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Hunger, poverty, fear beset Afghans

U.N. paints grim picture as U.S. prepares for war

SHARE Hunger, poverty, fear beset Afghans

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United Nations painted an alarming picture Tuesday of life inside Afghanistan: relief agencies shut down and occupied by the Taliban, thousands of people fleeing their homes in fear and countless others at risk of starvation.

"A humanitarian crisis of stunning proportions is unfolding in Afghanistan," said a U.N. statement issued in Geneva and Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

The world body's alert came as Afghanistan's Taliban rulers found themselves almost completely isolated in the world community with a decision by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to cut off diplomatic ties. That left Pakistan as the sole country to maintain formal relations with Afghanistan's hard-line leaders.

The prospect of war is exacerbating what was already considered one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, the United Nations said. Afghanistan is a likely target of a U.S.-led military assault because the Taliban harbor Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

"I haven't seen Osama. I don't know Osama. Why when things happen in the east, the west or the north of the world, do the problems have to come here and hit straight at the people of Afghanistan?" asked Farida, a 40-year-old widow and mother of four who was begging Tuesday on the streets of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

"I pray to my God that as soon as America attacks, the first cruise missile hits my house and kills me and my family," the former teacher said from behind her all-encompassing veil. She recited a long list of woes including hunger and a lack of water and sanitation in her home, a ruined building.

According to relief agencies and reports from Kabul, survival is becoming a daily struggle for people like Farida, who like many Afghans uses only one name. International relief operations that supported millions of people before Sept. 11 have been halted or vastly scaled back.

The foreign staff of the United Nations and virtually all non-governmental organizations have been evacuated. And the Taliban have restricted or stopped the activities of local staffers who remained.

Over the weekend the Taliban shut down and occupied all U.N. offices in Kandahar, the militia's spiritual capital. They also prohibited most U.N. workers from using communication equipment, effectively cutting them off from the outside world, said U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker.

Since the 1980s, the Central Asian nation of 22 million people has contended with Soviet invasion, civil war, hunger, drought and the rise of the radical Taliban militia.

More than 4 million people have already fled in the past two decades. U.N. refugee officials have been meeting with officials in Pakistan and other countries bordering Afghanistan to set up makeshift camps to receive new refugees.

So far, the numbers of people fleeing are in the thousands, not millions. Some people who fled Kabul immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks have returned, and the capital's streets were filled with people Tuesday. But that could change quickly.

A big concern is the large number of people without food and other necessities who would like to leave but can't afford fuel or transportation, said Peter Kessler, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The situation inside Afghanistan is so fragile that many people who may want to move don't have the means to move," he said.

The United Nations has been supporting 5 million Afghans inside the country after decades of war and three years of severe drought, said Ross Mountain, the U.N. head of humanitarian coordination in Geneva.

Under the worst conditions, the number of people inside the country desperately needing U.N. aid could increase by 50 percent to 7.5 million, he said.

The United Nations' World Food Program announced Tuesday that it is planning trial deliveries of food by truck into the northern part of Afghanistan to see if it can establish a lifeline.

Among the targeted regions for the new food shipments are Faryab and Balkh provinces, where the United Nations estimates 320,000 Afghans will exhaust their food supplies within a week.

Another 1.6 million in other northern provinces have stocks to last only through December.

"We are trying to see what kind of avenues we may be able to explore, be it by air, be it cross-border, be it otherwise, to try to provide support inside the country," Mountain said.