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Archive for May 2007

AFGHANISTAN: Opium abuse harming women’s, children’s health

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YAMGAN, 29 May 2007 (IRIN) – Sadaf started consuming opium seven years ago after she could not find any medicine to overcome a headache that had bothered her for weeks. “When I first smoked opium I felt dizzy for a while, but did not have a headache – so I continued,” the mother of four told IRIN in the Yamgan District of Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakshan province.

Sadaf smokes locally produced opium with a tiny hookah thrice a day with her children huddled around her. In the intoxicating atmosphere of the mud hut filled with opium smoke there is no chattering by her children; they look dazed and silent.

Grabbing the head of her four-year-old son who suffers pneumonia, the mother put a blowback of smoke into his mouth and puffed a second breath at his face. “I do this to make him calm and sleep well,” Sadaf said to justify her actions.

Fanila Zaki, a health worker in Badakhshan, said many such children suffer acute respiratory diseases caused by frequent exposure to opium smoke.

“Some mothers think when their children do not cry and sleep they are fine,” said Zaki, “but that is simply incorrect and misleading”.

High maternal mortality

With some 1,600 mothers dying per 100,000 births, Afghanistan has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world, officials at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Kabul said.

In Badakhshan, 6,500 mothers out 100,000 die while giving birth – the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, the UN agency says.

Opium abuse exacerbates the situation, specialists say. Women who consume opium during pregnancy loose much of their energy and become venerable to different diseases, the provincial health department reported.

“Most addicted mothers suffer asthma, coughing and lung problems which make them very weak to endure the burden of pregnancy,” a local health worker said.

Health workers say some addicted mothers also loose the chance of a future pregnancy because opium addiction damages their uterus.

Financial burden

Addiction has put a heavy financial burden on many poor families, plunging them deeper into poverty and social insecurity.

“I’ve been spending 200 Afghani [US$4] on opium every day for the past seven years. I sold my land in order to afford my addiction,” another addicted woman, Bibi Mullah, said.

Badakhshan, one of Afghanistan’s most isolated, underdeveloped and poverty-stricken provinces, has a rugged terrain that impedes movement in its sparsely populated districts.

There is no official data about the number of drug addicts in Badakhshan. However, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) says one million people have drug addiction problems in Afghanistan of which 45,000 are women.

Poor health service

According to Mohammad Alim Yaqoobi, head of the UNODC office in Badakhshan, the majority of people in Badakhshan lack access to health services and awareness about the harm of opium addiction.

“People tend to consume opium as a painkiller. It takes time until they actually realise that opium itself is a disease and that they are addicted to it,” added Yaqoobi.

Locals in the district say if health services were provided they would not use opium as a substitute for medicine.

In Yamgan and many other districts of Badakshan, donkeys are the only means of transport for the locals. A resident of Jokhan village in Yamgan District needs two days, either on foot or by donkey, to reach the nearest medical facility. Opium is thus considered a readily available option.

UNODC has been working in Badakhshan to enlighten locals about the risks associated with opium addiction.

However, given the high rate of illiteracy in the estimated 900,000 population of Badakhshan, it is very difficult to maintain a robust public information campaign. Some 3,730 opium-addicted individuals who had received treatment in Badakhshan resumed opium consumption shortly after the rehabilitation, according to UNODC.

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May 30, 2007 at 4:38 am

Posted in Drugs

Between a rock and a hard place

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Royal Society of Chemistry

24 May 2007

Armed with a few rudimentary fume cupboards, a small spectrophotometer and a handful of simple chemicals, scientists from the British Geological Survey have started the long process of rebuilding the analytical geochemistry capability of a country that for decades has been riven by war.

For most of us Afghanistan is a distant, rugged country defined by a turbulent and often violent recent history. But despite its past and current difficulties, Afghanistan is gradually being rebuilt. An important part of this reconstruction is to enable the Afghan population to make the most of the country’s mineral wealth.

Afghanistan’s natural resources include significant deposits of metals such as gold, silver, copper and zinc; precious and semi-precious stones including lapis, emerald and azure; and coal, natural gas and oil.

Accurate geological surveys of the country’s mineral resources are key to locating deposits and advising potential investors, and for this reason the Afghanistan Geological Survey (AGS) is being revitalised after decades of decay and neglect. Geological surveys from the UK, US, Japan and the Czech Republic are helping to rebuild the AGS. The UK’s contribution is a three-year project, which finishes this September, funded by the Department for International Development, for the British Geological Survey (BGS) to provide training and equipment to get the AGS back on its feet.

