Rocked by an Earthquake, Afghanistan Escapes Starvation

WASHINGTON, DC, January 3, 2002 (ENS) - Thanks to a tremendous effort by international donors, non-governmental organizations and Afghan volunteers, Afghanistan has "averted widespread famine," said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Natsios and Alan Kreczko, acting assistant secretary of state, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, spoke today at a special press briefing at the State Department.

Just hours before they spoke in Washington, an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter Scale shook the Hindu Kush mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. It was felt across 400 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, to Srinagar, India, to the Afghan capital of Kabul where buildings crumbled and people rushed into the streets.

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Afghani men hold bags of food from the United States (Photo by John Weaver, Shelter Now International, courtesy USAID)
In Washington, Natsios said the amount of food aid being delivered into Afghanistan has doubled each month after the program began in September 2001, and 116,000 tons had reached the country in December. At the same time, said Natsios, relief organizations have been gradually withdrawing foreign aid workers from the country.

"The people who should be congratulated are not just these organizations, but the Afghan staff who remained in the country, stood at their posts at a very difficult time and carried out their work. And we think that is a very hopeful sign that the people who, in fact, saved Afghanistan, even though we provided the assistance, were the Afghan people, themselves - the people who worked for the NGOs for the last 20 years," said Natsios.

Natsios said USAID has distributed 20,000 shortwave radios in Afghanistan, with an additional 10,000 expected to be delivered. The radios broadcast daily bulletins in Pushto and Dari about security and food conditions in their home villages, public health information, and the amount of food aid each family is entitled to receive.

Since October 1, 2001 the U.S. government has provided more than $190 million in assistance, more than $110 million through USAID. Since September 11, USAID has awarded 39 grants totaling more than $50 million to non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan.

Still, in Maslakh camp, 30 miles west of Herat city, more than 350,000 displaced Afghans stuggle to survive, and 100 die each day of exposure and starvation, reports Doug McKinlay in today's issue of the UK's "Guardian" newspaper. They cannot get help until they are registered as refugees by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) staff, but the WFP does not have enough people to deal with the thousands of people at Maslakh, McKinlay reports.

While the U.S. bombing continues and security is still unstable in many parts of Afghanistan, Kreczko told reporters that between 60,000 and 80,000 Afghan refugees returned from Iran and Pakistan during November and December.

They are still returning home. Officials of the office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iran confirmed today that in the three days since the start of this year, over 2,500 people have returned to Afghanistan.

Starvation conditions have been eased and refugees are beginning to return, but a public health crisis in Afghanistan is still imminent. Brahimi

UN chief envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi (Photo courtesy United Nations)
In Kabul today, the United Nations chief envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he hopes the international community will recognize that the public health situation in Afghanistan is in a desperate state. Brahimi's comments came during a meeting with the Afghan Minister of Public Health Dr. Sohaila Siddiq, who shared with him the many problems facing the health sector in Afghanistan.

To help solve some of those problems, the UN World Health Organization announced that its international staff is returning today to Kabul. The agency's Representative for Afghanistan, Dr. Said Salah Youssouf, was due to travel to his permanent office in the capital. The agency has more than 200 international and local staff in Afghanistan working at eight offices.

A measles vaccination program started on Tuesday in Kabul, where some 200 vaccination centers are operating at mosques and hospitals. The campaign will expand to the rest of the country in the coming three months. "Mothers were very enthusiastic and committed to immunize their children," said WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib, briefing reporters in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Measles is responsible for an estimated 40 percent of all vaccine-preventable childhood deaths in Afghanistan, killing about 35,000 Afghan children each year. The $8 million effort, which is being organized by WHO and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), aims to vaccinate up to nine million Afghan children.

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Afghani women make bread with donated flour. (Photo by Martin Lueders)
Afghanistan is entering its 23rd year of conflict, first with the Soviet Union and now an internal struggle that has reduced many people to bare subsistence level. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, Afghanistan has the lowest child survival rate and the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Only 69.9 percent of its children survive to the age of five, and the average life span is 44 years.

The Afghan Red Crescent Society is the only indigenous, nationwide humanitarian organization able to work with all ethnic groups and to reach women through its services. It currently has 1,200 staff and 5,900 volunteers, operates in 31 of the country’s 32 provinces, and has buildings and warehouses throughout the country.