Afghanistan's hidden war

...the crisis as portrayed in the media ... minimizes the effects of the war and the large-scale persecution endured by many Afghans Photo: Didier Lefèvre  
Those campaigns have denounced the medieval dictatorship of the Taliban, the discrimination against women, and the destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage (notably the Bamiyan Buddhas). They have also called upon western nations to increase the amount of aid they provide to the Afghan people. According to the United Nations, the Afghans are now suffering "the worst drought that Afghanistan has seen for 30 years" and are threatened by "a famine without precedent." And yet, even though we must welcome the recent flurry of media interest in a crisis that has been neglected for too long, we may nevertheless deplore the way in which it is presented. If we are to believe newspaper and television accounts, relief organizations in Afghanistan are faced with a natural disaster (the drought) and its terrible consequences: an agricultural deficit of more than two million tons, the destruction of livestock and the massive displacement of people attempting to flee the food shortages. Even as fighting intensifies between the Taliban and Colonel Massoud's opposition forces in the north of the country and in the central Hazarajat region, Afghans fleeing their villages are described as being displaced by hunger and as refugees from poverty. Although the image of the crisis as portrayed in the media does highlight the seriousness of the food situation and the unacceptable discrimination suffered by Afghan women, it minimizes the effects of the war and the large-scale persecution endured by many Afghans, especially members of religious minorities (Hazara, Uzbeki, and Tajiki). It is an image that ignores their need for protection and aid, both in Afghanistan itself and in the neighboring countries in which they have found refuge (there are more than two million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan). Providing such protection and aid is a basic responsibility of the United Nations and its member states. ..refugee law is being violated by those who are supposed to be enforcing it. Photo: Didier Lefèvre  
Who exactly are these fugitives? Why are they leaving their homes? Médecins Sans Frontières talked recently with some of the people who were receiving aid from one of our teams in the Iranian city of Mashhad. Predominantly members of the Shiite Hazara community, they tell the same stories of war, religious persecution, the destruction of their places of worship, fleeing into the mountains to escape the violence, and lack of food. The drought that has ravaged the country for three years has served only to make their living conditions worse. But the main reason for their flight (in 70% of cases) is the violence. That is what we were told by one woman refugee, for example, who had just arrived in Iran. She was accompanied by her two daughters and her youngest son. "I left the town of Mazar-i-Sharif at the end of March, after the Taliban had again threatened to kill us," she told us. "We didn't take much with us. Then, with our hearts in our mouths, we took a bus to Herat and the Iranian border. Life had become a living hell. My husband was no longer able to feed the family. And we were constantly harassed by the Taliban. "My husband was killed by the Taliban as we arrived in Herat. They accused him of fighting for the opposition forces. But he was just a farmer." She said she had crossed the Iranian border close to Zabul two weeks before, with the aid of a smuggler. It hardly seems to matter which road these refugees take. Should they leave northern Afghanistan or Hazarajat to flee persecution and the food shortage? Should they head for the displacement camps at Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, or the cities of Kabul, Ghazni, or Kandahar, in the hope of finding relief there? Should they go to Pakistan or Iran and simply trust fate, in the hope that the Taliban will not murder them en route, in the hope that they can somehow fade into the darkness by hiding during the day and moving only at night? Should they trust the smuggler who, in return for their little remaining money, will see them safely across the border, while keeping a member of their family hostage until they can repay the rest of the smuggling fee? Should they simply pray that they will not be arrested and sent back to Afghanistan? In Afghanistan, the people's needs are vast, and the food crisis is without precedent. Photo: Didier Lefèvre  
