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Central Asia's new plight
Jean-François Berger and Atoussa Khosousi Parsey

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries on earth. Since the start of the military raids on 7 October, demining efforts have stopped and new unexploded ordnance is piling up. Left:ICRC orthopaedic workshop in Kabul.

Lashkara region: civilians often travel by foot for days to gain access to humanitarian assistance.

Since the attacks of 11 September in the United States, all eyes turned to central Asia. On 7 October, the US-led air strikes began in Afghanistan. Weeks later, the Taliban began retreating from Kabul and other major cities. The people of Afghanistan, already devastated by years of conflict, now require large-scale humanitarian action. Afghanistan's neighbours have also been affected by the political and social tensions in the region.

In this atmosphere of insecurity, the world's humanitarian players are mobilized: the United Nations' specialized agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The National Societies of countries bordering Afghanistan activated their national emergency plans by late September and helped develop the Movement's response. Since, the International Federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have launched emergency appeals for US$ 60 million for Afghans and those seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

The Movement's main strategy focuses on the delivery of emergency relief assistance to Afghans, in anticipation of its notoriously harsh winter. In order to provide immediate humanitarian services to Afghans, relief stocks have been placed in Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since the fall of Kabul on 13 November, the situation has radically changed. On 14 November, ICRC expatriate staff began returning to Kabul.

Humanitarian assistance continues to be restricted by ongoing hostilities. In October, four ICRC warehouses in Kabul were bombed during US-led air strikes. At the same time, looting of humanitarian relief by the Taliban took place in Kabul and in Mazar-i-Sharif. At stake is the plight of millions of Afghans, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, threatened by famine and by some millions of anti-personnel land mines which litter the country.

Afghanistan: the epicentre

Devastated by more than 20 years of war and three years of drought, the fate of the Afghan people hangs in the balance. The humanitarian challenge within Afghanistan is enormous and delivery of food, temporary shelter and medical supplies is vital to alleviate the suffering of millions of civilians. Also, humanitarian law must be repected, especially when dealing with prisoners and civilians.

The humanitarian work of the Movement continues through the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), the ICRC (supported by 1,000 local staff) and the Federation (including 107 Afghan workers). The ICRC network delivers medical supplies to Afghanistan's main surgical hospitals and first-aid posts, distributes food to Kabul's orphanages, provides orthopaedic care to war amputees, and conducts maintenance on the water supply and sanitation system. Jointly with the ICRC, the ARCS staff and volunteers run an ambulance service in Kabul and in other main cities. With support from other National Societies and the Federation, the ARCS continues to operate 48 health clinics.

"The long years of war have so exhausted the Afghans that their legendary solidarity is now mostly restricted to the family circle," comments Dr. Alberto Cairo of the ICRC who has worked in Afghanistan for 12 years.

Thousands of people are now displaced within Afghanistan. Left: a 6-year-old girl fleeing from the Kokcha front, northern Afghanistan.


Afghans are at high risk of starvation. Continuing the international support for the network of bakers remains essential.

This 11-year-old boy was injured by the constant fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces.

Pakistan: the nerve centre

Lying on the southern and eastern flanks of Afghanistan, Pakistan is the main base for the humanitarian agencies operating in the region. Since 1979, this country of 136 million people has hosted more than 2 million Afghan refugees.

In this uncertain environment and with the formidable winter just around the corner, the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and the Federation are directing their resources towards the provision of essential refugee services. The ICRC continues to organize relief supplies destined for Afghanistan. Flour, rice, cooking utensils, blankets, tarpaulins, tents and water sanitation equipment are being sent from Quetta and Peshawar. The hospitals in these two towns have been given extra stocks of medical materials while the PRCS is organizing ten health clinics. The Federation's emergency response units (ERU) are on standby and ready for immediate action.

Iran: a vital lifeline

Iran has an area of 1,648,000 square kilometres, with a population of about 69 million. Since the 1980s, Iran has hosted over 2.4 million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan (1.5 million) and Iraq (600,000). Refugees in Iran have received humanitarian assistance from various Iranian governmental agencies, NGOs and the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS).

With more than 600,000 rescue and relief workers, the IRCS has created and maintains a national disaster response coverage that permits prompt response to local and provincial calamities. The IRCS is the designated national relief organization and mandated to attend to the needs of victims during the first six weeks of a disaster. But IRCS assistance normally extends far beyond this period.

The current crisis in central Asia is occurring in the midst of existing disasters. Iran shares a 890-km border with Afghanistan, most of it rugged terrain. The bordering provinces have suffered from a fourth consecutive year of severe drought. In August 2000, the IRCS, with support from the Federation, began an assistance programme for 100,000 people affected by drought, most of whom are Afghan refugees. Relief supplies, pre-positioned in the city of Mashhad, are being sent to eastern Afghanistan.

The transport network in Afghanistan is in dire shape. The same is true for some of the neighbouring countries, like here in Tajikistan.

ICRC warehouses near Kabul airport were hit on 16 and 26 October 2001.

Turkmenistan: desert and rivers

With a population of 4 million, this former Soviet republic borders the north-western region of Afghanistan, where many of the internally displaced have sought shelter and in which lies the town of Mazar-i-Sharif. Prior to the retreat of the Taliban, Turkmenistan was preparing for a possible influx of refugees, prompting the Federation and the Red Crescent Society of Turkmenistan to deploy staff to assess local capacities to handle new arrivals. The ICRC has established a logistics base in Turkmenabad in order to deliver assistance to the north of Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan: between tradition and modernization

With a population of 21 million, the majority of whom are young and well educated, Uzbekistan is full of promise and vitality. The country has good infrastructure, notably warehouses, making it a logistical springboard for launching relief operations in Afghanistan. The ICRC has opened an office in Termez, a border town crossed by the Amu Darya River while the Federation is providing operational and organizational support to the Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan.

PRCS workers unloading tents and tarpaulins (donated by the German Red Cross) at the main warehouse in Peshawar.


Tajikistan: a decade of horror

Since its independence in 1991, Tajikistan has witnessed some of its darkest hours. Following on the heels of a bitter civil war, drought has now struck in this poorest of the former Soviet republics with a population of 5.5 million. The Federation and the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan are running programmes to counter the effects of the drought, while the ICRC transits its aid through Tajikistan to north-eastern Afghanistan, the territory controlled by the Northern Alliance. As a disaster preparedness measure, relief supplies have been positioned around the country and include medical supplies and sanitation equipment, i.e. jerrycans, pumps and water-purification chemicals.

Central Asia network

Afghan Red Crescent Society
1,200 employees, 5,900 volunteers, 5 regional branches, 26 provincial branches.

Pakistan Red Crescent Society
42,000 members, 300 employees, on going recruitment of 25 new employees, 4 provincial branches.

Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran
2 million members, including 600,000 rescue and relief workers and 5,000 employees, 277 branches in the country's 28 provinces.

Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan
1,200 members, 124 employees, 5 regional branches and 67 district branches.

Red Crescent Society of Turkmenistan
273,000 members, 75 employees and 166 volunteers, 5 provincial branches and 56 district branches.

Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan
214,000 members, 100,000 active volunteers, including 20,000 members of the Youth section and 721 employees, 15 regional branches, 215 district branches.


Twenty years of continuous conflict has left its mark on Kabul.

Faced with the grave crisis in Afghanistan, the Movement is fully mobilized and determined to pursue its humanitarian activities. Despite the many practical difficulties, it is doing everything possible to assist Afghans caught up in the conflict at the onset of winter.

Jean-François Berger and Atoussa Khosousi Parsey

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