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Afghanistan : ICRC expatriates return, focus on protection




 Executive summary  

  • In rapid advances in the first half of November, the United Front (Northern Alliance) has taken control of Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad. This has created conditions for the return of international staff of humanitarian organizations to Afghanistan. However, the situation is far from stable and areas of the country remain inaccessible. It is still uncertain to what extent humanitarian activities can be re-established: some regions remain under Taliban control, fighting and winter block access to parts of the country, and in some areas relinquished by the Taliban it is not yet clear who is in control.

  • ICRC expatriates have returned to Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad and, today, are expected to return to Herat. Expatriate teams from Faizabad, where they had stayed throughout the crisis, have also reached newly accessible areas in the north such as Taloqan.

ICRC flights to Bagram (north of Kabul) and Fayzabad carrying personnel and materials into Afghanistan have resumed. The expatriate health, relief, and water and sanitation specialists are evaluating and prioritizing ongoing assistance programmes.

Key protection activities, suspended since mid-September, have resumed: registration of prisoners and detainees has begun, and a dialogue concerning humanitarian issues and obligations is being reestablished with all parties to the conflict.

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 General situation  

 United Front advances rapidly  

With Taliban defences weakened by the military operations of the US-led international coalition, the United Front took Mazar-i-Sharif on 9 November. On 11 November the Taliban lost control of Herat , and on 13 November they withdrew from Kabul and Ghazni and the next days local commanders took control in Jalalabad.

These developments have allowed the return of some international staff, raising hopes that some of the extensive humanitarian activities which were suspended with the departure of all international organization expatriate staff in mid-September can be resumed and expanded to meet new needs created by the fighting.

 Security still fragile and access limited  

The situation remains far from stable. Bombing continues in Kandahar and other pockets under Taliban control such as Kunduz. In some areas where the Taliban have left, a lack of central authority leaves it unclear which of a number of competing groups is in control; the insecurity of routes limits access to the newly captured cit ies. The road leading from Jalalabad to Kabul is still not secure, as shown by the recent assassination of four journalists there.

Large areas of the country, including some most affected by drought, remain inaccessible. It is therefore not yet sure where and to what extent humanitarian operations can be re-established.


 Acute needs for protection  

While accurate information on the situation within the country remains sketchy, there are particularly alarming reports of atrocities committed in Kunduz, an area still inaccessible to international humanitarian organizations. In such highly contested areas as Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan a history of cycles of atrocity and reprisal leaves certain groups particularly vulnerable to acts of retaliation.

There are indications that large numbers of prisoners have been captured in the course of the recent military developments. On the other hand, several thousand persons previously detained by the Taliban were released when effective control changed in cities and regions.

As a result of aerial bombardment and spreading fighting, more areas have been infested with mine/unexploded ordnance (UXO). People run greater risks of mine and UXO accidents as they flee the hostilities through unfamiliar areas, or return to areas like South Shamali (north of Kabul) which the shift in front lines has once again made accessible.

Harsh winter conditions threaten the survival of hundreds of thousands of Afghans with inadequate shelter or means, and complicate the transport of vital supplies. The population's plight risks to be even more devastating when fighting or insecurity hinders the movement of food and other essential supplies.

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 ICRC response  

 Expatriates return  

Within a day of the United Front entry to Kabul on 13 November, ICRC expatriates had arrived to reinforce the 500 Afghan staff members who maintain essential assistance activities there.

On 15 November ICRC expatriates reached Mazar-i-Sharif from Turkmenabad, where they had been on standby. Although the office there had been looted and occupied by armed men, Afghan staff were still in place and continuing to work.

On 16 November an ICRC team from Faizabad arrived at Taloqan on a temporary mission to evaluate needs there and in Takhar.

Another team of expatriates reached Jalalabad on 18 November; at the time of writing, an expatriate team is also heading for Herat and is expected to renew expatriate presence there as of today.

In Faizabad , controlled by the United Front, the ICRC expatriate presence has continued uninterrupted.

