Aid direly needed, dangerous to deliver

Military strikes hinder efforts to get help to beleaguered Afghans

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 10, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The deaths of four aid workers this week in Afghanistan - the first independently confirmed civilian casualties in the U.S. military campaign - cast a grim spotlight on the dangers and difficulties inherent in delivering humanitarian relief to a region already in crisis.

Afghanistan, ravaged by two decades of civil unrest, three years of severe drought and widespread economic collapse, faces another threat: military strikes that are hindering critical relief efforts.

"The situation is abysmal," said Robert C. Orr, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

"No place in the world is suffering as acute and profound a humanitarian crisis as Afghanistan, both in the numbers of people vulnerable and in the scope of the problems. And the military action has only complicated that. It's just too dangerous to move convoys in right now."

The troubles deepened this week. Not only did aid groups pull their foreign staffs from Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, but some have urged their Afghan relief workers to stay home, fearful that they might become targets of angry mobs or unintentional victims of the U.S. bombing.

The four workers killed this week were identified by the United Nations as security guards for a mine-clearing program near Kabul. They were killed while spending the night in their office, not far from a bombing target.

Aid workers are doubly vulnerable. Anger over the attacks and the coalition supporting the U.S. strikes prompted crowds to attack U.N. and foreign charity offices in neighboring Pakistan on Monday.

In this atmosphere, food deliveries into the country have virtually stopped. What relief there is comes in small doses. The U.S. military is airdropping individually wrapped meals over rugged regions of the country, and the World Food Program reported yesterday that one convoy carrying a shipment of wheat crossed the border from Iran.

The United Nations also deemed it safe enough to send Afghanistan supplies this week, as 4,000 blankets, 305 crates of medical supplies and 150,000 water-purification tablets were trucked across the border from Iran.

Humanitarian groups estimate that about one in three Afghans will rely on food aid for survival over the next six months and that countless more will be in danger of malnutrition, disease, homelessness and exposure.

The only successful way to offer relief, aid workers say, is not through air drops or intermittent relief shipments, but by the consistent movement into the country of trucks carrying food, medicine and supplies to the people who need it.

But since Sept. 11, such deliveries have been sporadic at best. Most commercial truck drivers have deemed the country unsafe and refused to shuttle in supplies.

"I would say with the supplies already in Afghanistan, the people can probably make it until the end of October," said Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, a nonprofit humanitarian advocacy group in Washington. "It was an immense crisis there even before Sept. 11."

Dangers also abound for those delivering the relief supplies.

"The United Nations has lost more humanitarian workers than military personnel on peacekeeping missions in the course of the last five years," said Jim Bishop of InterAction, a coalition of nonprofit aid groups. "Our people are equally exposed to being killed, taken hostage, raped and otherwise abused."

Aid workers face another problem, the onset of winter. Afghanistan's high altitudes can be hit with 20 to 30 feet of snow in the coldest months, thwarting relief efforts and endangering Afghans searching for havens inside the country and in crowded refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

"Afghanistan ranks at the top of the human misery index," said Susan Phalen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government's foreign aid branch. "In some villages, 30 percent of the people will be dead by the end of the year if something is not done."

Afghanistan has the world's highest maternal mortality rate, lowest per person caloric intake and most amputees per capita, according to a study by the agency, and a fourth of children die before they reach age 5.

Afghans are accustomed to strife and the international aid that follows. Relief groups began converging on the country during the Russian invasion two decades ago. In the past few years, with drought and famine, their presence grew.

Aid workers left the country en masse after Sept. 11. Doctors Without Borders removed 70 workers from Afghanistan, leaving five in the country's northern region, which is held by the anti-Taliban group allied with the United States.

The medical group's executive director, Nicolas de Tourrente, said the last shipment of supplies entered Afghanistan, still reeling from recent cholera and scurvy epidemics, last week.

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