UN warns of humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan

AFP, Feb.2, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Feb 2 (AFP) - The United Nations Friday warned of a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan amid reports that more than 500 people have died of cold in displacement camps this week.

United Nations Coordinator for Afghanistan Eric de Mul predicted a "dramatic" deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, where drought and war have driven more than half a million people from their homes.

"We are looking at an extremely difficult year with many people on the move and many who will try to cross its borders," he said, referring to the impact of Afghanistan's civil war and the worst drought in memory.

"We have to come to terms with the fact that we will see many people die. We have already seen this happening in Herat" in western Afghanistan.

Officials of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia were quoted as saying Friday that more than 500 people had died of cold in squalid displacement camps around Herat in the past three days.

Taliban refugee repatriation department chief Syed Raz Mohammad Agha told local daily The News that 504 people had died in freezing temperatures, in addition to the 110 deaths the UN confirmed earlier this week.

The deaths were recorded in several displacement camps around the old silk route trading centre of Herat, where some 80,000 people have gathered in recent months after being driven from their villages by drought and war.

De Mul could not confirm the deaths nor did he dispute the figure. Aid workers said the figure sounded exaggerated, but UN officials are in the process of verifying the exact death toll.

The Taliban has claimed that UN political sanctions imposed last month for the militia's refusal to hand over indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden would cause a humanitarian catastrophe.

Some 500,000 people have become displaced inside Afghanistan and another 150,000 have fled to neighbouring Pakistan since mid-2000.

UN officials this week said the drought had put at risk the lives of more than 300,000 people, or roughly 50,000 families, who have left their villages in search of food and water in western Afghanistan.

Temperatures around Herat had plunged as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit), but the camps were short of blankets and tents and the response from donors had been "bad."

In the six displacement camps around Herat, some 5,000 families are crammed into 1,700 tents, many having sold their livestock, farming tools and even the beams from their homes to escape the drought.

"We have seen people die there in a controlled setting (the camps) but it is obvious that in the countryside where we have a cold spell many more people have died," de Mul said.

He said he had called a meeting of donors in Pakistan next week to discuss grave shortfalls in almost all essential relief goods as well as the slow response to the UN's 229-million-dollar appeal for Afghanistan this year.

Envoys from Switzerland, Germany and Canada would visit the camps inside Afghanistan in the coming weeks to see the devastation for themselves, he said, while urging other countries to do the same.

"I guess it is not yet clear to the donors how serious the situation is," he said, adding that only about half the 2001 appeal was expected to arrive.

"If one does not see it with one's eyes directly then it is always difficult to understand.

"We will have a dramatic situation on our hands ... We have a watershed in the situation."

World Health Organisation medical officer for Afghanistan Naveed Sadozai said the situation was a "progressively increasing disaster," with "a lot of malnutrition" that could lead to epidemics of disease.

The UN says the drought has destroyed almost all rain-fed crops, which are essential to the 85 percent of Afghanistan's 22 million people who lead subsistance lifestyles.

504 Afghan refugees killed by cold wave

The News: Jang, Feb.2, 2001
By Rahimullah Yusufzai

PESHAWAR: The death toll in makeshift camps for internally displaced Afghans in Herat, western Afghanistan, due to severe cold rose to 504 on Thursday following the death of another 22 people on Wednesday night. Syed Raz Mohammad Agha, head of the refugees repatriation department in the Taliban administration in Herat, told The News that the deaths had occurred during the last three days as a cold wave swept the area in the wake of an unprecedented snowfall and temperature plunged to minus 25 degrees centigrade.

"We estimated the deaths at 482 on Wednesday and another 22 by Thursday night. This makes up a total of 504," he explained. The Office of the United Nations Coordinator for Afghanistan in a statement in Islamabad on Wednesday had reported more than 110 deaths due to cold in the six displacement camps in Herat.

It believed the main victims of the extreme temperatures were children, the elderly and women. It added that some 300,000 displaced people were at risk due to drought in western Afghanistan. According to Agha, inadequate shelter and miserable living conditions in the six camps in Herat made their inmates vulnerable to cold and disease. He said the drought-stricken families inhabiting these makeshift camps lacked tents, quilts and blankets, food and medicines.

"The World Food Programme and earlier the International Committee of the Red Cross provided some assistance but it was inadequate. These people need a lot more to survive," he argued. Agha pointed out that there was only one poorly-equipped clinic for 30,000 displaced people in one of the camps. He said the three camps inside Herat city were in an equally bad shape. Another Taliban official Mohammad Ajmal Yousafzai said in Herat that the administration recently provided food for all the refugees for two days.

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