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Aid workers face harm in helping Afghans

Theft, exortion keep food from the most needy

SHARE Aid workers face harm in helping Afghans

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Warlords have threatened them, local Afghans have tried to rob them and the offices they used to store and distribute much-needed help have been looted down to the light fixtures.

Aid workers racing to feed the needy in Afghanistan before winter makes that mission nearly impossible are encountering sometimes frightening obstacles.

"This is very, very difficult, but we have to serve our people," said Mir Abdul Rahim, deputy field coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, a private aid organization with operations in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Last week, one of Rahim's trucks was on its way to distribute food when a local commander tried to commandeer it before an angry crowd forced him to back down.

In another district, a local official demanded the right to determine who gets assistance from the private aid group. When Rahim refused, the commander said he could not guarantee the aid workers' safety.

At a camp where the group was counting displaced people to determine how much aid to distribute, armed soldiers drove up and demanded 2,000 more families be added to the list, Rahim said.

"There are people who should receive the food and people who should not receive the food, and the people who should not receive the food, such as commanders and bandits, are trying to take it," Rahim said.

So great is Afghanistan's need, especially now that winter has set in, aid workers hardly know where to begin.

The International Red Cross estimates there are as many as 400,000 families desperate for help along former front lines in northern Afghanistan.

In the central highlands, roughly one in five children are reported severely malnourished, said U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker. Nearly three feet of snow has fallen in some areas, severely hampering aid deliveries.

Then there are the Afghans returning home from Iran and Pakistan, many with nothing to rebuild their lives. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said 17,500 refugees re-entered the country in one week in mid-December.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, most foreign aid workers pulled out of Afghanistan. They are only now returning, often to find their offices ransacked and looted.

At the offices of the U.N. World Food Program in Mazar-e-Sharif, all that remained were a few desks too big to be easily removed. The carpet, the type glued to the floor, had been ripped up, and even light fixtures removed. U.N. offices in the northeastern city of Kunduz were similarly looted.

As they try to rebuild, some organizations are also having trouble dealing with reams of paperwork needed to secure aid that the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have pledged to provide Afghanistan.

Adding to the frustration are fake displacement camps — clusters of tiny pup tents made from sheets or tarps that have sprung up around Mazar-e-Sharif. During the day, the "residents" collect aid meant for refugees. At night, they abandon the camps for their real homes.

"The population living nearby wants access to that assistance and they pose and pressure . . . which obscures immediate assistance to the most vulnerable people," said Jeff Labovitz, head of the local office of the International Organization for Migration.

Mined roads and sporadic clashes between local factions have also slowed aid delivery and pushed many organizations to take special precautions.

Foreign workers for U.N. aid organizations have chafed against rules forcing them to get special permission to leave Mazar-e-Sharif and restricting them to the U.N. compound after 5 p.m.

Other aid organizations do not have such restrictive rules.

"Of course it's frustrating," said Vladimir Smoljan, the head of the local UNHCR office. "But these are our instructions and we are obliged to follow them."

Still, the current situation is an improvement over the Taliban, whose leaders demanded that aid workers feed soldiers' families. Before the Taliban, aid trucks were assessed fees by a patchwork of local warlords controlling as many as 100 checkpoints, Rahim said.

There are some signs the difficulties are easing.

In Herat, a western city near Iran, the U.N. food agency met with warlord Ismail Khan, who promised to stop charging trucks $150 to cross from Iran.

Rahim also expected the situation to improve as the new transitional government asserts control over Afghanistan.

"Once we get our government settled, all these problems will be solved. Slowly, slowly," he said.

Staff writers Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Deborah Hastings in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this story.