The challenge has been significant. The AGS headquarters in Kabul, for example, has had to be reconstructed almost from scratch, as Jack Medlin of the US Geological Survey explains: ‘The AGS building is very large, but when we arrived in 2004 it was essentially a shell. There were no windows, no doors, no furniture, no wiring, no plumbing and the building had been bombed and looted of everything.’ It took six million dollars and two years work to make the building habitable.

Michael Watts, an analytical chemist with the BGS, is deputy leader of the BGS project whose aim is to get the AGS laboratories up and running. Five laboratories have so far been established: a sample preparation lab which is largely devoted to crushing and grinding rock material; an industrial mineral lab for testing the physical properties of minerals; a thin-section lab for producing samples for examination under the microscope; a petrographic lab for classifying and characterising rock samples; and a gem analysis lab. The chemistry lab will be shipped out this summer.

This laboratory will be, at least initially, rudimentary. ‘We have to take a very pragmatic, low-tech approach,’ Watts says. ‘We are establishing a very basic infrastructure with a water and power supply, some simple fume cupboards and we will set up some simple assays to assess the staff’s practical skills and chemical knowledge to recommend future training programmes.’

The main piece of equipment for the laboratory will be a portable Palintest spectrophotometer. Watts explains, ‘The idea is initially to teach the staff how to use the equipment to test water for the presence of zinc, nickel and copper. A water sample is filtered and placed in the machine, which reads the absorbance wavelength and subsequent concentration of the particular metal. This information can provide an indication of the presence of minerals upstream from where the sample was collected, for example. We’ve also developed a way of analysing soils and rock materials for copper, where hydrochloric acid is added to the sample, it is heated, and a buffer and organic complexing agent is added. This can also be measured in the photometer.’

Around 85 people work in the AGS laboratories, with 10 or 15 in the chemical analysis lab. Levels of expertise among the staff are highly variable. ‘Some of the personnel have graduated from universities in the old Soviet Union, others from the university in Kabul and the range of education varies a lot,’ Watts says. ‘Some of the younger graduates from Kabul do not have a high basic level of knowledge, although they are very keen. We were expecting a higher level of knowledge across the board, but we found we are having to go right back to basics, particularly with fundamental IT and language skills.’

If the AGS can start to function efficiently once again, the future is potentially bright. Significant donors such as the World Bank are waiting in the wings with substantial investment. ‘It is important that we do not try to do too much too quickly,’ Watts points out. ‘There would be little point in kitting out the laboratory with, say, atomic absorption spectrometry, as in the current climate such a machine would be difficult to run and maintain. Companies that supply equipment will not go out to Afghanistan to repair or maintain instruments. In the future the AGS will need to develop contacts with neighbouring countries such as India and Pakistan to obtain support and to get access to chemicals as these are difficult to ship from Europe. We can’t be too ambitious at this stage – it would not be fair on the Afghan staff.’

Simon Hadlington

This article is a preview from Chemistry World’s June 2007 edition

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May 30, 2007 at 4:37 am

Posted in Aid, Development

AFGHANISTAN: UN to track civilian casualties more closely

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KABUL, 29 May 2007 (IRIN) – The increasing number of civilian causalities in the armed conflict in Afghanistan has prompted the UN to set up a database of information on non-combatants affected by the insurgency.

“The database will be similar to the one already used by the UN in Iraq,” Javier Leon Diaz, a UN human rights expert in Afghanistan, told IRIN on Monday.

In the first four months of 2007 alone, up to 380 civilians were killed in military operations by all sides in Afghanistan, the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.

Monitoring the situation of non-combatants in volatile parts of Afghanistan is a very difficult and complex exercise, according to UN officials.

“Although we have seen more military operations this year yet our efforts to count and verify figures have been restricted by a complex environment and we have found it very difficult to be accurate,” conceded Richard Bennett, UNAMA head of the human rights division.

The UN’s belated civilian casualty database will be developed by the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, but will be regularly updated by UNAMA in Kabul.

“It is still unclear whether the database will be available for public use, but it will help the UN to verify the very confusing pieces of information about the situation of Afghan civilians in the current conflict,” Diaz said.

Who is to blame?

The UN has blamed Taliban insurgents for violating international humanitarian law (IHL) in their fight against Afghan and international forces and says it is concerned about the growing number of civilians affected in the ongoing armed conflict.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has, meanwhile, accused US Special Forces of breaching IHL in one incident on 4 March, in which more than 12 civilians were shot dead in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

US forces publicly conceded the use of indiscriminate force in the Nangarhar incident and apologised for the harm inflicted on Afghan civilians.

However, US officials have blamed the Taliban for civilian causalities in Afghanistan. They say the Taliban use non-combatants as shields in their attacks on Afghan and international forces and choose to fight from civilian locations.

