The Guardian, February 22, 2002

Afghans flee hunger and strife

As Afghanistan waits for western aid to materialise, a humanitarian disaster is brewing, says Rory McCarthy

Even before September 11, a huge humanitarian crisis was predicted for northern Afghanistan. Now, despite the defeat of the Taliban regime and promises of billions of dollars in aid from the international community, the true depth of the disaster is emerging.

Devastating hunger and worsening ethnic tensions are forcing thousands of people to flee their homes in areas around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

The French aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has said that only a fraction of the food needed and promised for the "hunger belt" in northern Afghanistan is reaching those in need. Even when the food does arrive, it is not being moved to the most remote areas.

"The food that is needed to pull people through is hardly arriving in remote parts of the north, and when it is, it's often distributed poorly," said Christopher Stokes, MSF's operational director.

After surveying the area, particularly in Faryab, perhaps Afghanistan's hungriest province, MSF said more children were now attending the agency's feeding centres than before September 11.

At least one in six children at the feeding centres in Faryab was severely malnourished, it said. Overall, mortality rates have doubled since August.

Increasing numbers of people were now selling their last animals and personal belongings and leaving their homes to look for food.

The population of a camp for displaced people at Sar-i-Pol, in the north, grew to an estimated 23,000 in January from 15,000 at the end of November, MSF said.

In some areas people have not received any food aid for the past year. Many show the symptoms of a poor diet, including scurvy. Few expect a decent harvest.

Those who have not yet sold the land they own are struggling to find seed to plant.

"We are getting increasingly frustrated with the promises of the international community," said Mr Stokes. "In northern Afghanistan, a new disaster is in the making and it can only be averted by immediate and unrestrained action."

On top of the worsening food shortages, growing ethnic tensions are forcing thousands of Pashtun families to flee their homes. Many are making the long trip south to the Pashtun heartland and across into refugee camps in Pakistan.

Pashtun families from areas around Mazar-i-Sharif have said mojahedin commanders from other ethnic groups, either Uzbek or Tajik, have led looting and killing attacks against Pashtuns.

"It is a very disturbing picture of gross human rights violations," said Yusuf Hassan, a UN spokesman. More than 50,000 Afghans have now crossed the border into Pakistan at Chaman in the south-west, near Quetta.

"We have a substantial number ... who have said that they have been forced off their land, that their houses have been looted, that they have been violently attacked ... and some of them say their relatives have been killed in what appears to be increasing attacks against Pashtuns in Afghanistan," said Mr Hassan.

Hamid Karzai's interim government in Kabul has little influence over the warlords in the "hunger belt" of the north. If, as many fear, the security situation worsens in the weeks ahead, it will make the much-needed relief effort even harder and all the more important.

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