The massive influx of refugees has led Iran and Pakistan to strengthen their border controls and to refuse new refugees. In the absence of any response from major western donor countries, the number of refugees being expelled to Afghanistan is increasing. What does it matter that they will be arrested on their return? What do the acts of persecution and violence matter? What does the deterioration in people's living conditions and the population displacement matter, let alone the difficulties encountered by international relief organizations still present in Afghanistan? Most western nations have the same asylum policy. In Europe in recent months, Afghan refugees have become the largest group of asylum seekers, but asylum policies affecting them are restrictive. The community of western states — either because it believes this is the simplest solution or out of cowardice — prefers a policy of 'crisis management' which favors setting up displacement camps in Afghanistan itself, and strengthening controls over migration flows. Under pressure from host countries, and despite the deterioration in the situation on the ground, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) even plans to repatriate refugees who have fled to Iran and Pakistan. In other words, refugee law is being violated by those who are supposed to be enforcing it. In response to the Afghans' need for protection, all we hear are repeated appeals by the United Nations to increase the volume of international aid being sent to Afghanistan. They are content to give the impression that the crisis could be resolved if donor countries would only be persuaded to provide more aid. We should bear in mind, however, the difficulties encountered by relief organizations and United Nations agencies in their efforts to gain unrestricted access to the Afghan people, to bring aid to them and, in particular, to circumvent the constraints imposed on them by the Taliban. Many regions are inaccessible due to the fighting and the general insecurity (Yawkowland and Bamiyan). The rudimentary camps set up at Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif are receiving more and more Afghan refugees every day. They are monitored closely by the Taliban, who sometimes impose restrictions on international aid delivery and NGO movements. In Afghanistan, the people's needs are vast, and the food crisis is without precedent. There is even an outbreak of scurvy. But the quality of the relief provided is being compromised, first because we are not able to freely evaluate either the conditions in the displacement camps or the living conditions of Afghans located in the country's most remote regions, and second, because we are not able to provide them with proper assistance. Humanitarian aid is very often blocked or even illegally seized, and the people are simply left to their fate. The few foreign groups providing aid are powerless to act. Under these circumstances, how can we deploy a large-scale, quality relief program in Afghanistan? That is really the central question. Increasing the amount of relief provided to the Afghan people will not alone suffice to address the crisis engulfing the country. As in North Korea, we need to recognize the limitations encountered by relief organizations during their missions. It may still be possible to run independent relief operations in Afghanistan, but we need to recognize that it is becoming increasingly difficult with every day that passes. And yet, it is our job to assist these endangered people. That is why, if we wish to set out the facts clearly, we need to go beyond the words. For in Afghanistan, the drought is being allowed to obscure the underlying reality of the war. Testimony from refugees A Shiite Hazara family: a man, his mother, and their three children "We live in Tibir, around six hours from Mazar-i-Sharif, in the province of Balkh. Eight months ago, the Taliban came and demanded that I pay a tax that was even higher than the one the year before. Since I had no money, they threw me into prison. When I got out, they forced me to join their army. There were nearly 200 of us in the same situation - nearly all Hazara. The Taliban told us we would have to burn the Shiites' homes, that we could even kill them, and that we'd get a financial reward if we brought them back the head of a military commander. "We were taken by car to Haikalang, four hours by road from Tibir. That's where we made our escape. There were 45 of us. First, I went home to the village to fetch my family, because I was afraid of what the Taliban might do to them in reprisal. Also, it's safer to travel as a family than to travel alone. A Hazara man on his own can easily be made to look like a fighter. We met a group of 18 families. Ten of the men were fleeing forced conscription, as I was. The smuggler took us to Isfahan." A Shiite family: a couple with their four children. "We lived in the suburbs of Mazar, close to El Marab, at Paghami, with 165 other families. Two years after the fall of Mazar, the Taliban dissolved the village committees and demanded that the villagers designate people to keep them informed about daily village events, population movements, guests, and marriage ceremonies. When things weren't done as the Taliban wanted, they came and took the people away and whipped them with a kardom, which is a sort of club made from electric cables. I was chosen to be one of their informers. "When the fighting broke out again at Bamiyan in December last year, the Taliban closed all the streets in Mazar and checked all the Hazara, men and women. At the beginning of March, the Taliban arrested another informer, who was a friend of mine. In prison, they interrogated and beat him. Because I was afraid they'd arrest me, too, I fled to another village close to Mazar. I told my father to sell our possessions. A few days later, my family joined me and we all left on a truck. We drove as far as Shagali, close to the Iranian border. I think there were nearly 500 people there, waiting to cross the border."