IRIN asked Diaz whether such a justification was acceptable: “Unfortunately, civilian casualties are unavoidable in conflicts,” said Diaz.

Diaz told IRIN that civilian causalities would be justifiable if soldiers opened fire in self-defence and/or if the force used was proportionate to the military objective.

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May 30, 2007 at 4:37 am

Posted in Security

Afghan insecurity disrupts vital aid: U.N.

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By Sayed Salahuddin

May 26, 2007

KABUL (Reuters) – Rising insecurity in Afghanistan has disrupted the delivery of vital aid to about one million people, the U.N. World Food Program said on Saturday.

Violence has surged in Afghanistan in recent months following a traditional winter lull. Last year was the bloodiest since U.S.-led coalition forces overthrew the Taliban’s government in 2001.

The WFP said attacks by armed groups and looting of WFP trucks had increased sharply since last month, mostly in southern and eastern areas, where Taliban insurgents are most active.

Drivers had been shot and wounded trying to resist looters, it said.

In the latest incident, 52 tonnes of food was looted on Thursday, said Ebadullah Ebadi, a WFP press officer in Kabul.

“The poorest of the poor people are hurt by this,” he said.

The government has said it will provide security for convoys, he said.

The WFP is helping to supply nearly two million impoverished Afghans with food.

“Those carrying out the attacks should be held accountable, if not by law, then at least by those communities for whom they are depriving food,” Rick Corsino, the WFP’s representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“Whatever their motives, they are contributing to the already considerable hardship of the poorest Afghans who need assistance more than ever,” he said.

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May 27, 2007 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Aid, Development, Security

Afghanistan’s other casualties

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An unusual young Scot is involved in a heroic effort to preserve the heritage of battered historic Kabul

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

May 26, 2007

As with any disaster, natural or manmade, there are two kinds of destruction going on in Afghanistan: that caused by the war and the wrecking by city planners of what remains. The looming urban disaster that concerns me is likely not on the radar screens of Prime Minister Stephen Harper or the good Canadian troops stationed in the south of Afghanistan. But it should be. What’s at risk is the survival of historic Kabul, a neighbourhood of elaborately decorated mud buildings – tea houses, historic mosques, public baths – that city planners would like to eliminate so as to allow a six-lane highway to run through it.

It’s only fitting that the crusade to save old Kabul is being led by Rory Stewart, the iconoclastic Scottish adventurer and author of The Places in Between. He was asked to become involved by Prince Charles, whose friendship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai led to the Prince setting up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, aimed at both historical restoration and teaching youth traditional skills. Now, the organization is countering the city’s threats to pull down the historic neighbourhood of Murad Khane with an initiative to restore the adobe structures in a tight warren of streets north of the Kabul River.

More than 100 people from the neighbourhood, including some women and orphans, are being employed by the foundation to restore 200-year old buildings. More than restoration, though, we’re talking about the protection of collective memory and the rising up of civic pride. Houses are being rebuilt, mud walls are being reinforced and piles of garbage, sometimes several metres high, are being cleared for the first time from the streets. In a district where 615 residents function without toilets or sewage provisions, running water is finally being supplied to the area.

Stewart walked across Afghanistan in the winter of 2002, just weeks after the Taliban had been driven out by coalition forces. His critically acclaimed book The Places in Between is a stunning account of his harrowing journey. He writes of once-refined cities stripped down to shantytowns, Hazara villages burned to become emaciated versions of their original selves and people’s circumstances terribly reduced first by the Russians, then the Taliban and bloody skirmishes between neighbours sometimes living only a few kilometres apart.

Stewart’s is a life well-lived. In the early 1990s, he was an Eton-educated summer tutor of Prince William and Prince Harry, a job that led to the friendship and respect of the Prince of Wales. Just into his 30s, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2004 for a decade of foreign service that included, during the previous year, serving as deputy governor of two southern provinces in Iraq.

When he walked across Afghanistan, he was called a “nutter” by some fellow Brits stationed in a remote outpost, a bit of homespun humour that cheered Stewart to continue to trudge through a winter blizzard that day. He walked an average of 40 kilometres a day.

Sufficiently intrigued, I decided to call Kabul during the holiday weekend from my cedar cottage in Ontario. It was early in the morning, the fire wasn’t throwing much heat and my hands were freezing. When Stewart picked up, I was looking through the green veil of Jack pines to the lake and the four islands you want to swim to when the water is warmer.

