New perils come with cold winter

Posted: Friday, November 23, 2001

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan -- Numbed by cold, hundreds of displaced Afghans leave makeshift tents of clothing scraps every evening to seek shelter in the homes of relatives, friends or anyone willing to house them. And December hasn't even begun.

As winter approaches, aid groups are trying to move in supplies for the millions of Afghans who will be at even greater risk of death and disease in the cold. But even before snow chokes mountain passes, worries about security and problems with bureaucracy are costing precious time.

Afghans living in camps are ''absolutely not ready'' for winter, Nico Heijenberg, a medical coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said via satellite phone from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. In that area, people have suffered from three years of famine and been forced to eat grass.

Already in Afghanistan, 300,000 babies die every year from preventible diseases, and 100,000 more could die this winter if they don't receive aid supplies, UNICEF says.

''When you don't have clothes, when you don't have medication, the cold compounds that and adds to the mortality figures,'' said Rupa Joshi, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Uzbekistan.

A barge that crossed the Amu-Darya River to Afghanistan on Thursday from the Uzbek port of Termez carried jackets, winter boots, water purification equipment and other supplies.

The U.N. World Food Program, main source for humanitarian food deliveries into Afghanistan, has managed to deliver enough food this month to feed 3.9 million people for one month. The target for November was enough food for 6 million.

Part of the problem is the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan with the Taliban collapse. The risks were underscored by the killing this week of four journalists driving to the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Five WFP food trucks en route to the western Afghan city of Herat on Monday were stopped by unidentified gunmen and taken to a village where most of the food was unloaded and distributed to villagers.

''There is a lot of banditry right now, people who try to take advantage of the fact that there is a kind of vacuum,'' WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said in Geneva.

Still, the Iranian Red Crescent Society said it managed to deliver 125 metric tons of food as well as 10,000 blankets and 2,000 plastic sheets on behalf of UNHCR to Herat on Thursday. The supplies are to be handed out to at least 100,000 people in camps around the city, officials said.

Bandits prowling the roads have also been a problem in northwestern Badghis province, where 300,000 people depend on aid.

''I saw hunger. It was an absolute lack of food. It's a disaster, and I see an urgent, immediate need for food,'' said Doris Knoechel, a German official of the World Vision group who toured the province.

Another aid corridor, through Quetta, Pakistan, is closed and drivers are also unwilling to go through the Kandahar region, which is still held by the Taliban.

For the moment, the weather is not closing any roads, Berthiaume said. The WFP has bulldozers and snowplows and will keep the roads open as long as possible. If they become inaccessible, WFP can drop food from planes.

Aid agencies also are meeting difficulties just getting their supplies into Afghanistan. Red tape snags have blocked aid from crossing over from many of the countries bordering Afghanistan.

Several aid groups operating in Tajikistan say bureaucracy, corruption and lack of coordination between the Tajik and Afghan authorities has held up shipments.

Oli Zairov, transport manager for the German aid group Agro Action, said it has sent 140 metric tons of aid across the border but more than four times that amount is sitting in warehouses or trucks around the country. A flour shipment has been stuck at the Tajik border city of Parkhar since last week, he said.

''If such problems continue, we're not interested in staying here,'' Zairov said, suggesting the group could focus efforts from the Pakistan side.

In western Afghanistan, aid shipments are being held up because of a shortage of drivers and the fact there are no customs officers at the Iranian border.

''You can have all the supplies in the world outside, but it's not good if you can't get them inside,'' UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara said in Geneva.

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