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Humanitarian situation worsens as Afghan hostilities spread

18-02-2008 Interview

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. As armed hostilities spread and insecurity grows, more and more people are being forced to flee their homes. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for the ICRC to access displaced people throughout the country. In addition, freezing temperatures and blizzards have affected several areas, killing hundreds. Interview with Franz Rauchenstein, ICRC deputy head of delegation in Afghanistan.

   

  © ICRC    
 
  Franz Rauchenstein, ICRC deputy head of delegation in Afghanistan.    
     

 What is the ICRC's reading of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?  

The ICRC is worried that an increasing number of people are being displaced as the result of spreading hostilities between security forces – both Afghan and international – and the armed opposition.

Throughout the country, the humanitarian needs have increased significantly over the past two years. In addition to the southern provinces, large areas in the east and west are now also affected by the armed conflict, with around two-thirds of the country affected by hostilities.

 
"It's difficult to assist those who have been displaced. We have less access to them now than at any time during the past 20 years, and that's both worrisome and frustrating."
 
 

What's more, bitter cold in central and western parts of Afghanistan have also left many residents in dire straits, especially in the remote mountain areas, where temperatures have plummeted. When spring comes, these vulnerable villages may see more suffering as the result of floods.

 How are civilians being affected by the hostilities?  

It's impossible to estimate exactly how many civilians have been displaced by the hostilities because our access to the field is extremely limited, making reliable information and figures hard to come by.

The displacement of large numbers of Afghans is putting a strain on health and sanitation services. Having lost their homes and means of livelihood, many displaced people are forced to depend on their relatives in order to survive.

 

Meanwhile, those who have chosen to stay in conflict affected areas face the risks of confrontation and intimidation. For example, villagers are often approached by the armed opposition at night, demanding food and shelter. During the day, they're questioned by the other side, who accuse them of helping the opposition fighters. As a result, their homes are sometimes destroyed, leaving them with little choice but to flee.

   
© ICRC / M. Kokic / v-p-af-e-01201    
 
  Kandahar, Mirwais Hospital, paediatric ward.    
     

Those who stay put must cope with restricted freedom of movement, which makes it difficult to go to the market or trade goods. It's also difficult to take the wounded and sick from remote areas to health centres and referral hospitals.

 How has the ICRC's work been affected by the spreading insecurity?  

It's difficult to assist those who have been displaced. We have less access to them now than at any time during the past 20 years, and that's both worrisome and frustrating.

 

The prevailing insecurity, coupled with the presence of criminal groups in the conflict-affected areas, is hampering the ICRC from moving around safely in the field.

As a strictly neutral, independent and humanitarian organization, the ICRC maintains contact with all parties to the armed conflict. In our experience, this is the surest way of gaining access to those in need… but it's not getting any easier.

Thanks to the Afghan Red Crescent Society, we are able to support the distribution of food and non-food assistance to people in many areas, but it's risky work for them too and we cannot bring help everywhere it's needed. The ICRC also supports medical facilities, physical rehabilitation programmes and water and sanitation projects in several areas of the country.

 What does ICRC have to say about detention in Afghanistan?  

   
© ICRC / M. Kokic / v-p-af-e-00918    
 
  Kandahar, central prison. ICRC delegate visits a security detainee in the juvenile section.    
     

The intensification of the conflict has led to a dramatic increase in the number of detainees. The number of prisoners and detainees has more than doubled over the past two years, rising from around 5,000 to 13,000. They are held in prisons and detention centres designed to accommodate a quarter of that number.

 

The ICRC visits detainees held in connection with the conflict to evaluate their conditions of detention and treatment. Because we don't have access to all parts of the country, we cannot visit all places of detention, but we do know that many of them are overcrowded.

The ICRC also visits detainees held by the International Security and Assistance Force and the United States-led coalition, including at the US-run Bagram Temporary Internment Facility. The ICRC maintains a bilateral and confidential dialogue with the d etaining authorities on its findings regarding the conditions of detention, treatment and respect for basic judicial guarantees.

When needed, it also supports the Afghan prison authorities in the construction or the repair of sanitary facilities in places of detention.