Archive for March 2008
Rome, 19 March(AKI) – A top US official fighting for drug crop eradication in Afghanistan claims that most of the country is on its way to being opium free.
“The good news is that geographically, most of Afghanistan is now going poppy free,” said Tom Schweich, coordinator of counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI).
“We estimate that by the end of this growing season (May and June), 26 out of 34 Afghan provinces will either have no poppy or very low poppy,” said Schweich.
However, Schweich (photo) says that “in five or so southern provinces where there is a lot of Taliban activity there seems to be a very serious poppy growing problem.”
While visiting Rome, Schweich met with Italian law enforcement authorities to discuss the issue of justice reform in Afghanistan as well as the problem of heroin and cocaine in the country.
Schweich told AKI that he met with Italian prosecutor Piero Grasso and discussed cooperation schemes to disrupt international organised crime
According to Schweich, half of all illegal opium ends up in Iran, while the rest is equally divided between bordering countries.
Schweich also talks about the level of coordination with Afghanistan’s neighbours to eradicate the trafficking and crop cultivation and mentions having a “close collaborative relationship” with Pakistan.
In regards to Iran, Schweich had some harsher words:
“The United States does not have [diplomatic] relations with Iran, so we do not coordinate with them.”
“We have serious problems with the Iranians,” he said to AKI.
On a possible links between poppy growing and the insurgency, Schweich says that indeed “there is a close link and is becoming closer”, as well as the fact that profits from the poppy crop “are funding the insurgency.”
Moreover, Schweich no longer sees poppy cultivation associated with poverty like it was a few years ago.
When asked about the strategy used in Afghanistan to rid the country of poppy growing, Schweich said: “We want to make sure the population sees specific development assistance rewards for having done so.”
“I think we need a tough programme of taking out high value targets and eradicating the fields of those farmers who are wealthy and well connected to show them there are law enforcement capabilities in those areas,” said Schweich.
Schweich also said that for 2008, he does not expect an increase in poppy production, “but I suspect it will be the same or maybe lower than last year.”
Schweich also commented on an Italian proposal to use poppy cultivation for legal uses and why the proposal did not work.
“We analysed that proposal very carefully,” he told AKI.
“We found that the price of legal opium is way below the price of illegal opium,”
As a result, any buyout scheme would have to be heavily subsidised.
“So there is no incentive to switch to a legal opium scheme when the price is so low for legal opium.”
A buyout would then cost billions of dollars per year as more farmers began growing.
Despite the difficulties encountered, Schweich remains hopeful and calls on the international community to remain united.
“We are cautiously optimistic. The signs in the north and east [of Afghanistan] are good and is important that the international community remain unified on the need to have a balance of ‘carrots and sticks’ and get rid of it [opium cultivations].”
PESHAWAR, 20 March 2008 (IRIN) – Afghans in Jalozai refugee camp, Pakistan’s largest refugee camp, are reluctant to leave, despite a deadline to vacate coming up in less than a month.
“I don’t want to go to Afghanistan. There is nothing for me there. There are no jobs and it’s not safe,” 24-year-old Aman, who has lived his entire life in the sprawling community of mud-brick homes, 35km southwest of Peshawar, said.
“How could we possibly return?” Fatema Bibi, a 35-year-old mother-of-four asked. “Once we get there, how are we to live?”
Long slated for closure by the government, Jalozai, one of the oldest refugee camps in the country, is home to 80,000, many of whom have lived in the camp for decades.
Re-scheduled to close at the end of 2007, that deadline was later extended to 15 April 2008 due to the impending winter.
Under the terms of an agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), two other camps – Girdi Jungle and Jungle Piralizai in Balochistan Province – are also slated for closure in 2008.
As part of the government’s plan, camp residents have the option of either repatriating to their homeland, taking advantage of UNHCR assistance, or relocating to other camps in the Punjab or North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
“UNHCR and the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees has facilitated a ‘go and see’ visit for refugees in the camps if they want to take the relocation option,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told IRIN in Islamabad. The UNHCR has established an information and counselling centre in Jalozai to help Afghans make an informed decision, he said.
But progress on vacating the camp has proven slow, a fact acknowledged by the government. Imran Zeb, the government commissioner for Afghan refugees, says the process will be completed by mid April, but that is not likely to be the final closure date; he cited the voluntary nature of the return process.
There are over 80 Afghan refugee camps in the country, including 71 in NWFP, 12 in Balochistan Province and one in Punjab Province.
