Afghanistan Conditions Deteriorating
by Kathleen Kenna (December 2001)
Conditions in Afghanistan are getting worse as coalition air strikes and rival gun battles escalate.
"The stability of the country is very precarious," said Georges Dutreix, head of mission for Medecins sans frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
"It's worsening. Security is shaky in most parts of the country, especially the roads between cities," he said yesterday. The escalating violence, together with unexploded munitions and land mines, has strangled efforts to get food, medicine and health care to many Afghans, especially in urban areas threatened by fighting and in rural areas isolated from main relief agencies.
"This is one of the worst centres in the world for misery," said Dutreix, who has worked three years in Afghanistan and another five with MSF in Africa.
The American-led bombing of Kandahar has reduced Afghanistan's second-largest city to a shell, forcing 85 per cent of the 800,000 population to flee.
"This is the largest exodus from Afghanistan we have seen in recent years," said Yusuf Hussan, spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency. "We believe thousands have crossed illegally into Pakistan. They are fleeing because of food shortages and insecurity."
Pakistan has again closed its border to Afghanistan, refusing all but the most fragile refugees for the past two days, Hussan said. That has stranded about 6,000 at the border and untold thousands more - too weak or afraid to travel - at Spin Boldak, the last village before the Pakistan checkpoint at Chaman.
"There are thousands waiting to enter Pakistan," Hussan said. "We can't reach them."
While the World Food Program has stockpiled some supplies for the most needy at the border, the Islamic Relief agency has warned it doesn't have enough food, water or shelter for an estimated 100,000 that have sought refuge in a makeshift camp at Spin Boldak.
It's too dangerous still for aid workers to enter many parts of Afghanistan because of continued fighting, said United Nations official Khaled Mansour.
"The situation is very unstable," he told a news conference yesterday. "There are pockets of instability" from the south to the north, including major cities such as Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz.
"Sporadic shooting and fighting" still in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif has made it especially difficult for relief groups to resume operations, Mansour said.
The U.N. pulled its lone security officer from the northern city on Sunday because of the risk.
Mazar-e-Sharif's links to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan make it the most crucial transit point for getting food to Afghanistan's huge "hunger belt" in the centre and north. It's estimated 4 million people in that region need emergency food supplies, Mansour said.
Another 3.5 million Afghans depend on international agencies for food and other essentials.
Across Afghanistan, truckers, the media and refugees report gun battles continue between rival tribes and divided factions of the Northern Alliance in villages and major cities such as Kunduz.
Highway robberies by armed gunmen appear to have increased, judging from anecdotal evidence and the refusal of aid groups and others to travel.
There are increasing reports of heavily armed mercenaries demanding "tolls" to cross their informal road checkpoints.
Critical supply routes are still cut off from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and the threat of violence is so high that truckers won't move aid supplies at night, Mansour said.
Even the capital Kabul, considered relatively peaceful since the Nov. 13 Taliban retreat, is threatened by sporadic violence. There's a strict 10 p.m. curfew, yet most streets are empty soon after nightfall. Kabul residents were warned yesterday that six major areas are deemed dangerous because of unexploded bombs, rockets and live ammunition left from coalition attacks. Land beside two main highways linking Kabul to Bagram air base, one of the few airstrips available in the country, is so heavily mined that drivers are even warned not to go off the pavement.
As well, "one bomb has gone missing" in a pit of loose earth at Kabul airport, where coalition strikes left runways unusable, Mansour said. De-mining teams have yet to find the bomb, despite digging a crater 24 metres deep and 5 metres wide where it landed. Mines and live bombs maim, on average, 40 to 100 people a week in Afghanistan and half of those die before they get medical help, he added.
- The Toronto Star, December 4, 2001
- posted at ZNet