First hand Reportage from Afghanistan: 5.5 Million Starving

Let me be clear. The murder of thousands of innocent Americans has shocked and appalled us all. But any military action which disrupts the flow of aid to millions of equally innocent Afghans would be equally immoral…Most Afghans don’t have newspapers, television sets or radios. They will not have heard of the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon, and most will have no idea that a group of zealots has attacked these icons of western civilisation.

I have just returned from Afghanistan, and cannot avoid a growing feeling of dread at what may be about to befall the people I have left there.

The bellicose statements being issued by America and her allies about revenge and retaliation for Tuesday’s horrific terrorist attacks against New York and Washington seem to be softening up western electorates for some kind of massive military action against the Afghan people.

Because of these threats, aid organisations have been forced to pull out their foreign workers – fearing both that they may be caught in the expected raids, or that they would be attacked as westerners after the NATO bombers have flown away.

The effects of this withdrawal could be infinitely more tragic and devastating than the worst that a wounded America may now throw at this long, long-suffering country.

For, although it has gone largely unreported, Afghanistan is in the grip of a three-year drought and on the verge of mass starvation. According to the UN-run World Food Programme, by the end of the year 5.5 million people will be entirely dependent on food aid to survive the winter – that’s a quarter of the Afghan population.

As Christian Aid’s programme officer responsible for Afghanistan, I have been helping supply food and seeds to communities in desperate need. In a few weeks the winter snows will come, cutting off the hundreds of isolated villages whose only links to the outside world are rutted dirt tracks.

Without seeds they will be unable to replant for next year. Without food aid now, thousands could be dead before the spring.

The real Afghanistan is one where 85 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers. Most Afghans don’t have newspapers, television sets or radios.

They will not have heard of the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon, and most will have no idea that a group of zealots has attacked these icons of western civilisation.

There isn’t even a postal service.

Now, in these isolated villages, families are down to their last few weeks of food and already men women and children in the bulging refugee camps are dying of cholera and malnutrition.

I have spoken to orphans with swollen bellies. I have spoken to men who have no money to hire trucks to escape the drought and make it to the camps. I have spoken to families who say they will wait in their villages for death.

And that was before the aid agencies were forced to withdraw.

And as I write this, our worst fears have just been realised. I have just received the following message from a friend who works for another of our partner organisations in western Afghanistan. He writes: ‘I hope you are fine. We have spoken to the World Food Programme in Herat, and asked them to release food so we can distribute it to our beneficiaries who are in severe need. But WFP has stopped their activities right now.’

Other friends there have stressed the need for the world to adopt a comprehensive approach to the terrorist threat – addressing the underlying causes of this terrifying phenomenon rather than just seeking to extract revenge.

Let me be clear. The murder of thousands of innocent Americans has shocked and appalled us all. But any military action which disrupts the flow of aid to millions of equally innocent Afghans would be equally immoral.

Christian Aid urges everyone involved to show civilised restraint in responding to an act of barbarism. Thousands of innocent people have died in the United States. We must now make sure that even more innocent lives are not lost.

Author: Chris Buckley, Christian Aid Programme Officer for Afghanistan

News Service: ZNet – September 14, 2001

URL: http://www.zmag.org/afghandisaster.htm