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Aid offered to Afghan refugees

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 20, 2001

"We were already calling it a disaster before all the international agencies had to pull out but now it's hard to know what to call it."

—Chris Buckley

As thousands fled Afghani cities this week in fear of a U.S. attack, aid organizations and the United Nations were preparing to offer humanitarian aid to the refugees in border camps.

Members of Action by Churches Together (ACT) were preparing to assist Afghans living in camps in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. On Thursday ACT members were identifying and stockpiling crucial relief items such as food and water, according to ACT Communications Officer Nils Carstensen.

ACT members working in Afghanistan include Church World Service, Christian Aid, and Norwegian Church Aid. "These three agencies are currently coordinating their response as the situation develops," said Carstensen.

The best way to help, according to response leaders, is to make a financial contribution to a responding group. Prior to the current tensions, ACT issued a financial appeal for $5 million to help Afghanis who were already in the midst of a grave humanitarian crisis.

In the grip of a three-year drought, 5.5 million people in Afghanistan -- or one quarter of the population -- were on the verge of mass starvation even before the threat of war. For many years, Afghans have lived with insecurity caused by internal fighting between rival factions. Villagers have for more than a year been fleeing to camps near the larger cities or to Pakistan. Both Pakistan and Iran have closed their borders for Afghan refugees for about one year.

This week Pakistan tightened security along its borders but the region&rsqu;rs rough terrain makes it difficult to fully close the border. Even refugees able to make it over the border will likely end up in camps with extremely poor living conditions.

After aid organizations were forced to pull out foreign workers last week, and the United Nations evacuated its international staff, refugee camps began to bulge with people who are dying of malnutrition and cholera.

"The prospects are just getting worse and worse. We were already calling it a disaster before all the international agencies had to pull out but now it's hard to know what to call it," said Chris Buckley, program officer for Christian Aid. "The local Afghan NGOs (non-governmental organizations) we work with are still continuing their work in the country although they are facing numerous constraints. But we will try to support whatever we can through them."

Before the current rise in tension, close to one million people were displaced in Afghanistan due to drought and the war between opposition groups and Taliban forces, according to ACT. Close to half a million of these displaced are in camps near the western town of Herat and the northern town of Masar-El-Sharif, where ACT members and partners are active.

Health services in Afghanistan have dwindled except in a few major towns and cities including Kabul. Even in these more heavily populated areas, medical services are poor and supplies are scarce. Very few professional nurses and doctors have stayed in Afghanistan, reported ACT.

Before being forced to leave, Buckley helped supply food and seeds for Afghan communities in need. "In a few weeks, the winter snows will come, cutting off the hundreds of isolated villages whose only links to the outside world are rutted dirt tracks," he said. "Without seeds, they will be unable to replant for next year. Without food aid now, thousands could be dead before the spring."

Taliban militia who now rule most of Afghanistan have sheltered Osama bin Laden whom the United States suspects of masterminding last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Most people in Afghanistan have heard few details about the terrorist attacks, said Buckley. "The real Afghanistan is one where 85 percent of the population are subsistence farmers. Most Afghans don't have newspapers, television sets, or radios. They will not have heard of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, and most will have no idea that a group of zealots has attacked these icons of western civilization. There isn't even a postal service."

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