Archive for April 2008
By Dawood Azami
One Planet, BBC World Service
Wednesday, 30 April 2008
Doctors in Afghanistan say rates of some health problems affecting children have doubled in the last two years.
Some scientists say the rise is linked to use of weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) by the US-led coalition that invaded the country in 2001.
A Canadian research group found very high levels of uranium in Afghans during tests just after the invasion.
A US forces spokesman denied its weapons were affecting the health of Afghans or the country’s environment.
But claims made in the BBC World Service One Planet programme suggest the invasion may have left an unwelcome legacy for the country’s environment and the health of its people.
Doctors in Kabul and Kandahar showed data indicating that the incidence of a number of health conditions, including birth defects, has doubled in under two years.
“We have premature births and malformations,” said one doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, in one of the main maternity and neo-natal hospitals in the country.
“Malformations include neural tube defects and malformation of limbs; for example, the head is smaller than normal, or the head is larger than normal, or there is a big mass on the back of the baby.
“We don’t know what is the cause of these malformations.”
The Canada-based Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC) believes the cause might be depleted uranium.
In 2002 and 2003 the group ran programmes analysing urine from Afghans.
In some, it found levels of uranium hundreds of times greater than in Gulf War veterans.
Asaf Durakovic, URMC’s president and a former US army adviser, believes that exposure to DU weapons may have brought a rise in birth defects as well as “symptoms of muscular-skeletal pains, immune system disorders, lung disease, and eventually cancer”.
Depleted uranium and natural uranium contain different ratios of two isotopes of the metal.
So scientists can tell whether a person has been exposed to the natural form, or to DU.
DU is used in armour-piercing shells because its density means it can penetrate further than other metals.
Dr Durakovic said his research showed that in Afghanistan, coalition forces had also used DU in “bunker buster” bombs, which can penetrate tens of metres into the soil.
“In Afghanistan it has to be… a weapon that destroys not only bunkers or caves, but also penetrates through the soil and through the fragile environment of the mountains.”
Villagers near the Tora Bora mountains, scene of a massive coalition attack in 2001 aimed at forcing Osama bin Laden out of a cave complex where he was believed to be hiding, suspect the bombs brought an increase in diseases and other problems.
“There was a strange smell, and most of the trees here did not yield fruit,” recounted Yusuf Khan.
Another villager, Bakhtawar, said: “There were three or four babies born in our area whose arms and legs and faces were not normal; they were malformed.”
But Faizullah Kakar, Afghanistan’s deputy health minister, countered: “Health defects are common in Afghanistan.
“We want to find out if it is nutritional deficiency or environmental contamination with certain radiation that is doing it.”
The US military rejects claims that it used DU-containing bunker busters in Afghanistan.
It also denies allegations that the weapons it used in Afghanistan are affecting health and the environment.
“We don’t use depleted uranium in Afghanistan; we don’t have a requirement to use that,” said Major Chris Belcher, spokesman for the coalition forces.
But he said such weapons might have been used in the past.
“I don’t have any knowledge of what might have been used in 2001 and 2002. If there was an armour threat, the DU rounds would have been used to counter that threat.”
Dr C Ross Anthony from the Rand Corporation, the US think-tank, suggested use of DU ordnance would have been light in Afghanistan.
“With very few of them (DU weapons) being used, it is hard for me to imagine that much of a real environmental problem exists,” he said.
Some scientific experts suggested performing further research into the alleged damage caused by weapons used in the country.
But officials in Afghanistan’s newly established National Environmental Protection Agency said they did not have the necessary equipment or expertise to investigate properly.
And Chris Alexander from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) acknowledged it was a concern, but said: “We have no idea what the scale is, nor do we have special knowledge about environmental implications.”
Asaf Durakovic would prefer that concrete measures be taken now.
“The best thing is to relocate the population; people have to be moved from the areas that have been highly contaminated to safe areas to provide medical testing and medical care.”
Following the use of DU weapons in Iraq and the Balkans, the World Health Organization (WHO) researched the impact on health and the environment.
It concluded, as did a 2001 European Union enquiry into the Balkans conflict, that DU posed little threat.
A senior WHO official told One Planet it had not received any request from Afghan authorities to investigate the current situation.