Stewart’s neck, on the other hand, was being burned by the hot Afghanistan sun. Indeed, we were worlds apart. “I’m standing in the middle of a 19th-century fort,” says Stewart, who sounds more like an art historian turned urban designer than the British foreign officer he once was. “It’s made up of mud walls with bleached cedar windows carved with Buddhist motifs, Islamic geometric designs, art deco.”

Is Old Kabul coming down? “It’s difficult to judge,” says Stewart. “The master plan of the old city is being written and rewritten continually,” but “because of the work we’ve done in the last 14 months, I think we’ve made a lot of progress.” In this case, progress depends on the pressure exerted by Stewart, his foundation and the rest of the international community. The idea, simply put, is to make it impossible for the city planners to tear something that has started to sparkle again.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is named for the 12th-century capital of the Silk Road empire, a place marked only by a towering minaret, which Stewart happened upon during his journey. Tragically, given lack of leadership by the international community, the site has been looted and pillaged by the locals keen to sell their findings for a pittance. “The Turquoise Mountain was only the most dramatic and most recent victim of a general destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage,” wrote Stewart in his book. “A month after I left the village, items from [the valley of] Jam [site of the Turquoise Mountain] – described as Seljuk or Persian to conceal their Afghan origin – were being offered on the London art market.”

In Kabul, the gorgeous, idiosyncratic detailing of the abode structures, the result of layering of culture and religion, is increasingly under threat. For one thing, the nation’s capital has exploded from a population of one million in 2001 to 4.5 million today – the result of floods of Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran. Besides, distinctive architecture mattered not at all to the Soviet and East German planners who dictated in a 1978 plan the future of Kabul in which anonymous concrete and brick block towers would replace the fine vernacular stock of buildings.

The civil war of 1989-1992 interrupted their short-sighted plans – neglect is often the saving of historic neighbourhoods around the world – but since a relative peace has descended on Kabul, the planners have dusted off the brutish Soviet-style plan.

However, “To some extent, they’re coming around,” says Stewart, on the phone from Kabul. “If we’d started with a lot of bureaucratic talk and documents, we might have been met with utter skepticism. But we’ve set up a school, cleaned the garbage. The real thing I want to get is a full legal guarantee for the preservation of the entire area.”

Initially, Prince Charles imagined the establishment of a centre in which locals could be taught traditional crafts, such as metalworking or woodcarving. Many of the local artisans had fled the area or, indeed, the country.

During his six-week journey across the country, Stewart had observed the slipping away of culture in Afghanistan, how, as he wrote in his book, “religion, language, and social practices were becoming homogenized, and how little interest people took in ancient history.” He wanted to participate in the Prince’s plan, but insisted that the newly trained artists be part of an urgent cause: revitalizing and potentially saving the historic neighbourhood of Murad Khane.

Murad Khane is a place of crowded marketplaces, with some 300 handcarts selling everything from Chinese alarm clocks to sandals made from rubber tires. Stewart walks the streets to meet daily with the street bosses, collecting petitions supporting the foundation’s work, marked by the illiterate with thumbprints. Drainage ditches are being dug and solar panels installed on some of the roofs. “What we’re looking at here is a robust, functioning neighbourhood. We’re not interested in a Disneyfied place that is frozen in time.”

Since the Turquoise Mountain Foundation was established last year, it has attracted some impressive recruits, including Jemima Montagu, a former curator at the Tate Modern who now serves as its director of culture and education. Rebecca Tunstall, a lecturer in housing at the London School of Economics, has consulted with the team on urban regeneration and development, and there have been architects and building conservationists pitching in from Zurich and London. The small team lives together in a ramshackle mud building and shares dinner in the evening.

The Prince of Wales and the Prince’s Trust have provided key financial support for the foundation, and important backing has come from the Aga Khan Development Network. But money is tight. Stewart spends much of his time fundraising in the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf states. More money is urgently needed, he says, as the foundation only has about six months of operational funds in the bank.

Afghanistan is a country that has known a continuity of violence and destruction, but also healing. When Stewart walked across Afghanistan, he effectively retraced the footsteps of Babur, the first emperor of Mughal India, who wrote in his journals of the desperation and beauty of his journey.

After reaching the western edge of Kabul, Babur noted that there were 33 different sorts of tulips growing with wild abandon in the mountains, some with the perfume of roses. In 1519, Babur planted two plane trees on a hill on what would become the site of the emperor’s tomb and a lush garden in Kabul.

Stewart has since identified the stumps of what were once glorious trees, the result of another vicious act by the Taliban. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been working over the last few years to revitalize the historic Bagh-e-Babur garden as a major public open space.

