Shame on the United Nations. Shame on the International Committee of the Red Cross. And shame on the theological-militaristic rhetoric of a new “crusade” of “Good against Evil” which has detonated an even more deadly humanitarian crisis than Afghanistan is already used to.
By any standards, the evacuation of UN and ICRC staff from Afghanistan is nothing less than revolting – even under pressure from the Taliban, who allegedly could not guarantee their security. A bunch of pampered, high-salary bureaucrats can leave anytime – in air-con luxury. But what about the Afghans who remain behind – either trying to manage the complex humanitarian machine, or just utterly helpless?
Even before the menace of having parts of it bombed deeper into the Dark Ages by American ballistic fury, Afghanistan holds the world’s most horrifying records in practically everything: life expectancy; infant and maternal mortality; adult and female literacy; access to safe water; the estimated number of land mines; the proportion of mentally or physically disabled people; the millions dependent on food aid; the millions of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced people, in UN newspeak). Since the beginning of the jihad against the Soviets in the early 80s, more than a million Afghans have been killed, and more than 800,000 women have been turned into so-called “widows of war.”
The current abdication by the UN and the ICRC of what the civilized world defines as social responsibility is as revolting as the failure of the international community to accept full responsibility for the ongoing Afghan humanitarian crisis. The blunt reality is that the immediate future of at least 12 million Afghans – in a population of around 20 million – simply does not matter in the new global geopolitical map, or in the new Great Game in Central Asia. For American talking heads on “kill them” overdrive, Afghan civilians are a totally expendable sideshow – as were Cambodians and Laotians during the Vietnam War.
On the ground, for quite some time, there could not have been a greater gulf than the one between the international community’s apparent concern for the millions of Afghan refugees and IDPs, and its almost total failure – via the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan – to effectively pressure the Taliban to be more sensitive to the overwhelming human tragedy.
Non-governmental organizations operating in either Taliban-controlled or Norther Alliance-controlled parts of Afghanistan, along with travelling journalists, affirm how the UN machinery is terribly expensive, non-flexible, and overstaffed with people totally unsuited to the tremendous job they face. In most cases, the UN agencies are not involved in anything apart from food distribution. By contrast, NGOs like the French-based Acted, for instance, are involved in a series of programs – like transportation, rebuilding, shelter construction, brickmaking and women’s programs (food for work), not to mention wheat distribution.
Acted runs women’s centers in many villages in Badakhshan province, in non-Taliban Northern Afghanistan. They run 4-month-long programs supervised by Afghan women: former lawyers or doctors, like Runi, who directs the program in the village of Rohrat. Women are involved in sewing and tailoring children’s clothes, and there’s also a food-for-work scheme, through which they make quilts for IDPs. The cotton usually comes from Dushanbe, in Tajikistan: when it doesn’t, they have to scour the local bazaar for scraps. Just a few weeks ago – when an American attack was not even contemplated -, the women were terribly afraid of what might happen next, workwise: in such difficult conditions, it’s hard for the programs to be sustainable when there is only a smuggling economy in place.
Reducing the dependency on handouts is a crucial part of the NGOs’ job in Afghanistan. It is absurd to limit aid to humanitarian assistance when work-for-food programs like Acted’s are not only possible but essential to prevent millions of Afghans from becoming beggars inside Afghanistan or crossing the border and becoming beggars in Pakistan.
Afghanistan represents the largest and most complex humanitarian disaster in the world today. The British Agencies Humanitarian Group (BAAG) defines it as nothing less than apocalyptic. In a report published theree months ago, BAAG states that “the survival of most of the population will very much depend on the ability of the World Food Program, along with NGOs, to provide food aid to hundreds of thousands of people through an expansion of refugee camps in Afghanistan” (again the emphasis only on food aid). At this very moment, no UN, ICRC or NGO foreign staff are left in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The survival of millions of people is at stake.
The refugee situation gets more and more dreadful by the day. There are already 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, mostly Pashtun – and more than 2 million in Iran, mostly Tajik and Hazara. At this moment, it’s still theoretically possible for refugees to flee to Tajikistan – if they are able to negotiate the treacherous crossing of the Amu Darya river, and if they are able to sneak through more than 20.000 Russian troops patrolling the border.