* Has a reduced proportion of isotope Uranium-235
* Less radioactive than natural uranium and very dense
* Military uses include defensive armour plating, armour-penetrating ordnance
* Can be inhaled as dust or ingested in contaminated food and water near impact sites
A woman fleeing domestic violence or rape often ends up guilty
The Associated Press
April 30, 2008
JALALABAD, Afghanistan – Trafficked across the border from Pakistan with her 3-year-old son, Rukhma was handed to an Afghan who raped and abused her, then beat the toddler to death as she watched helplessly.
He was jailed for 20 years for murder, but Rukhma ended up in prison too.
Rukhma, who doesn’t know her age but looks younger than 20, had put up with her mistreatment for three months last summer before seeking protection and justice from authorities. Instead she was given a four-year sentence on Dec. 5 for adultery and “escaping her house” in Pakistan, even though she says she was kidnapped and raped.
The fall of the Taliban six years ago heralded new rights for Afghan women: to go to school or get a job, and be protected under the law. Women’s rights are now enshrined in the constitution.
Blaming the victim common
Yet except for a small urban elite, a woman fleeing domestic violence or accusing a man of rape herself often ends up the guilty party in the eyes of judges and prosecutors.
“Why am I here? I’m innocent,” Rukhma said, crying in a musty jail cell and cradling a baby daughter by her previous marriage whom she bore in prison. “It is cruel to have your son killed before your eyes and then to be imprisoned.”
In parts of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where stern social codes prevail, a woman who runs away from home is typically suspected of having taken a lover and can be prosecuted for adultery. Simply leaving her house without her family’s permission may be deemed an offense — as in Rukhma’s case — although it is not classified as such under Afghanistan’s penal code.
The chief prosecutor of eastern Nangarhar province who oversaw Rukhma’s case suggested she got off lightly.
“If my wife goes to the bazaar without my permission, I will kill her. This is our culture,” Abdul Qayum shouted scornfully during an interview in his office in the city of Jalalabad.
His colleagues laughed approvingly. “This is Afghanistan, not America,” Qayum said.
More women seeking help
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 2,374 cases of women complaining of violence in 2007, compared with 1,651 in 2006 — a sign that more are seeking help.
Family response units have been established in the police force, and there are tentative signs of sympathy in officialdom — at least in the relatively liberal capital, Kabul.
At a Kabul hospital, a 16-year-old girl who is too scared to give her name is recuperating from reconstructive surgery after her husband cut off her nose and ears, bashed out all but six of her teeth with a stone, and poured boiling water on her.
In-laws from southern Zabul province want to take the girl home, but the hospital director refuses to hand her over.
“This brother-in-law comes every day. He says, ‘Let me take her home. She’s OK now,'” Dr. Ghairat Mal said. “I don’t trust him. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs brought her to us, and I won’t let her go unless they take her.”
Kamala Janakiram, a U.N. human rights officer in eastern Afghanistan, said that in 70 to 80 percent of the cases she has seen, a woman complaining of domestic violence is charged as a criminal for running away from home.
Rape victims forced to marry attackers
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said many rape victims are forced to marry their attackers or are jailed for adultery because proving rape is virtually impossible.
Women can end up in prison simply on the basis of gossip, said Manizha Naderi, the director of Women for Afghan Women, an aid organization. “It’s a horrible, horrible practice.”
Fear of returning to a violent spouse drives some women to suicide.
Janakiram cited the case of a young village woman in Laghman province who was shot by her husband and left to die.
She survived, but the provincial judge refused to hear her plea for a divorce and insisted that local elders resolve the matter.
Janakiram said the woman was so scared of being forced to return to her abusive husband that on Jan. 30, she set herself ablaze in front of the Laghman court. She had burns on 98 percent of her body and died a week later.
Naderi told of a 16-year-old girl kidnapped from her engagement party by three men and raped, after which her fiance called off the engagement.
“The whole village blacklisted her and said, ‘It’s your fault. Why did you go with them?’ She was a lost soul because she was raped,” Naderi said.
Rather than approach police, some women seek a reconciliation through village elders or aid organizations.
Saving family honor
Orzala Ashraf, an Afghan women’s rights activist, said that usually gets the woman home but can leave her vulnerable to abuse or even death at the hands of male relatives bent on saving family honor.
“The woman will be more humiliated than before because she violated the family rules: You never discuss family problems outside the family circle,” Ashraf said.
Rukhma, who goes by only one name, is still hoping an appeals court will free her.