According to UNHCR, over three million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Pakistan since the launch of the voluntary repatriation programme in March 2002, most – 1.5 million – in the first year of the programme.
Nearly two million Afghans remain in the country – one million of whom live in camps – more than seven years after the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001.
Since the resumption of UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation programme at the beginning of March 2008, over 4,500 Afghans have returned home, 352 from Jalozai.
The Arizona Republic (USA)
March 20, 2008
Taxi to the Dark Side is a stunning indictment of torture as policy, a brilliant documentary whose arguments are so well-supported and reasonably made that you can’t ignore them.
You don’t have to agree with them – many people won’t – but you will not be able to simply set them aside as part of the cost of war. If the purpose of a documentary is to make you think, and it is, then this film succeeds magnificently.
That isn’t to say that Alex Gibney’s film, which won the Oscar for best documentary, is easily watched or enjoyed; pictures and film clips of torture are stomach-turning. Many of them the uncensored versions of images we’ve seen before. Also, it’s difficult to listen to soldiers speak in calm, measured terms about how they became almost animalistic in their pursuit of information from prisoners.
But it’s fascinating, not just as a study of war and its practices but of human nature, as well.
Gibney tells the story of Dilawar, a 22-year-old cab driver in Afghanistan who was arrested in December 2002 on suspicion of transporting terrorists. He was imprisoned at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Five days later, Dilawar was dead, after having been deprived of sleep, suspended by handcuffs from the ceiling and beaten severely. His death was ruled a homicide by the coroner. The photos we see of his body make that no surprise.
Gibney visits Dilawar’s village, talks to his family, investigates his case thoroughly through interviews, documents and more.
Yet he also uses Dilawar’s death as the entry point for talking about what constitutes torture (it’s not as easily defined as you’d think; witness the Bush administration’s hedging on waterboarding), what its merits are (and aren’t) and whether there is ever a reason to use torture.
Interviews with some of the men accused (some convicted) of torturing prisoners are amazing – amazing not just for what they were charged with doing but also that they’re so open in discussing it.
Are they to blame? Are they examples of the “bad apples” we have heard so much about at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? They seem so measured, so collected when talking about their confusion and lack of direction from above.
And yet one of their lawyers discusses just that – how his client seems like such a nice young soldier but talked about kicking a prisoner so many times that his knee got sore and he had to switch legs.
The blame is placed mostly on official direction, or lack thereof, when it comes to interrogating prisoners. John Woo, a former Justice Department official, weighs in. So, too, do former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, especially, Vice President Dick Cheney, by way of clips. Cheney is shown telling Tim Russert that, after 9/11, we must begin fighting terrorists on their own terms.
It’s not as if Meet the Press is a cable-access show. Some of what we see here we’ve seen before. But placed in this context, the words embody a terrifying reality.
There’s never any suggestion that terrorists aren’t bad people who deserve punishment. But there is plenty of debate as to how many of the people arrested are terrorists, and what we hope to gain by detaining them. And is torture even a reliable method, anyway?
A former FBI interrogator makes the case that it isn’t. In the course of about 45 seconds, he offers an example of how offering a prisoner deals – education for his children, for example – can be more effective. He’s so good at it, you believe him.
Sen. John McCain shows up somewhat frequently and is illustrative of the fluid nature of the debate. When first we see him, he’s all fire-and-brimstone, going after military officers at a hearing, making the case against torture. As a former prisoner of war (we’re shown footage of him held captive in North Vietnam), it seems a sensible position.
Yet more recently McCain voted against overriding President Bush’s veto of legislation that would have limited the CIA to the same interrogation techniques used by the Army (and banned some specific types of torture, including waterboarding).
There are no easy answers here, and the film does not purport to offer any. It’s not a Michael Moore screed. While his films can be hugely entertaining, Moore never lets you forget that it’s Moore doing the talking, the thinking, the arguing.
In Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney lets the story, brutal though it is, speak for itself. And it does so, emphatically.
By Rabia Ali in Kheshki refugee village, Pakistan
Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, March 20 (UNHCR) – The students at the Islamabad International School have no problem imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes. In fact, they are so good at it, they’ve put other people in their shoes.
Inspired by a book about the plight of Afghan refugee children, these students have donated shoes and socks to hundreds of needy Afghans in north-western Pakistan.
“It all started when Khadra Mohammed, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Centre in the United States, came to the school last year to do a reading of her book, ‘Four Feet, Two Sandals’,” said Connie Turner, the elementary school principal at the Islamabad International School in the Pakistani capital.
