Severe Cold Kills 41 Afghan Refugee Children

AP, Dec 13, 2002

Afghan refugees freeze to death

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – It has been a cold welcome for many of the 1.8 million Afghan war refugees who streamed home after the fall of the Taliban last year. The luckier ones spend freezing nights in bullet-scarred ruins in Kabul. The unlucky sleep huddled together under frail plastic tents.

Returning after years in squalid camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, the refugees hoped for a better life here. But with few jobs and fewer places to live, many are now hoping just to survive Afghanistanīs harsh winter.

"At night the cold is so bad, itīs frightening," said Taza Gul, the elderly head of a family of 11 that lives under a tiny roadside tent. "It may get worse, we donīt know. Our fate depends on Allah."

The U.N. refugee agency estimates 560,000 people will be particularly vulnerable this winter because they lack adequate housing, food and the means to keep warm, the agency spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said.

Many are in danger simply because they live in remote rural areas where roads will likely be cut off by snowfall blocking most emergency aid from getting through.

The United Nations has been trying to head off any crisis by distributing tens of thousands of blankets, wood stoves, fuel and plastic sheeting, Shinohara said.

The U.N. World Food Program has delivered 51,000 tons of food nationwide, 95 percent of its winter target. The rest is expected to be delivered before the end of December.

Authorities hope those supplies will get desperate families through January and February – the harshest winter months.

Shinohara said the United Nations was holding the bulk of its winter stockpile in reserve in case of emergencies, such as a severe drop in temperature or a new conflict that would displace more civilians.

Shinohara said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was especially concerned about the snowy central highlands, where temperatures could drop to minus 22 degrees.

Southern Afghanistan, though warmer, was also a concern because of some 400,000 internally displaced refugees there, Shinohara said.

This weekend, 10 children died in the southern border town of Spinboldak during what the refugee agency called "unusually cold weather." The exact cause of the deaths, however, was still unknown, the agency said.

Rural Development Minister Hanif Asmar told The Associated Press those most at risk this winter were families like Gulīs – returnees living in destroyed houses, tents – or worse. He estimated their numbers at 240,000 across the country.

"The situation in urban areas, particularly among those families living in open spaces or dilapidated buildings, is still precarious," Asmar said. "Weīre doing quite a lot to assist them, but not all of them have yet been covered."

Gul said aid agencies had handed out trucks full of charcoal to people living in tents next to his. But he said many, including his own family, were overlooked.

Asmar said Gulīs family was not helped because until recently aid groups had been operating on their own without consulting the central government to coordinate efforts.

At a conference in January in Tokyo, donor countries pledged $4.5 billion to get Afghanistan back on its feet over the next five years. Government officials have said that up to four times that amount is needed.

President Hamid Karzai has said the bulk of the money has been delivered via the United Nations or humanitarian aid groups, not the central government. Officials estimate $1.8 billion has been committed so far this year.

"We havenīt received help from anybody," Gul said as several of his children and grandchildren, blankets draped across their backs, warmed their hands over a tiny clay pot filled with a few piece of coal.

"We donīt even have enough money to buy firewood," Gul said. "I have to send my children to beg for it."

Reuters, Dec 15, 2002

Severe Cold Kills 41 Afghan Refugee Children

SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Forty-one children have died of severe cold this month at camps for Afghan refugees on the border with Pakistan, an aid worker said on Sunday.

Haji Abdul Ghani, of the Pakistan-based Edhi Welfare Trust, told Reuters squalid living conditions in four temporary camps in and around the southern Afghan town of Spin Boldak had combined with freezing temperatures to threaten another 1,200 children, most below the age of eight.

Ghani said pneumonia, tuberculosis and malaria were the most prevalent diseases. He said he feared the number of children falling sick and dying could increase rapidly.

Almost 100,000 people live in camps at Spin Boldak without adequate clothing or shelter to keep out the cold in an area where temperatures often plunge to minus 15C (5F), Ghani said.

Another 35,000 are crammed into similar camps on the Pakistan side of the border, which has been sealed by Pakistani troops pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda remnants from Afghanistan.

Farid Ahmed Karimi, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said it had confirmed 13 deaths in camps on both sides of the border.

He said pneumonia had been the biggest killer and UNHCR would distribute warm clothes and footwear to the displaced families crammed into makeshift shelters and tents on Sunday.

Afghanistan has an estimated 700,000 internally displaced people. About 400,000 are scattered around southern areas of the country, most having been forced from their homes as a result of a long-running drought.

UNHCR called for urgent international rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance to drought-affected regions of Afghanistan.

Several thousand Afghans have died in the past four years of drought, the worst to hit the country in about four decades.

Nearly two hundred of the deaths were caused by extreme cold in one night two years ago at a camp for displaced people in the western city of Herat.

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