Sitting on the prison floor with a black scarf over her hair and shoulders, she described being married in Pakistan as a preteen to an abusive man, who fathered her son, Bilal.
She said she divorced him and married another Pakistani man by whom she became pregnant last year. Then, she says, a female neighbor kidnapped her and delivered to an Afghan man named Yarul who claimed her as his wife and raped her for three months.
One day she overheard Yarul finalizing a deal to sell her to another man, who wanted her but not her son.
Scared of losing Bilal, she ran away one day late last summer. When Yarul found her and took her home, he beat her and the toddler relentlessly.
She said the boy was placed under a blanket, barely conscious, blood dripping from his mouth.
“When I lifted the blanket, he looked up and saw his mother. I could see that those were going to be his last breaths, and then he died. That was the last time we looked each other in the eyes,” she said, her voice cracking, her face crumpled in grief. As she cried, so did the newborn daughter of her second marriage, lying in her lap.
When police came to arrest Yarul, they arrested her, too.
The prosecutor, Qayum, acknowledges that Rukhma was raped by Yarul but still maintains she shares the blame.
“She spent several nights with the man,” he said. “She committed adultery. It was rape, but the woman is also guilty.”
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
The Canadian Press / April 29, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The United Nations is warning that Afghanistan could face sustained high food prices over the next few months.
Tony Bambury, the World Food Program’s regional director for Asia, is meeting in Afghanistan with political leaders to assess the impact of the global food crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Soaring grain prices have started coming down, but Bambury says they are still high, leaving more Afghans than ever in need of help.
In January, the UN and the Afghan government launched an additional $77-million program to help those who suddenly find themselves unable to afford basic necessities.
Bambury says Canada, which provided the WFP with $25 million late last year, has donated $10 million more to the emergency appeal, making it one of the program’s largest donors.
Bambury says looming concern remains over what will happen when the program expires in June.
Books as building blocks in northern Afghanistan
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, April 29 (UNHCR) – As a law student, Abdol Hamid Ansari likes to play by the book – literally. The 25-year-old has started a library and mobile book fair in his northern Afghanistan hometown of Mazar-e-Sharif to stress the role of education in rebuilding his country.
“It’s been some years since the reconstruction process started in Afghanistan, but little has been done in some areas,” said the third-year law student at Ferdowsi University in Mashad, north-eastern Iran. “Afghanistan still faces many problems in education and there is an urgent need for educational resources in the country.”
Ansari started a library with 300 books in Mazar-e-Sharif last year, using his savings and with the support of volunteers, among them returnees from Iran. His father provided a venue for free and the library was endorsed by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture.
“I want to help my people and city to become more familiar with books and reading,” he said. However, he found that girls were not coming to the library because of family restrictions. He drafted an outreach plan and discussed it with UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller when she visited Mashad this February.
“I find it commendable that he has taken this initiative and that an Afghan refugee student is interested in contributing in this way to the rebuilding of his country,” said Feller.
The UN refugee agency is now funding Ansari’s plan to bring books to Afghan students through mobile book fairs. Some 900 Farsi-language (Persian) books have been bought in Iran and sent back to Mazar. The books are relevant to the Afghan school curriculum and are suitable for students who speak Dari, which is very similar to Farsi.
“I am delighted that we are going to make this happen and I’m heartened that close relations between UNHCR and the refugee community are enabling refugees to become a positive force for change and development in their own countries upon return,” said Feller.
Since late March, the books have toured eight schools for boys and girls in Mazar. Each book fair lasts several days and ends with a one-day seminar on the importance of reading, the benefits of library membership and the need to expand library services in Afghanistan.
Ansari has received requests for the books to travel to rural schools. Students have also asked for religious and literary books, as well as study materials for university entrance exams. In between tours, the books are stored at the library in Mazar, where Ansari is working to set up a governing body and to clarify regulations on access and usage.
“The project is simple and does not require much investment,” he said of the US$5,900 project. “If it’s successful, I want to expand it to other cities in northern Afghanistan.”
For now, he jumps between his studies in Mashad and the book project in Mazar. When he graduates in August next year, he plans to return home for good with his wife and two children to book his place in Afghanistan’s reconstruction effort.
Some 860,000 Afghans have returned home from Iran since 2002. There are more than 900,000 registered Afghans still living in Iran today.