Human beings can be cruel and illogical, but they are also capable of believing in something better for the future. Old Kabul should be allowed to stand. The plane trees will surely be replanted. And cut down, no doubt, during another sorry time.

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May 27, 2007 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

French NGO confirms three Afghan hostages freed

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Sun May 27, 6:26 AM ET

PARIS (AFP) – French aid organisation Terre d’Enfance (A World For Our Children) confirmed Sunday the freeing of three Afghan hostages who were abducted along with two French colleagues in Afghanistan.

“Fifty-two days after their kidnapping, Rasul, Hashim and Azrat have today been freed. They arrived this morning in Zaranj (in Nimroz province, southwest Afghansitan) where they have rejoined their families,” Antoine Vuillaume, the president of the organisation, told AFP.

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May 27, 2007 at 9:14 pm

Posted in Security

Dreaming big, more Afghan women studying in U.S

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By David Ortiz
Wed May 24, 8:09 AM ET

BRISTOL, Rhode Island (Reuters) – After fleeing the violence of Afghanistan a decade ago, Nadima Sahar now dreams of becoming the country’s first woman president.

“Sure, why not?” she said.

Sahar and two other Afghan women received degrees from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island this month, among the first graduates of a program created in 2002 to give Afghan women a free U.S. college education.

“Seven or eight years ago people would have thought I was crazy. But now the situation has changed so much,” she told Reuters before receiving a political science degree at ceremony on Saturday presided over by U.S. first lady Laura Bush.

Sahar, 20, remembers when the hardline Taliban seized power in 1996. Women were forced to wear all-enveloping burqas, confined to their homes and beaten if discovered outside without a male relative. Sahar and her family fled.

Arezo Kohistani, another graduate and former Afghan refugee who calls herself a “child of war,” wants to become an Afghan ambassador. Mahbooba Babrakzai, who earned a bachelors degree in financial services, hopes to be finance minister.

Back home in deeply conservative Muslim Afghanistan, women’s rights remain in their infancy even after the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Education experts estimate the female illiteracy rate at 80 percent or higher.

“This is like a new world open to me,” Babrakzai said.

Paula Nirschel, the wife of Roger Williams University President Roy Nirschel, founded the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women after watching television images of women covered by burqas and learning of their history of oppression.

Thirty-two Afghan women will join the program this year at 16 universities and colleges across the United States. Non-governmental groups have publicized the program in Afghanistan, where the three women who received degrees in Rhode Island heard about it, and details appear on Afghan Web sites.

Nirschel said many women selected for the program risked their lives by carrying textbooks underneath their burqas to study at secret basement schools during Taliban rule.

Kohistani, 24, fled with her family to Pakistan in 1993 when a rocket nearly hit their home during fighting by factions of Afghan warlords.

While living in Islamabad she secretly taught English and math to other Afghan refugees. Her father, who once worked for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Planning, stayed behind in Afghanistan to financially support the family.

The White House has touted the initiative, which receives no government funding, as an example of the U.S. civilian effort to support democracy in Afghanistan since the ouster of the regime that harbored Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks.


Women have held several prominent positions in Afghanistan’s government, including Masooda Jalal, who ran against President Hamid Karzai in the 2005 presidential race, before being chosen by him as minister for women’s affairs.

In Rhode Island, the three women said living and studying in the United States was difficult at first.

They all spent their first year in the classroom with an English dictionary close by, and looked forward to weekly visits from a Muslim cleric — a former New York City policeman — who advised them in matters such as which food they could eat in the university cafeteria.

Each prayed five times a day and visited mosques in nearby Rhode Island cities and during trips to New York City, Boston and Washington.

They wore blue jeans and long-sleeve T-shirts or other Western clothing that covered their arms and legs. They chose not to wear a headscarf in the United States, which they said would have drawn unwanted attention to themselves

All three excelled academically, and the program paid all their living and education expenses.

Kohistani graduated in three years with high honors with a bachelor’s degree in business management.

Babrakzai launched a Muslim student association and was part of a team of student investors who achieved a higher return than the Standard & Poor’s index while managing a $100,000 portfolio created from the university’s endowment, according to the university.

Sahar, who was 16 when she matriculated at Roger Williams University, became vice president of the university’s mock trial team and tutored inner-city children in her spare time.

All three will attend a two-year graduate program in public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, under an extension of the initiative scholarship for the highest-achieving undergraduate students in the program.

They said they would return to Afghanistan after their graduate degrees to join government.

“Afghanistan has been through a lot of struggles. Twenty-five years of war destroyed everything — our families, our lives,” Babrakzai said. “I don’t want my kids and the future generation of my country to be suffering like I did.”

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May 24, 2007 at 9:23 pm