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Update No. 97/03 on ICRC activities in Afghanistan

15-12-1997 Operational Update

 Locked in a stalemate  

Despite fighting on various fronts throughout the year, the political and military situation in Afghanistan has not significantly changed. In September Mazar-i-Sharif became the theatre of operations for a Taliban-mounted offensive against the northern coalition forces of Jumbesh, Harakat, Wahdat and Jamiat. This gave rise to instability and rivalries flared up between members of the northern coalition, particularly between the two Uzbek leaders, Generals Malik and Dostom. Banditry was rampant and humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, were the targets of widespread looting. Despite the precarious security situation, the ICRC continued its activities in Mazar-i-Sharif, especially in the medical field, supplying hospitals with the necessary drugs and equipment and treating the war-wounded.

 Record number of detainees visited  

Between January and September 1997 delegates visited a total of 7,826 detainees in 74 places of detention in Afghanistan. These figures show a sharp rise over those recorded for the whole of the previous year (2,700 prisoners). The ICRC visited detainees on both sides of the front line, although access to all places of detention in the north was difficult because of the prevailing military and security situation. During the clashes around Mazar-i-Sharif, the ICRC provided medical treatment for hundreds of wounded Taliban combatants who had been taken prisoner. However, it was unable to visit them again later on as well as others captured by the Jumbesh forces of General Malik. In O ctober delegates obtained authorization to resume visits in the Jumbesh-controlled region. In December the ICRC received a request from the warring factions to facilitate the transfer of released detainees. Over one hundred ex-prisoners received logistical and financial support from the ICRC to return home across the various front lines.

The dire conditions of detention have led the ICRC to increase its assistance to prisoners. Work to restore water supply and to improve hygiene conditions and medical care has been undertaken on a large scale, particularly in the prisons of the Panjshir, Pul-i-Charki and Sarpoza in Kandahar. Clothing, shoes, mattresses, blankets, soap and cooking utensils are distributed to detainees where necessary. In addition, the delegation supplies wool to several hundred of Kabul's 14,000 war-widows who are paid by the ICRC to produce knitwear for distribution within detention centres.

 Violations of humanitarian law rife  

During the course of hostilities, both parties to the conflict have committed violations of international humanitarian law. The ICRC follows up allegations and makes confidential interventions to remind the parties concerned of their obligation to respect the rights of the individual during conflict.

Following the discovery of mass graves near Shibirghan the ICRC indicated its willingness to assist the parties in transferring the mortal remains across front lines with the proviso that both factions agreed in principle.

In a bid to prevent mine-related incidents among the civilian population, the delegation has recently launched a two-pronged programme to collate information on the presence of anti-personnel mines, mine blasts and treatment for mine victims from various organizations, the local authorities and medical structures, and to improve mine-awareness ca mpaigns among target groups such as farmers, women and children.

 Caring for the wounded  

After two months of patient negotiations with the Taliban authorities, women are now being readmitted to Kabul's two main hospitals and Afghan female medical staff have resumed work. The gradual readmission of women into the capital's hospitals follows a period of crisis that began in early September, when the Ministry of Public Health decided to channel all female patients into a single place of medical care. As the proposed facility was ill-equipped, poorly adapted to its proposed tasks and lacking beds to meet the needs of Kabul's female hospital patients, the ICRC started discussions to find practical solutions ensuring access for all to adequate medical treatment, while showing due respect for the religious traditions and practices favoured by the Taliban leadership. A special committee has now been set up with the task of monitoring the situation in the city's 22 hospitals. The body is composed of representatives of the Ministries of Justice and Public Health, the head of the religious police, and staff from the ICRC, the UN and non-governmental organizations.

The ICRC continues to fully support the surgical departments of five hospitals under Taliban control in Kabul, Jalalabad, Ghazni and Kandahar, where an expatriate team is active. Three surgical structures are also assisted in the north: Mazar-i-Sharif, Pul-i-Khumri and Rokha in the Panjshir valley.

With the escalation of violence to the north of Kabul, delegates evacuated the wounded to medical facilities in the area and hospitals in the capital. Delegates also visited the region regularly, supplying mobile clinics with first-aid material.

The ICRC's four prosthetic/orthotic centres provided artificial limbs for the war-woun ded, including civilians injured by anti-personnel mines and children affected by poliomyelitis.

The ICRC's health concerns for victims of the conflict also embrace environmental issues: in April the delegation launched an environmental programme in Kabul which aims to reduce the faeco-oral transmission of diseases by rehabilitating and improving the traditional latrine system used in the capital. The ICRC also provides wells, pit latrines and bathrooms to 15,000 displaced people in three camps in Herat province.

 Helping the Afghans to face the winter  

In order to stave off further malnutrition among Kabulis and to provide the vulnerable with a sufficient calorific intake to survive sub-zero temperatures, the ICRC has increased its normal food rations given to 30,000 families, which include the destitute and households headed by a widow or disabled breadwinner. An additional 10,000 displaced families throughout the country receive regular ICRC food and material assistance. In 1998, whenever possible, the ICRC will follow the current trend of shifting emphasis from direct food distributions to food-for-work programmes, such as the rehabilitation of essential infrastructures, instead of direct food distributions with the aim of reducing Afghanistan's dependence on external aid.

Since the end of the summer the ICRC has been trying to send food by road or air to the Bamyan region, which is severely affected by crop failure as well as by a de facto blockade of its supply routes due to the conflict. So far, the ICRC's attempts have failed, mainly for security reasons.

The rehabilitation of vital irrigation systems, seed distributions, the local manufacture and distribution of basic tools, support to honey production, winter wheat production an d distribution, assistance to fruit and forest-tree nurseries and training courses are all part of the ICRC's efforts to " help the Afghans to help themselves " .

The project delegation carried out by the Swedish Red Cross in the Tagab valley is reaching completion. The programme's aim was to facilitate the return of those previously living in the Samarkhel camp near Jalalabad through the rehabilitation of the valley's basic infrastructure, such as medical facilities, wells and irrigation systems.

 Working towards a common goal  

The ICRC's relief, tracing and dissemination programmes are carried out in cooperation with the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS). The ICRC donates food for the ARCS own relief programmes in the capital, and supplies food and pays for some of the materials used in joint food-for-work programmes. The marastoon rehabilitation programme in Kandahar has been successfully completed and is ready to accommodate 100 homeless people.

The ICRC pursues its two-tiered approach to the dissemination of international humanitarian law in Taliban-controlled areas and the region held by the northern coalition. The delegation uses a multitude of means, ranging from basic dissemination at checkpoints to radio and television programmes and dissemination sessions.

 Personnel  

The ICRC currently employs 73 expatriates, of whom 41 are seconded from the National Societies of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as 962 locally hired staff. The sub-delegation in Peshawar (Pakistan) continues to act as a logistics base for all relief and medica l operations in the Afghan arena.