KABUL, 29 April 2008 (IRIN) – Hundreds of people have abandoned their homes and moved to urban areas in different parts of Afghanistan, and some have reportedly migrated to neighbouring Pakistan, due to worsening food insecurity, largely resulting from soaring food prices and low cereal supplies, provincial officials said.
At least 1,000 food-insecure people have left their homes in several parts of the northeastern province of Badakhshan over the past month, Nasir Hemat, the provincial head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), told IRIN.
“People have moved to other provinces and some have gone to neighbouring countries,” said Hemat, adding that in various parts of the province some people were eating grass due to lack of food.
Hundreds of locals have also been displaced in Alburz and other districts in the northern province of Balkh, local Kabul-based media said, quoting several residents and one provincial official.
Food-insecurity-related displacements have also been reported in southern Kandahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces where a “spreading armed conflict” [http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=77668] has affected civilians and has impeded humanitarian and development access.
“We have received unverified reports that people have been displaced due to food-insecurity in Arghistan and Marof districts of Kandahar, and also in different parts of Helmand and Zabul provinces, and that some families have migrated to Quetta [in Pakistan],” Najibullah Barith, president of the ARCS in Kandahar Province, told IRIN from Kandahar.
Prices of food – critically wheat flour – have increased by over 100 percent in Afghanistan over the past year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.
While millions of vulnerable Afghans have already been exposed to “high risk” food-insecurity [http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=76400], there are mounting concerns that price hikes could be compounded by drought and low cereal production in 2008. All this will adversely affect vulnerable communities.
“Below-average levels of rain and snow during the 2007-08 wet season, high food prices, and low regional cereal supplies are likely to lead to increased levels of food insecurity for small-scale farmers, rain-fed agriculturalists, pastoralists and poor households in urban areas,” said a report by Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) [http://www.fews.net/docs/Publications/Afghanistan_alert_2008_04_24_final.pdf] of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) released on 24 April.
Aid agencies have warned that vulnerable Afghan households may not be able to cope with worsening food-insecurity, and “additional shocks” will probably lead to mass displacement and starvation.
In an effort to control soaring food prices and mitigate their impact on destitute Afghans the government has earmarked US$50 million to buy and import food items from regional markets, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said in Kabul on 22 April.
Afghan food markets are affected by a strict ban imposed by the Pakistani government on wheat flour exports. Pakistani officials say their country is also affected by increasing global food prices.
Given Afghanistan’s weak coping and response capacity, millions of its food-insecure and highly vulnerable citizens are increasingly becoming a heavy burden for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which already feeds over five million Afghans.
To alleviate the food-insecurity crisis aid agencies and the Afghan government should work on “well-targeted food assistance”, improve peoples’ purchasing power, exempt commercial food imports from tax, boost regional cooperation to mitigate the impact of high food prices, and tackle widespread food-insecurity, the authors of the FEWS report recommended.
By Tan Ee Lyn
Tue Apr 29, 10:08 PM ET
FAIZABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A woman hemorrhages to death as she lies screaming in agony in a Spartan hut in a remote region of Afghanistan. There is no doctor or midwife to help and the hospital is several days journey away.
Women die this way every day in Afghanistan, a country with one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates.
About 1,600 Afghan women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 live births. In some of the most remote areas, the death rate is as high as 6,500. In comparison, the average rate in developing countries is 450 and in developed countries it is 9.
Virtually everyone in Afghanistan can recount a story about a relative dying in childbirth, often from minor complications that can be easily treated with proper medical care.
Sharifa’s sister, a mother of six, bled to death after giving birth at home.
“There is no clinic, no cars, no proper roads. It is a remote village, we could not take her to hospital. She remained at home for one day and one night, then she died,” recalled Sharifa, who identified herself only by her first name.
Afghanistan’s government aims to reduce maternal mortality by 20 percent by 2020 but there are many obstacles to overcome such as a reluctance by women to be examined by male doctors and a lack of female doctors, nurses and midwives.
Then there are the vast distances in this war-torn country where hospitals are generally poorly equipped and medical help is inaccessible to those living in remote locations.
It is an age old practice for Afghan women in rural areas to deliver babies at home. Trained midwives are rarely in attendance. If there are complications, it might take hours, even days to reach the nearest clinic.
Even when women with labor complications get to hospital alive, there are often no doctors or medical equipment to perform caesarean sections and other life saving procedures.
