ISLAMABAD – Most Pakistanis probably have never heard of the Beatles. For Afghanis inside their almost bombed-to-oblivion country, the British band of the ’60s are as much a product of outer space as cluster bombs. It is improbable that one would find an Afghan singing the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine on his way to defusing a cluster bomb – an artifact of the storm that the United States is now blowing up.
The proposition is as ludicrous as the American idea of bombing the Afghans with radio propaganda – in Dari and Pashto – trying to warn them of the difference between food packets and unexploded cluster bombs. According to the Pentagon cosmology, both life and death are yellow – yellow as in Yellow Peril.
“Attention people of Afghanistan!” blares the Pentagon message. This is an absolute beauty of a propaganda piece deserving a Golden Lion at the Cannes Festival. The message goes on, “As you may have heard, the Partnership of Nations is dropping yellow humanitarian daily rations. The rations are square-shaped and are packaged in plastic. They are full of good, nutritious, halal food, prepared according to Islamic precepts. In areas far from where we are dropping food, we are dropping cluster bombs.”
The radio goes on, “It is possible that not every bomb will explode on impact. These bombs are of a yellow color and are can-shaped … we will not be using these bombs in areas near where we are dropping relief supplies. Please, please exercise caution when approaching unidentified yellow objects in areas that have been recently bombed.”
Unlike the Pentagon copywriters, anyone who’s ever been to devastated Afghanistan knows that destitute and starving Afghan children will hardly bother to “exercise caution” and check the nuances between a yellow square packet of rations and a cylindrical bomblet with a yellow tail on it.
On the other hand, exercising caution himself, former Dutch prime minister and current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers – also a member of the Partnership of Nations distributing yellow versions of life and death – stepped into the Pakistani political minefield as an identified white object to examine in loco the dreadful situation of Afghan refugees. His conclusion: the bombing in Afghanistan – yellow or otherwise – should not be stopped.
Lubbers was previously in Pakistan five months ago when the official policy was to start deporting Afghan refugees. He admits that since that visit the situation has become “more and more negative.” The UN officially describes it as an “extremely volatile situation.” Lubbers tried to sell to the government of President General Pervez Musharraf – with some measure of success – the concept of “temporary protection.” It’s better to accommodate the coming influx of refugees than to leave them to rot along volatile borders.
Musharraf in principle agreed with Lubbers that “there are three categories of people which we cannot ask to go back to Afghanistan.” Category 1 comprises those who are fleeing the bombing and also forced conscription by the Taliban. Category 2 comprises the so-called “invisible refugees” in UN jargon – people who crossed illegally these past few weeks. Islamabad believes that there are from 50,000 to 60,000 of them. The UN believes that there are almost 80,000.
Lubbers suggests that “those who live in the streets better show up in the new sites” built by humanitarian agencies. He insists that “we need a guarantee from the government that these people won’t be deported”. Musharraf stopped short of giving this guarantee. These new refugees – as can be attested in Peshawar – are afraid to go to any new camps and prefer to blend in with relatives or acquaintances, or even live in the streets.
Category 3 is what UN jargon qualifies as the “remaining caseload” – meaning the thousands of refugees in the squalid Jalozai and Shamshatoo camps. Lubbers says he understands that Musharraf cannot simply accept an avalanche of new refugees. But he is impatient with the extremely slow pace of the whole process: “Musharraf accepts we need a mechanism to facilitate the entry of young males. This could be implemented tomorrow. I promised not to abuse the mechanism. But he wants to screen family by family.”
Lubbers says that “the more we are able to bring food to Afghanistan there are less reasons to flee.” In theory this is true, but the commissioner does not seem to take into consideration the yellow factor: the cluster bomb tempest is the main element blocking more humanitarian help reaching Afghan cities and villages.
The World Food Program (WFP) faces problems of its own. Presently, it can feed only one third of the Afghan population. There are serious distribution problems, caused by insecurity, lack of trucks (drivers are not exactly keen on facing the American ballistic fury), and lack of fuel. The WFP’s goal is to send in 52,000 tons of food a month to feed six million people. This means that it has to deliver an average of 1,700 tons a day. The average now is around 1,500. In the first three weeks of October, it was only 700 tons a day. Warehouses in Kandahar and Herat had a three-week period in which they had absolutely no food to distribute.
Kandahar – where the Taliban for the first time admitted a small group of foreign media – has not had water or electricity for more than two weeks now. The WFP has not sent any food to Kandahar – the origin of most of the refugees on the Chaman border – since September 13. The Taliban took over the program’s warehouses, which used to feed 150,000 people. Now the people who are trapped inside the city are literally starving – and under five or more hours of daily bombing.
Lubbers also met the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, Abdul Zaeef. He asked three things of Zaeef: Don’t loot our property; respect our people; be aware that we are involved in all sorts of small projects: don’t destroy our network. The Taliban have a dreadful record of obstructing humanitarian work. A news photo sums up the meeting: a talkative Lubbers addresses a sideway-looking Zaeef – a bearded, bespectacled, turbaned, enigmatic version of The Shadow.
Lubbers admits that “all this is a human drama,” but he defends the military operation and the “political objectives” of the war against terrorism. Basically, he admits that he cannot be against the New Afghan War. Humanitarians all over the world may recoil in horror, confronted with a high commissioner trying to balance his support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – after all, his country is a member – with a catastrophe affecting millions of innocent, helpless people. Lubbers did not forget to provide an escape route for himself when he said that “those who plan from a big distance, far away, should know that this is about people.”
The yellow-lovers at the Pentagon will obviously not listen to the high commissioner. One of his key observations while in Islamabad was, anyway, an admission of impotence: “I really hope the Afghan people will find a way out of this misery.” They might. Maybe by singing Yellow Submarine.