“The story about friendship and sacrifice between two Afghan girls really touched the kids. They couldn’t bear the idea of refugee kids going through winter in their bare feet,” she added. As a result, the students started a shoe drive and collected hundreds of pairs of shoes and socks. Their parents pitched in by sorting the shoes into different sizes.
The 320 pairs of shoes and sandals, together with 750 pairs of new socks, were recently distributed in Kheshki refugee village in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). With only 127 Afghan families and 678 individuals, Kheshki is among the smallest refugee settlements around, but its needs are great as the refugees have limited employment opportunities in the area.
“I am really thankful to those children who donated these shoes and socks,” said Salima, a widow and mother of four. “It gives me a good feeling that children who have not met us have thought about us and helped us through their donation.”
Families with six or fewer members were given one pair of socks per family member, one pair of shoes per family and one pack of high protein biscuits donated by UNHCR. Female-headed families and those with more than six members were given an additional pair of shoes and a pack of biscuits. An additional 36 pairs of shoes and 48 packs of biscuits were given to children below five years of age who were present at the distribution site.
Raiza Gul, a four-year-old with a bright smile on her face, was very happy to get a sandal of her choice. “I know it is big and does not fit me now, but I will wait for another year and will wear it on Eid,” she said, referring to the Muslim holy festival.
Seven-year-old Shafi Muhammad was equally excited to get a brand new pair of sports shoes: “I cannot wait to wear them and run. I would love to show them to my friends who will envy me.”
Kheshki refugee village was established in 1988. The majority of its residents are ethnic Pashtuns hailing from Kunar, Logar and Kunduz provinces of Afghanistan. There are more than 2 million registered Afghans in Pakistan today, less than half of them living in 85 refugee villages – mostly in NWFP and Balochistan.
By Roshan Khadivi
Source: United Nations Children’s Fund
On World Water Day, 20 March 2008, UNICEF is focusing on the importance of sanitation and hygiene in reaching global goals for safe water. Here is one in a series of related reports.
KABUL, Afghanistan, 20 March 2008 – Afghanistan has launched the International Year of Sanitation to advance cooperation among policymakers, humanitarian partners and communities on improving sanitation and increasing access to safe water around the country.
UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Catherine Mbengue helped launch the campaign, focusing on the impact of sanitation on education.
‘We at UNICEF believe improvement in school water, sanitation and hygiene education not only promotes a healthy physical and learning environment,’ said Ms. Mbengue. ‘It also increases girls’ enrolment and creates links between schools and communities, resulting in support for children’s rights.’
Healthier schools and communities
Since 2004, the Healthy School Initiative (HIS), organized jointly by UN agencies and the Government of Afghanistan, has been implemented in 500 schools across 10 provinces.
The initiative, which is being expanded throughout the country, aims to provide children with quality education in a healthy environment – including access to safe water and separate latrines for girls and boys. HIS also conducts de-worming campaigns for schoolchildren and offers hygiene education for teachers and students.
Beyond school sanitation and hygiene, UNICEF and its partners in Afghanistan have constructed more than 11,000 wells and 59 pipe schemes for water networks, as well as building or rehabilitating over 1,700 reservoirs that serve a total of some 3.8 million people. And last year, UNICEF supported the construction of more than 23,000 latrines either in houses or in schools, benefiting 200,000 people – most of them children.
‘But still, with the current rate of progress, we will not reach our MDG (Millennium Development Goal) target on sanitation, and we need to do more to reach every community,’ said Ms. Mbengue.
Differing urban and rural needs
The target set forth by the Government of Afghanistan is to halve, by 2020, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
It is estimated that only 23 per cent of households in Afghanistan have access to safe water – with 43 per cent having access in urban centres and 18 per cent in rural areas.
Sanitation needs differ depending upon location. In rural areas, the focus is on hygiene education and improved latrines. In cities, there is more of a need for functioning sewage systems.
Key messages on hygiene
The rural water and sanitation programme of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, together with the country’s ongoing water-supply and sanitation projects, aim to achieve Afghanistan’s long-term goals.
‘We hope that the UN declaration of the year 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation will bring more collaboration between the UN agencies, Afghan institutions and NGOs, and mobilize resources to assist our compatriots in the development of rural areas and elimination of this problem,’ President Hamid Karzai said in a message he sent for last week’s launch event.
To celebrate World Water Day today, UNICEF is distributing an informational booklet that includes key messages on hygiene and sanitation in local languages throughout the country. Meanwhile, one village in each province has been selected to showcase how a community can participate in ensuring that all its families adopt key sanitation and hygiene practices.