“In some places, there aren’t even operating theatres and women just wait for their death,” said Rona Azamyan, who coordinates the Midwifery Education Programme in Faizabad.
Among the prime complications of childbirth in Afghanistan are bleeding, infection, hypertension and obstructed labour.
It is not uncommon for girls as young as 13 to marry in Afghanistan and there are often complications when they give birth.
“The mothers are very young, so their (pelvic) bone development is immature,” said Karima Mayar, a family planning team leader at the Ministry of Public Health.
Poor and malnourished, many pregnant women in Afghanistan are severely anemic.
“If they get post-partum hemorrhage, they will die 100 percent of the time,” said Mayar.
Women’s access to healthcare has generally been poor in deeply conservative Afghanistan.
Afghan men prefer their women to consult only women doctors, but that is easier said than done in a society where there are few female doctors and nurses and little emphasis is placed on educating girls.
The problem got worse during the Taliban regime, when girls were banned from schools and there were severe restrictions placed on women leaving their homes.
During those years, from 1996 to 2001, there were only around 1,000 female healthcare workers in the whole country, staffing female-only hospitals.
But the situation is still far from ideal now, more than six years after the fall of the Taliban, even in places such as the northeastern province of Badakhshan where the town of Faizaban is located. The area is far from fighting with Taliban insurgents.
Only 66 percent of basic healthcare centers have at least one female health worker. Women make up only 23.5 percent of the country’s healthcare workforce and 27 percent of its nursing staff.
“One woman dies every 27 minutes in Afghanistan due to complications in childbirth & and the tragedy doesn’t stop with the mother’s death,” said Mayar.
“When the mother of a newborn dies, 75 percent of these babies die. Who will feed them, keep them warm? There’s an Afghan saying: ‘When the mother dies, the child is sure to die’.”
The government plans to distribute the drug misoprostol to pregnant women in 13 provinces this year.
“We will distribute this to women in their seventh month of pregnancy and they must take it right after delivery. It will remove the placenta and prevent hemorrhage,” Mayar said.
In the pipeline are plans to set up more midwifery schools and assign more female students to medical and nursing schools.
“To reduce maternal mortality, we need 8,000 midwives by 2010 to cover needs of all pregnant women,” said Mayar. There are 2,143 midwives in the country of 26 million people.
But years of neglecting girls’ education is taking its toll.
“In the provinces, the maximum level of education is the 10th grade, but the minimum requirement for entry into nursing school is 12th grade,” said Fatima Mohbat Ali of the Aga Khan Foundation, an aid group in Afghanistan.
Some progress has been made in recent years, owing to government and NGO efforts to improve rural healthcare.
In Badakhshan’s Eshkashem district, which borders Tajikistan, Afghan women have been frequenting the health clinic, the most modern looking facility in a town where most of the 13,000 residents live in mud houses.
From headaches to prenatal checkups, childbirth and advice on contraception, women have been bringing their complaints to the clinic’s female doctor for the last three years.
“Ever since we got an ambulance, a lady doctor, two midwives and an operating theatre three years ago, we have not had a single case of maternal mortality,” said Abdi Mohammad, head of the Eshkashem health clinic and an obstetric surgeon.
(Editing by Megan Goldin)
Tuesday, 29 April 2008 22:39 UK/BBC
A severe food crisis in Afghanistan – caused by rising wheat prices – threatens to further destabilise an already deeply troubled country, writes the BBC’s Alastair Leithead in Kabul.
Food price challenge for UN
Inside a small mud house in the communal garden of a block of flats, Qamair Gul is hunched over a bread oven, her eyes streaming from the thick smoke bellowing out from the scrap-wood fire she uses to cook.
Two women in blue burkas sit inside watching as she kneads the dough and slaps and stretches it into the characteristic shape of Afghan bread before sticking it to the side of the oven to bake.
Qamair is a war widow – there are tens of thousands of women like her in Kabul – who make a few pence cooking bread for the poor.
In the last few weeks her workload has halved as the price of wheat has doubled.
“If it stays as bad as this for another month everyone will turn against the government. Prices weren’t this bad even during the war,” she says complaining about how difficult things have become since the price hike.
Kabul’s flour market, where truck loads of imported wheat flour are unloaded and stored in warehouses, is practically deserted in comparison to just a few weeks ago.
“Normally we would have 100 to 150 lorries full of flour arriving every day,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Asif.
