Afghanistan: 30 years of suffering

30-03-2009 Interview

Director of Operations Pierre Krähenbühl voices the ICRC's concern about how the Afghan conflict is hitting civilians increasingly hard. Unless the warring parties do more to meet their obligations under international humanitarian law, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.


  Pierre Krähenbühl    

I worked in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, notably during the battle for Kabul in 1994, which saw the different mujaheddin factions fight for control of the capital. I remember often thinking about what 14 years of war could mean for the people of Afghanistan in those terms. Now we are talking about 30 years.

Thirty years of almost ceaseless violence, insecurity and loss. Beyond the statistics, there are the individual destinies and tragedies. Every injured person we speak about after a suicide attack or an aerial bombardment has a name, a family, a history.

I cannot sufficiently stress the unbearable levels of individual and col lective suffering that Afghan men, women and children have had to endure over three decades, and continue to endure at levels that defy belief.

For the past three years the ICRC has repeatedly drawn attention to the increasingly severe impact of the conflict on the civilian population.

Never, however, has our concern been as acute as it is now. The conflict is intensifying and affecting wider parts of Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are significantly higher than a year ago.

The daily lives of people living in areas where the fighting is taking place are being disrupted, be it because of air strikes, night-raids, suicide attacks, the use of improvised explosive devices, or because of intimidation and the population being pressurized or co-opted by the different parties to this conflict.

The official line from many sources is that 80% of the population is " sitting on the fence, " neither wanting to be on one side or the other, whereas the ICRC's interaction with beneficiaries and others shows that this is not the case. People are being pulled from both sides and are not on the fence at all, but rather, metaphorically speaking, " in a trench. "

Lives are also at risk because of the often difficult access to medical care in areas where health posts have been closed or destroyed, or lie beyond front lines.

The ICRC's " medical mission " aims to ensure that people in need of care receive help. To this end, the organization is enhancing its support to key surgical hospitals, such as the regional hospital in Kandahar. The ICRC also has a " war wounded assistance " programme, has established first aid posts in locations where there is fighting, supports community-based first aid volunteers of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, and facilitates polio vaccination campaigns in conflict-affected areas.

The ICRC is also planning to increase its presence in Kunduz in the north, Maimana in the north-east, Farah in the west, and – hopefully – Helmand in the south.

The neutrality of the ICRC is a tool for access to all parties in a conflict zone to ensure respect for the organization's efforts to provide protection and assistance for the people affected.

Now more than ever, I am convinced of the expediency of this approach. It allows the ICRC to achieve delicate humanitarian aims, such as having a role in the evacuation of the wounded. It means being able to support the Afghan Red Crescent in the retrieval of mortal remains, to serve as a neutral intermediary during hostage crises and, above all, being able to maintain dialogue with all sides when there are allegations of abuses against civilians.

In recent weeks there have been repeated references – including in the media – to the upcoming deployment of additional international, mainly US troops, and to a strong potential for a further intensification of the conflict.

Unless much more is done in different ways by the different parties to the conflict, be they the Afghan national forces, the international military contingents or the armed opposition, to meet their obligations under international humanitarian law, the ICRC fears that the Afghan population will bear the brunt of the announced escalation, and that consequences for many will be extremely dire.

The ICRC remains firmly committed to conducting operations that address some of the Afghan population’s most urgent needs.

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