Deaths, Weather, Poverty Hamper Afghan Recovery

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, February 11, 2002 (ENS) - Rescuers battled for hours against "atrocious weather conditions" to reach hundreds of people who have been trapped in the Salang Pass, in Parwan province for more than 30 hours, said Ariana Yaftali, spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan today in Islamabad. At least five people are dead and 400 have been rescued.

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South side of Salang Pass (Photo by Douglas R. Powell courtesy Geography Dept. U. California-Berkeley)
Halo Trust, the British/American nongovernmental organization leading the rescue operation, said it had evacuated some 300 people, who have been trapped in 57 vehicles in Qabre Kleaner, on the southern edge of the Salang tunnel, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the capital Kabul since Sunday morning. Two children were found dead, one person was seriously injured, and persons with complications were rushed to Kabul for medical treatment.

The disaster occurred just three weeks after the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush mountains was reopened linking north and south Afghanistan. At 3,369 meters (10,949 feet), Salang is the highest tunnel in the world.

Many of the survivors were suffering from frostbite and dehydration. Earlier, 100 people whose vehicles were stuck in the northern section of the tunnel were rescued. Three adults are known to have died inside the tunnel. Foul weather conditions, ferocious winds and heavy snowfalls hampered rescue efforts for hours.

The United Nations World Food Programme is conducting a rapid assessment mission in Afghanistan to see how much food is needed and exactly where the need is greatest. Two helicopters being used for the assessment arrived in Mazar-I-Sharif on Saturday, after being delayed several days in Dushanbe, Tajikistan due to strong winds and icy conditions, according to WFP spokesperson Jennifer Abrahamson. Test flights that took place Sunday were successful, and assessments will begin today in the north.

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This 12 year old Afghani girl is ill in Bamyan with pneumonia and possibly meningitis. (Photo courtesy IFRC)
A Red Cross Red Crescent assessment mission returning from western Afghanistan to the organization's head office in Geneva Friday reported scenes of great deprivation in villages and remote mountain valleys cut off from the outside world for years.

The combined effects of 23 years of war and the last three years of drought have left many people in parts of Herat and Farah provinces in western Afghanistan destitute.

The team heard how girls as young as 10 are being offered for marriage in exchange for bags of flour in a desperate struggle for survival. In the Rood Gaz valley, "We saw children digging in the fields for roots to eat and use as firewood. Leaves from the trees were also being eaten," says John Watt, operations manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Wendy Darby, an IFRC director asks that agencies involved in food distributions take into account the needs in remote locations outside the major towns.

The IFRC continues to channel non-food support to five provinces in western Afghanistan. Following the report of the assessment team, further interventions are planned particularly in bringing mobile health services to remote rural areas and supporting a revival of agriculture through food-for-work plans, tackling irrigation projects, and the distribution of tools and seeds.

The office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mazar-I-Sharif, working with the IRC International Sanitation and Water Centre, has developed a plan that would close all 19 camps of internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Mazar area, resettle real IDPs into one transit center until they are able to return to their villages, and provide the urban poor with food assistance close to their homes.

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UNICEF emergency relief and education supplies are offloaded at Shah Saleem village before being transferred onto donkeys and horses for the trip into Afghanistan. (Photo by Shafqat Munir courtesy UNICEF)
The IOM is attempting to solve the problem of vulnerable families from urban areas who come to the IDP camps and set up makeshift shelters hoping to receive humanitarian assistance. Since September 11 when international organizations stopped providing food to the urban poor, their only safety net collapsed. They are now in a desperate state, IOM says.

News of a distribution of relief items in the IDP camps pulls poor people from the cities out to the camps and creates unruly mobs. On several occasions distributions were severely disrupted as vulnerable persons from the city got out of control.

In addition, the IOM began a census Sunday of an estimated 200,000 displaced people living in a camp in the remote western Afghanistan town of Maslakh.

"It's probably the biggest refugee camp in the world, certainly the biggest in the country and the region," IOM spokesman Christopher Lom told Agence France Presse.

The head of IOMs office in Mazar, Jeff Labovitz, is optimistic. I know its a big undertaking, but we have to start somewhere. We have to assist the urban poor in their homes so that we can provide assistance to the IDPs in the camps and register them for the eventual return home.