“Right now there aren’t even five or 10 lorries coming. Look how few people there are at the market.”
He described how the price of a 50kg bag of flour had gone from 700 Afghanis ($14) at the start of the year, to 1,250 Afghanis ($26) four weeks ago, and how this week it passed 2,500 Afghanis ($50) for the first time.
A month’s supply of wheat for an average Afghan family now costs the same as the total monthly wage of most civil servants.
The price fluctuates wildly throughout the day as rumours circulate about where or when new stocks might be coming in from, or that some Afghan delegation visit to Pakistan might have finally persuaded their neighbours to lift the export ban.
Isolated and landlocked, Afghanistan has come to depend on Pakistan for its wheat. But with the global crisis exports have been stopped – even illegal ones by donkey across the long and porous border.
This has led to big demonstrations in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where the wheat used to enter Afghanistan and which has felt the increase even more than other parts of the country.
UN crisis talks
“Pakistan grows more than it needs, but right now the government has put an export ban on their wheat due to rising prices at home and a shortage of wheat available in the markets of Pakistan,” said Tony Banbury, the Asia regional director for the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
“Afghanistan has very poorly developed markets, bad roads. It’s very expensive to get food to remote parts of the country and people are very poor, so whatever the challenges other countries are facing they are particularly difficult in Afghanistan,” he said.
The UN has been holding talks in Pakistan to persuade the government to sell hundreds of thousands of tonnes to the WFP and the Afghan government to help alleviate the crisis, but for the moment the new Pakistani government has its own problems.
Yet the problem is really having an impact in Afghanistan – an already deeply troubled country.
Hundreds of people gathered at a food distribution point north of Kabul city – most of them poor women wearing their burkas and waiting in line to be given a couple of sacks of wheat from three WFP trucks.
Some blamed President Karzai for not doing more to help, others said they had no idea what would happen to them or to their families if the prices did not drop soon.
The humanitarian crisis is just one worry in Afghanistan.
The street protests have already started, and – with the Taleban insurgency still raging across large swathes of the country – it could destabilise an already precarious situation even more.
KABUL, 28 April 2008 (IRIN) – Almost a month after the Afghan government launched a fresh effort to encourage the return of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the three largest IDP camps to their home provinces (mostly in the north), only about 130 families have opted to return, the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees Affairs (MoRRA) said.
At least 150,000 IDPs are currently living in Zherai, Mukhtar and Maslakh camps in Kandahar, Helmand and Herat provinces respectively, aid agencies and Afghan officials estimate.
In an effort to address the plight of the IDPs, in early April the MoRRA offered transport assistance and food aid to those wanting to return to their homes within two months.
“We had planned to return all displaced families living in these three camps to their original areas, and to do that we offered transport assistance and 3-6 months’ food aid,” Abdul Qadir Zazi, an adviser to the minister of refugees and returnees, told IRIN in Kabul.
“Thus far about 110 families in Maslakh, 15 in Zherai and 10 in Mukhtar have registered for return,” he said.
The government’s policy of encouraging the return of IDPs is backed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which said it would provide assistance to returning IDPs in terms of transport, tents and food aid for a limited period of time.
Obstacles to return
The joint plan by the government and UN to send IDPs back to their homes has been coldly received by IDPs who say the worsening security situation, ethnic tensions, local warlords, unemployment and poverty are inhibiting their return in the near future.
“Commanders and warlords in the north are still seizing people’s land and forcing them to abandon their houses; so how can we return?” said Haji Gul Ahmed, a resident of Maslakh camp in Herat Province.
“There is no guarantee that commanders and gunmen [local militias] will not kill us and will not harm our females,” said Abdul Manan, a representative of displaced families from the northern province of Faryab, in Zherai camp in Kandahar Province.
Others pointed to lost livelihoods in their home areas, poverty and drought as major obstacles to their return.
Over one million people were reportedly displaced – mostly due to conflict and inter-communal tensions – immediately after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghan families were also displaced by severe drought, factional fighting and food insecurity during Taliban rule, 1996-2001.
Many “old” IDPs have returned to their homes in the past six years or so (some assisted by aid agencies), but insurgency-related violence and food insecurity have also displaced thousands more over the past few years, according to aid agencies.
No aid to those who remain in camps
The MoRRA and the UNHCR have given assurances that displaced families will not be forced to repatriate to their home areas; returns will be entirely voluntary.
