume their formal education in the city's schools. Chulho Hyun: "UNICEF also welcomes reports from Herat that local officials have recently been making public remarks in which they speak about reopening formal schools for girls. The United Nations Children's Fund is committed to all children in Afghanistan, girls and boys, returning to the classroom and, wherever and whenever we can, UNICEF will be encouraging the re-establishment of this right and most basic of routines in the life of a family."

Other UN agencies, such as the UNHCR, are also reporting rapid progress in rebuilding their networks inside Afghanistan. The UNHCR's regional spokesman, Yusuf Hassan, said the organization is reopening its offices in key cities. He also said that in Kabul, some female staff are returning to work for the first time since the Taliban took the capital in 1996. The Taliban retreated from Kabul on 13 November, leaving it to forces of the opposition Northern Alliance. Yusuf Hassan says: "Security permitting, the UNHCR plans to quickly resume its presence in Afghanistan with offices in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. Our local staff, which were unable to work normally during the last few weeks, have now resumed work in some of the key areas and places."

He continues: "In Kabul, the UNHCR's four remaining female staff came to the office [on 16 November] for the first time since the Taliban took control of the city in September 1996. The four women had been barred from the office since then by the Taliban, but they were initially allowed to work in the field. However, in 1999, the Taliban barred them from doing any work whatsoever, and they had remained largely confined to their homes since then."

Hassan said that as the UNHCR's foreign staff now also returns to Kabul, the refugee agency is preparing to undertake its biggest humanitarian aid campaign since the recent conflicts in the Balkans. Hassan says: "[We are going] to jumpstart what will become one of the most daunting humanitarian efforts since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. UNHCR hopes to act on several areas. One is stabilizing the population inside Afghanistan. Two is helping those who keep fleeing the country. And thirdly, eventually aiding those wishing to go back."

The UN estimates that before the start of the U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban retreat, there were at least 1.1 million people displaced inside Afghanistan. That is apart from another 6 million people who have remained in their home areas but who now face critical shortages of food and other supplies as the winter begins.

Despite these daunting numbers, UN relief workers say that they now feel optimistic that sufficient food is getting into the country to meet the most urgent needs.

The UN's World Food Program, which is coordinating emergency food aid to Afghanistan, announced recently that it is winning its battle to send in adequate supplies. WFP Executive Director Catherine Bertini said in London on 16 November that the agency is meeting its monthly food aid target of 52,000 metric tons, which, she said, is enough to feed 6 million people.

The WFP's regional spokesperson in Islamabad, Lindsey Davis, said that this success is mostly due to the opening or reopening of aid routes from Central Asia, Iran, and Pakistan. She also said it is due to the increased willingness of commercial truck drivers to again go into Afghanistan -- something many were reluctant to do during intense U.S. bombing. Lindsey Davis says: "[WFP Director Bertini] attributed the rapid increase in the amount of food delivered over the past four weeks to the increased trucking capacity, maximization of the Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan routes into Afghanistan, purchasing over 30,000 tons of food in the region and, in addition to that, borrowing tens of thousands of tons of wheat from Pakistan."

Russian border guards in Tajikistan say that two shipments of humanitarian aid were sent into northeastern Afghanistan during the past three days. A border guard spokesman says 17 November's shipments included 156 tons of flour, 40 tons of wheat flour, and five tons of diesel fuel. The supplies were provided by the United Nations and a non-governmental agency called Focus. They were sent into Afghanistan through Tajikistan's Ishkashim border crossing.

Davis said that, as of 16 November, the UN agency was employing more than 2,000 trucks in its emergency food supply operations.

But the WFP spokesperson cautioned that the international community still faces a big challenge in assuring that supply routes are not disrupted. She said relief agencies are having to carefully avoid constantly shifting lines of battle as the Taliban collapses. A UN official reported that 15 trucks carrying aid from the UN refugee agency and the Iranian Red Crescent had failed to reach Herat because of security problems.

The UN also says it lost an estimated $2 million worth of equipment recently when a U.S. bomb mistakenly hit a compound near Kandahar that housed equipment for a de-mining program. The spokesperson for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan, Stephanie Bunker, said in Islamabad on 16 November that the lost equipment included tractors and heavy trucks. There were no reports of injuries.

With winter fast approaching, another challenge will be to cope with snow blocking access to the more remote regions of Afghanistan. The WFP has said that at least 700,000 people face starvation if they do not receive food aid in areas that soon could become isolated. Those areas include Hazajarat in the central highlands and the Panjsheer Valley.

The UNHCR has said it will not encourage any of the refugees now outside Afghanistan to repatriate until the winter has passed. Some 2.5 million Afghan refugees are currently in Pakistan and another 1.5 million are in Iran. Most are refugees from the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war or people who later fled factional fighting and continuing drought conditions in their country.