Iran and Pakistan have oficially closed their borders: the only remaining checkpoint is at Chaman, on the road between Kandahar – the Taliban seat of power – and Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, in Pakistan. Half of Kandahar (population 100,000) has already fled the city, including the families of the Taliban leadership, now safe in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Already 20,000 new Afghan refugees have crossed the border in Chaman in the past few days, including some of the 100,000 people who have fled Kabul. Bad news for them: most are not Pashtun, the overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group among the Taliban and in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
This correspondent recently visited the largest Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar in Pakistan – Jalozai and Nasir Bagh – and subsequently some of the refugee camps in the areas controlled by the late commander Ahmad Shah Masoud’s Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The situation inside Pakistan was already extremely frightening even before the attack on America: hundreds of thousands of refugees risked being deported back to Afghanistan. In northern Afghanistan, their situation was not exactly comfortable.
Zamonkor is a refugee camp only one hour from Masoud’s home in the Panjshir Valley. Six months ago, 150 families lived in the camp: now there are only 60. Most have lived there for two years. Their tents were provided by the Red Cross. Two families live in a “de luxe suite” – inside a gutted 1970s German tourist bus.
The refugees say that for a whole year they haven’t had support from anybody. The World Food Program is heavily criticized: they haven’t showed up in 2 years. The last time the refugees had some wheat was through Acted, the French NGO. Many families cannot afford to eat even once a day. But through their own efforts, they set up a primary school under a tent, with five teachers and one headmaster. Nobody receives a salary. When the teachers approached the Northern Alliance’s Minister of Education in the Panjshir Valley, he said he would contact NGOs for help, but nothing happened: through an official, the refugees learned “there is a war, so education is not a priority.”
When asked why they live in this camp, the refugees say that half of their families are in Zamonkor, and the other half in Bagram, close to a Taliban-Northern Alliance frontline: when there’s any fighting, they can seek refuge in the camp. Their houses and properties were seized by the Taliban long ago.
Even more apocalyptic is the situation in the Anoba refugee camp, clinging to a dusty hillside in the Panjshir Valley. It “houses,” so to speak, 760 families, most of which have been there for more than two years. “No smoking!” screams an old man, with one of his arms pointing to the desolate landscape, meaning that it is impossible to cook. Some people survive by eating grass – every day. A few manage to find odd jobs in not so nearby villages, scraping enough to buy only a few pieces of bread. Kids display an avalanche of “I’m hungry” signs. Camp elders say they have received only one 100kg bag of wheat so far this year. There is no NGO help, apart from Doctors Without Borders: when someone is ill, their families must arrange transportation to the nearest clinic.
Most of these refugees also come from Bagram, on the frontline about 60km north of Kabul. But some also come from Nasir Bagh – a refugee camp near Peshawar which has been in the process of being evacuated by Pakistan’s tribal areas authority since July. Farhat – a polite and well-spoken English, Mathematics and Dari teacher – begs the visitor for some kind of help. By his side, there is a legless 10-year-old girl, a victim of a landmine. It is very windy even in late summer, and it can be almost unbearably cold in Anoba: some 20 people died last winter, unprotected by their flimsy tents. This is just a prelude of what may happen next winter, which is little more than a month away. In Taliban-controlled areas, according to many NGO officials, the situation is even worse. A World Food Program report published three months ago warns of “mounting evidence of emerging widespread famine in the country” and predicts “disastrous consequences.” Three months ago, according to the UN, there were already 150,000 IDPs in only two northern provinces, Balkh and Baghlan. Very few NGOs work in this area. Masoud’s strategy of opening multiple frontlines against the Taliban during the summer also contributed to spreading the conflict to some of the provinces most severely affected by the worst drought of the past three decades.
Make no mistake: life in Afghanistan is hell. It is imperative that the turbulent relationship between the Taliban and the humanitarian aid community be revised – whether there is an American attack or not. But the Taliban’s number one priority right now is how to prepare for war in case Osama bin Laden is not brought either to an Islamic court in Afghanistan, or in a Muslim third country, possibly the United Arab Emirates: this is the maximum they would be willing to concede.
Mullah Omar – Taliban’s “Leader of the Faithful” – and village elders from all over Afghanistan, though, would rather declare a jihad against “infidels.” In this case, America is likely to attack, and millions of refugees and IDPs will simply perish, victims of hunger, cold and lack of assistance: mere “collateral damage.” T S Eliot wrote that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Humankind better get ready to live with the reality of millions of silent – and soon dead – pawns in the ruthless game between world jihad and ballistic capitalism.