“We do not encourage IDPs to return to areas that we believe are unsafe,” said Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul.
However, the UNHCR will not resume its humanitarian relief operations for displaced people who are unwilling to leave the camps.
UN agencies officially halted their relief operations in Maslakh, Mukhtar and Zherai camps in March 2006.
“The UNHCR will start working with the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation on local integration as a durable solution,” Farhad said.
No medical teams in Zherai camp
Non-governmental organisations and the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) suspended health services in Zherai camp after several health workers were kidnapped by Taliban insurgents in 2007.
“We will not send medical teams to Zherai camp unless locals provide adequate security guarantees,” said Abdullah Fahim, a MoPH spokesman in Kabul, adding that the ministry did not want to put its staff at risk by forcing them to visit patients in Zherai.
Humanitarian relief and health services have been suspended for IDPs at a time when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned that conflict is “spreading” in Afghanistan and civilians are increasingly becoming displaced.
The ICRC has called on aid agencies and the government of Afghanistan to respond to the “growing humanitarian needs” of IDPs “as a matter of urgency”.
Big advance in war on Afghanistan poppy
By Tom Coghlan in Helmand / Telegraph
Last Updated: 2:38am BST 25/04/2008
Opium production in Afghanistan is expected to fall significantly this year, with British and Afghan anti-drug efforts finally taking hold following record harvests.
Afghan officials said they expected that an increased number of the country’s 34 provinces would be declared “opium poppy free”.
More than 90 per cent of the heroin consumed in Britain originates in Afghanistan. Production in Helmand – its biggest heroin province and the front-line for British soldiers – is also expected to fall alongside successes against a major drug lord and smugglers.
General Khodaidad, Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics minister, said: “This year the overall cultivation of poppy is down. Around 20 provinces in total will be declared drug free.”
He added that the provinces of Nangahar and Badakhshan, which as recently as 2004 were behind only Helmand in production, would be poppy-free. Both are in the north and east of the country where government control is greater and the improvements have been the most significant.
The Afghan government considers any province with less than 2,500 acres of poppy to be “poppy-free”.
Last year 250,000 acres of opium poppy were planted in Helmand, according to Western counter-narcotics experts. Slightly less have been planted this year, while 10,000 acres have been eradicated.
Alongside Afghan police missions, British special forces have recently begun targeting drug smugglers in Helmand.
Western officials said that they had destroyed part of the massive poppy crop belonging to a major drugs figure in the province who is also its former police chief.
“Around 20 per cent of the land of Abdul Rahman Jan was successfully eradicated,” said one official.
Afghanistan’s drug trade has soared since the invasion in 2001, giving rise to a $4 billion industry that accounts for about a third of the country’s total economy.
Drug eradication efforts that were a shambles last year because police and government officials systematically took bribes to spare all but the most impoverished farmers appear to have been more successful this year.
The Telegraph spoke to two low-level drug smugglers in Helmand last month who claimed that Afghan eradication teams had been more resistant to bribery in 2008.
“In the past the eradication police came from Kabul and they all took bribes,” said one 35-year-old man, talking under the alias of Ahmad Wali.
“This year, there were many different organisations involved and each one was afraid to take the bribes because of the others.”
The two said that it was becoming hard for smaller smugglers to survive because only the powerful could afford to pay enough to avoid
prosecution. However, some analysts have said that the smugglers were deliberately suppressing production in key provinces until Western demand inflated prices.
A ban by the Taliban at the beginning of 2001 saw prices skyrocket, allowing smugglers to sell old opium, which can be stored for several years.
“People still have their stocks of opium and they need the price to go up,” said one Afghan official in Nangahar.
“With the increase in Western military activity in this area it has been hard to move the drugs. Now the price is $75 a kilo, but in four months that could triple.”
Western officials are united in their belief that the war on drugs in Afghanistan is likely to last 20 or more years.
They all expect poppy production, particularly in Nangahar province, will rise again next year, as steady worldwide increases in food and fuel prices puts added pressure on the poorest farmers to seek the most lucrative crop.
In the past 12 months, 820 people have been arrested for drug smuggling, including 17 Afghan soldiers and policemen, it was disclosed yesterday
One army colonel was sentenced to 10 years after he was caught with 100 lb of opium in a military vehicle.
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2008