KABUL, March 17 (Xinhua) — Under an agreement inked Monday in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, the government of Japan agreed to provide a fresh grant of 3 billion Japanese Yen (approximately 29 million U.S. dollars) to the war-torn nation.
Hideo Sato, the ambassador of Japan to Afghanistan, and Mohammad Kabir Farahi, the deputy to Afghan Foreign Ministry, signed the agreement on behalf of their respective governments.
The grant, according to a statement of Afghan Foreign Ministry,will be used in improving economic structure and poverty alleviation projects in the war-battered country.
Japan, with contributing more than 1 billion U.S. dollars in the reconstruction of the post-Taliban Afghanistan over the past six years, is the second largest contributor after the Untied States to the war-torn nation.
Chalk notations help roaming Unicef volunteers track efforts to immunize every child under 5 in Afghanistan
Globe and Mail (Canada)
March 17, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Like Egyptologists deciphering inscriptions inside a tomb, the men peered closely at markings covering the door and traded opinions in bursts of Pashto.
These were not scholars discussing hieroglyphics unearthed in a pyramid, but volunteer health workers in a residential area of downtown Kandahar.
Mud-brick walls loomed close on either side and a trickle of sludgy liquid ran along a trench down the centre of the alley. In front of the men, set into the featureless wall, was a firmly locked metal door covered with chalk notations. Similar markings can be found on doors across the south and each is a message to volunteers who fanned out this week on their latest blitz against polio.
Polio is a viral infectious disease that can lead to paralysis. It has been eradicated in much of the world; Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria are the only countries in which it is still considered endemic. In Afghanistan, in the rural areas especially, care for victims is rudimentary or non-existent.
But now, in spite of rising security concerns and the worrying early emergence of new cases this year, Unicef is well on the way to immunizing every Afghan child under the age of 5. It’s a mammoth task made possible, in part, by simple chalk notations that act as a sort of evolving medical chart for the roaming volunteers.
One glance at the door and the volunteers should be able to tell whether the house has been visited, how many children were there on the last visit and whether they were immunized. At least in theory. When the crew rapped on this particular door this week, they found children whose ink-marked forefinger and forehead indicated they’d already been immunized.
The family retreated into their home and the medical crew fell into discussion as they pondered the markings on the door. Eventually one used his chalk to add yet another notation. With a shrug, they walked on.
It’s an imperfect system, but it may be the only way to be reasonably confident of eventually reaching all Afghan children. There is no census from which to tick off names and the constant movement of people has been increased by security concerns.
“This is a very problematic region and the major problem is poor security,” said Dr. Shahwali Popal, who heads the immunization program for southern Afghanistan out of Kandahar’s Unicef office.
In the face of that, helped by a three-year commitment from CIDA for approximately $15-million, volunteers working have managed to immunize about one million young children in the past year, Dr. Popal said.
This week they made a three-day sweep known as an NID: national immunization days. It was their third one this year and will be followed later in the month by a “mopping up” operation. Volunteers fanned out and fixed operations were set up at medical facilities and border crossings.
Fourteen-year-old student volunteers named Nasibulla and Atiqulla were manning a table at the gate to Mirwais Hospital in downtown Kandahar. They sprang into action at the sight of any small child, rushing to flag down entering vehicles. For the most part, parents were easily persuaded and the volunteers administered drops of vaccine into the mouths of children who seemed both curious and nervous.
Over the past year, efforts such as these have allowed volunteers to immunize about 90 per cent of children under five, Dr. Popal said, and they are now keen to cut the remaining number in half.
But although the volunteers have officially been given safe passage by the Taliban, the insurgency is not a cohesive hierarchy and this agreement is not necessarily followed by all fighters. As well, smugglers, bandits and other armed men pose a constant risk in southern Afghanistan.
There have also been occasional problems in the conservative areas with religious leaders counselling against the immunization. But the real concern is the security situation, which can change in an instant.
“In the morning you can go in [to a village] but in the afternoon you can’t,” explained Dr. Rahmatullah Kamwak, who heads up local World Health Organization efforts.
Another concern this year is the earlier and more rapid emergence of polio cases. In 2007 there were 15 cases, but this year there has been three cases already, two in Helmand and one in Kandahar province. That rate could indicate an overall increase and, more worryingly, the first appeared in January, three months before the first case last year.
Health officials are putting an optimistic face on the result, saying that the earlier cases may be the result of more rigorous testing. They also note that the case in Kandahar was in a part of the province that could not before be reached but has since been visited by immunization teams.