interview with Reto Stocker, ICRC’s head
of delegation in Afghanistan.
The dramatic rise in war casualties taken to Mirwais Regional
Hospital in Kandahar, supported by the ICRC, is just one
sign that the situation in Afghanistan is worsening. The
proliferation of armed groups, the recent killing of aid
workers and continued conflict make delivery of humanitarian
assistance a daunting challenge. For civilians caught in
the crossfire, the situation is even more dire. Every day,
mothers bring their sick children to the Kandahar hospital
too late because they are afraid to travel or are held up
“This is just the tip of the iceberg as those who
suffer other sorts of injuries or contract disease as an
indirect result of the conflict far outnumber weapon-wounded
patients,” says Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation
in Kabul. “The result is that children die from tetanus,
measles and tuberculosis — easily prevented with vaccines — while
women die in childbirth and otherwise strong men succumb
to simple infections.” In a recent interview, Stocker
spoke about the challenges facing aid delivery and suggested
that humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan faces a precarious
What is the main challenge for the ICRC in its
Being close to those in need is the most important and the
most challenging aspect of our work in Afghanistan. We can
only deliver our services by physically being where it matters
In Afghanistan, most places were easily accessible until
the military intervention in 2001. Early in 2003, the country
became significantly more dangerous for humanitarian personnel,
a development that culminated in the murder of an ICRC delegate.
That marked the end of humanitarian access as we knew it,
and the beginning of a fully-fledged insurgency.
By initiating or resuming substantive dialogue with all
warring parties, not taking sides and not discriminating
among those we set out to serve, we at the ICRC have managed
to assist war-affected people in many places — often
in partnership with the Afghanistan Red Crescent, which is
active in most parts of the country, and to expand our presence
in the north and south. The ICRC’s humanitarian operation
in Afghanistan is currently its largest in the world in terms
of resources committed.
The ICRC often refers to itself as a neutral
intermediary in armed conflict. Can the ICRC also help
other organizations to deliver important services to
people in this dangerous environment?
Yes, we do sometimes help other humanitarian organizations
that have a crucial service to offer but find it hard to
deliver it due to the complex and unsafe environment. For
example, for some time now we have been helping out with
a crucial vaccination campaign by getting parties to the
conflict to agree that it is needed and to allow it to go
ahead. International humanitarian law recognizes the need
for a neutral and independent intermediary that all parties
to conflict can turn to. In precisely that role, we assist
in hostage releases, evacuate battlefield casualties and
put families in touch with relatives detained by the opposite
side, to mention just a few of our activities.
Has it become easier or more difficult for humanitarian
organizations to reach people in need of aid?
The degree to which we have been able to reach people in
Afghanistan in order to deliver crucial humanitarian services
to them has evolved considerably over the years since 2002.
Immediately after the 2001 military intervention, many humanitarian
organizations were encouraged to integrate humanitarian activities
into the overall military and political strategy of stabilization
and reconstruction, an approach that we at the ICRC did not
follow. That led to some aid agencies being perceived as
not having solely humanitarian objectives. As a result, their
access to certain parts of the country was hampered.
Recently, however, many humanitarian organizations have
sought to distance themselves from the political and military
realm, in order to work along purely humanitarian lines while
adopting a neutral and impartial approach. This is a recognition
on their part that the only way for humanitarian organizations
to operate across front lines is to have exclusively humanitarian
motivations and not to take sides. This has led over the
past three to four years to greater acceptance of some of
the organizations, which, as a result, have had better access.
This year, several medical staff from an international
aid agency were killed in the north of the country. Have
you considered using armed guards or taking similar measures
to protect your staff?
First of all, there is no such thing as absolute security
in Afghanistan — not for us at the ICRC and not for
anyone else. To come back to your question, the answer is
no. We do not have armed guards protecting either the offices
or the residences used by our 1,600 staff, and we do not
use bullet-proof vehicles. We believe that our security derives
mainly from the trust and acceptance we enjoy in Afghanistan.
Building higher walls around our offices or hiring armed
guards would, in our view, be counter-productive and would
distance us from — rather than bring us closer to — those
we are here to serve.
What’s the outlook for the months and
years to come?
Two main factors are likely to influence what happens. On
the one hand, the degree to which ordinary people and the
warring parties come to accept that humanitarian organizations
are truly neutral and impartial, that they are performing
their tasks for purely humanitarian reasons, will matter
a lot. On the other hand, armed groups and other parties
to the conflict seem to be proliferating. In our experience,
it is easier to reach people in a given place when you have
only two or three distinct parties to negotiate access with
than when you have a different armed group for each region,
district or even village.
Ordinary people, as always, pay the price. More armed groups
usually means more violence and suffering, and therefore
more need for the aid provided by organizations such as ours.
More armed groups also means significantly more difficulty
faced by organizations like the ICRC seeking to reach the
victims, therefore leaving even more people needing help,
and so on. It’s a tragically vicious circle.
Unfortunately, we are concerned that that is the way things
could be headed.
Stocker ©Marko Kokic/ICRC
other sorts of injuries
or contract disease as
the conflict far outnmber weapon-wonded patients.”
Kandahar’s Mirwais hospital, ICRC and local medical
staff treat an increasing number of war wounded, as well as
those suffering indirectly from the conflict.
The number of war casualties taken to Mirwais Regional
Hospital in Kandahar for treatment is hitting record
highs. Supported by the ICRC, the hospital registered
close to 1,000 new patients with weapon-related injuries
in August and September 2010 as compared with just
over 500 during the same period in 2009.
New prosthetics centre
The ICRC opened a seventh prosthetics/orthotic centre
in the country, in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, to
address the drastic increase in the number of weapon-related
amputations in southern Afghanistan.
Since March, the Afghanistan Red Crescent has trained
over 500 Red Crescent volunteers in first aid as part
of its community-based first aid (CBFA) programme.
There are more than 23,000 CBFA volunteers around the
country. Often, they are the only trained persons capable
of providing basic health services in their areas.