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Afghanistan: Earthquake Survivors, Aid Agencies Accuse Military Commanders Of Looting

International aid agencies rushed to Afghanistan's remote Baghlan Province after the devastating earthquake that left hundreds dead and thousands without shelter in late March. But survivors say some of the badly needed aid supplies have been seized by unscrupulous military commanders. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from the northern Afghan town of Nahrin.

Nahrin, 1 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The town of Nahrin and about 80 surrounding villages in a remote part of Afghanistan's northern Baghlan Province were hit on 25 March by a strong earthquake.

The earthquake, which measured 5.8 on the Richter scale, completely leveled the old part of Nahrin and devastated the outlying villages. The final death toll has not been counted, but the United Nations, which is coordinating relief operations in the area, estimates that between 700 and 800 people have died and thousands of families have been left homeless.

Relief agencies reacted swiftly to the catastrophe. The UN and dozens of other aid agencies have been active in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the militant Taliban regime in November. Aid groups rushed tents, blankets, food, and medicine to the stricken area. The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S.-led combat forces helped transport supplies by helicopter. Even Afghanistan's old foe, Russia, sent in a convoy of trucks with supplies to create a complete field hospital.

Most of the earthquake survivors now have enough to eat, and many tents have been distributed. But many Afghans in the area complain that local military commanders are diverting much of the aid for private use.

One of the survivors, Husain Sediqi, lost three of his children in the disaster and is now living with his wife and three surviving children in a tent donated by the UNHCR refugee organization beside the rubble that was once their home.

Sediqi says commanders from the Northern Alliance forces -- which helped oust the Taliban and occupied the Nahrin area after the militia's defeat -- took large amounts of supplies from the aid agencies with promises to deliver them to survivors. But instead, he says, the commanders have either distributed the supplies to their own supporters or simply sold them for profit.

Similar complaints were voiced by many of the survivors in Nahrin, who are still sifting through the rubble of their homes to salvage anything of value. The heat during the day intensifies the stench of dead animals still buried beneath the rubble. At night, the tents provide little protection from near-freezing temperatures.

One of the survivors is Javed, a shopkeeper whose son was buried beneath the family's two-story home and was pulled out dead after 24 hours. Javed echoed complaints that military commanders have diverted much of the aid.

"When [the commanders] get all these supplies, they definitely sell them. They took all the supplies from this city and transported them to other places and provinces," Javed says. "We want the international community to stop this sort of rule by the commanders, which has been happening in our country for years. We don't want the sound of gunfire any more. We want peace and stability to be implanted in our war-shattered country."

Javed says the best way for aid agencies to deliver aid is to deal as directly as possible with the victims: "The foreign aid workers should come here themselves and see our conditions for themselves. That is the way to prevent this sort of corruption. We have our own elders and representatives here who they should deal with and in this way help us."

One of the largest aid agencies participating in the Nahrin recovery effort is the French organization ACTED, which specializes in helping earthquake victims. An ACTED spokeswoman in Nahrin, Shareen Zaghow, said on 29 March that her organization and others were aware that military commanders were taking some of the supplies.

"Agencies here are trying to help -- however, local commanders are not being controlled and are taking materials that are [meant to be] going to the people," Zaghow says. "Sometimes you have commanders come in with guns and say, 'We're going to take five tents.' Usually what you have is local staff who are scared and they give it."

Zaghow says an investigation is underway to determine the scale of the problem: "We've been seeing this. Since all the work is being done in coordination with the United Nations and other agencies, we have monitoring teams who will check if this is actually happening. If this is actually happening, the head of the UNHCR delegation will speak with the commanders and the authorities here and in Kabul about the problem and they will have to face consequences."

The UN spokeswoman at the disaster scene, Stephanie Bunker, said on 29 March that the UN would investigate. But she added that it was doubtful much of the misappropriated aid would be retrieved.

Today, the chief UN spokesman in Afghanistan, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, says the investigation is continuing: "Unfortunately, we do not have any further details at this point. It is still to be confirmed and, if confirmed, what action will be required? Of course, such a situation means it is a security issue. And as the Afghan authorities are responsible for security, we would have to be reviewing that with them."

De Almeida says the UN and other aid agencies routinely face intimidation and theft in other parts of the world where they deliver large amounts of valuable supplies.

"We are talking about human nature. Human nature. Anywhere in the world, you'll find this sort of situation. This episode in Nahrin indeed has to be followed up," De Almeida says.

During the Taliban regime and the subsequent U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, aid agencies have faced intimidation and looting of supplies. But with the interim Afghan government anxious for help from the international community, aid agencies hope that there will be a crackdown on such incidents.