Relief organizations venture back into Afghanistan

Workers wary, but need is rising as winter nears

War On Terrorism : The Nation

November 15, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Relief organizations opened a critical supply route into northern Afghanistan yesterday, sending a barge full of wheat, winter clothing and water containers across the Amu Darya River from Uzbekistan in the first of what they hope will be many shipments to the most vulnerable Afghans.

But even as aid groups heralded that operation, they also questioned whether the war-torn country was stable enough to ensure that those supplies would make their way to the people who need them most.

"We just don't know what the conditions on the ground are because we don't have anybody to tell us," said Bear McConnell, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Central Asia Task Force. "Everybody's doing high fives, but I'm afraid that might be a little premature until there's a better understanding of whether people can really move freely."

Although many humanitarian aid officials said the continued retreat of Taliban forces was a boon to relief efforts, many also expressed new worries about the security of aid workers, the accessibility of supply routes and the stability of aid delivery into cities left without leadership.

"There would be a tendency to say, `Now we're in the clear,' but there is simply not enough security yet for humanitarian operations to go ahead safely," said Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, a nonprofit humanitarian advocacy organization based in Washington.

At the same time, humanitarian groups are praising the efforts of the World Food Program, which has been transporting food into Afghanistan along five main routes from all sides of the country. The group is racing to supply the region before winter isolates communities at greatest risk for hunger, disease and displacement.

In October, the World Food Program moved 29,000 tons of food into Afghanistan - the most ever delivered to the nation in a single month. This month's shipment is shaping up to be even larger.

The WFP already has sent almost as much food into Afghanistan over the past two weeks as in all of last month. It could, for the first time, deliver 52,000 tons of food in a month - the amount relief workers estimate is required to feed the Afghan people for four weeks.

The need is great not just for food, but for medicine, blankets and other aid. The United Nations is preparing kits to protect women in childbirth - including clean razors and twine to sever the umbilical cord and plastic sheets so that mothers do not have to lie in the dirt.

About 860 women die for every 100,000 births in Afghanistan. In the United States, that number is 12.

Aid officials say they are concerned not about finding enough supplies, but about delivering them. In the coming days, a United Nations team will travel a 40-mile stretch between Termez in Uzbekistan and the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif to see whether that key route is secure for convoys.

Even more important is the "Friendship Bridge," which connects Uzbekistan to that 40-mile route in northern Afghanistan, considered a key to supplying 3 million of the country's neediest people.

Uzbekistan has closed the bridge since the Taliban overran Mazar-e Sharif in 1998. The city was recently retaken by the Northern Alliance.

If the U.N. team does not encounter sniper fire or land mines, aid workers said, the Uzbekistan government would consider reopening the bridge. Though the barge full of supplies crossed the same river yesterday, aid workers believe the only way to supply struggling northern Afghanistan is to send a near-constant convoy of trucks over the bridge.

"It is sort of the key to the whole area," said AID's McConnell, adding that the bridge could be open by the weekend. "Once you get across that mighty bridge, you can distribute supplies by truck very efficiently and very effectively."

Relief workers are continuing to capitalize on the Taliban's retreat. The World Food Program worked to reopen its phone lines in Kabul, and the International Red Cross was gearing up to resume operations in the capital. About 40 relief organizations hope to return scores of international workers who were expelled at the start of the conflict.

Still, insecurity reigns in the region. The World Food Program reported that no supply convoys left the Pakistani cities of Peshawar or Quetta yesterday because truck drivers refused to enter Afghanistan, fearing for their lives. Aid groups also balked after hearing reports of revenge killing in Mazar-e Sharif.

"There are still reports of bodies in the streets, although it is not clear whether they are civilians or military," said Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s Afghanistan coordinator.

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