In order to address priority humanitarian issues with high-level authorities, international organizations and other members of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the President of the ICRC has, on 22 November, begun a visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 ICRC  flights resume  

ICRC flights into Afghanistan resumed on 18 November; a first ICRC flight, carrying staff of the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, landed at Bagram airport. Before Afghan airspace was closed in September, two ICRC airplanes based in Peshawar provided air transport into Afghanistan for humanitarian organizations.

 Assistance continues  

Expatriate medical, engineering, and relief specialists are working with Afghan staff to evaluate priority needs and adapt ongoing ICRC assistance programmes to meet them.

ICRC-supported surgical services are being surveyed; so far, facilities have been found to be functional and able, with assistance, to cope with influxes of wounded patients. Other medical facilities will be evaluated to determine how to best support them. Six ICRC orthopaedic centres continue providing physiotherapy and prosthetic/orthotic services for tens of thousands of amputees and other disabled persons.

ICRC engineering staff has continued to repair and rehabilitate the Kabul water system, in the past two months restoring water supply for over 300,000 persons in the city and rehabilitating sanitation systems for thousands more; priorities for further repairs are being determined.

Although many of the relief stocks of food and essential shelter and household items (tarpaulins, jerry cans, plastic sheeting, soap, etc) in Kabul were destroyed or looted after the bombing of ICRC warehouses there, food and material assistance continue to be delivered to particularly vulnerable groups there.

 Burying the dead  

In Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the collection and burial of the some 330 dead has been a priority for ICRC staff. In this grim but essential activity, ICRC staff takes care to respect religious requirements and the dignity of the dead, preserve public health, and take all possible measures to facilitate identification at a later time. Its staff follows procedures and guidelines derived from the institution's expertise in this field, gleaned from extensive experience in many conflicts.

The above example of care and identification of mortal remains is an area of concern also reflected in the ICRC's newly launched Missing Persons  Project , an in-depth analysis of the means available to improve the identification of the missing and the services provided to their families.


 Priority: protection  

Recent changes in territorial control put many groups at risk: they include IDPs, populations near fighting, under the control of opposing groups, or moving into or through areas contaminated by mines and UXO, families dispersed by fighting, prisoners and detainees held in connection with the conflict, and the wounded and sick. Working to ensure the protection of their lives and dignity and to maintain their family links is the ICRC's first priority.

Until the 11 September events which resulted in the withdrawal of expatriate staff on which most ICRC protection activities depended, the ICRC conducted regular visits to several thousand prisoners and detainees.

In the absence of expatriates ICRC's Afghan staff has been able to pursue limited activities for prisoners and detainees. These have included:

  • covering transport costs for newly freed detainees, enabling ICRC staff to confirm the release and well-being of detainees previously registered

  • burying some 330 mortal remains in Mazar-i-Sharif and in Kabul, taking measures to facilitate later identification so that families can be notified of their fate

  • making repairs to improve water supply and sanitation conditions for detainees in Kandahar, Herat, and Kabul

  • making presentations to increase mine awareness of those receiving assistance in the Panjshir

With the return of expatriate staff, standard protection procedures are being taken up again whenever possible. So far, these have included:

  • re-establishing contact with authorities of all groups involved in the conflict in each area, resuming or establishing a dialogue on their obligations to protect and respect civilians, the wounded and sick and those deprived of their freedom

  • registering more than 200 new prisoners and detainees in Mazar-i-Sharif, and visiting 87 detained in Kabul, collecting Red Cross messages (RCMs) to deliver to their families

  • serving as a neutral intermediary to facilitate the release of eight Shelter Now  International expatriate staff detained by the Taliban; they were released on 15 November and flown to Pakistan by US military

  • several of the 16 formerly detained Afghan staff of Shelter Now  International  contacted the ICRC after their release and confirmed that all had been released

  • facilitating and organizing the return of the mortal remains of four foreign journalists killed in Afghanistan

  • surveying hospitals to determine whether all ethnic and political groups have equal access to medical care and are secure while they receive it

In the coming weeks, as the ICRC is able to re-establish and consolidate its expatriate presence in new areas, its priorities in the field of protection will be:

  • gaining access to new detainees, registering them, collecting RCMs from them and monitoring their treatment and conditions in visits that conform to ICRC standards

  • gaining access to civilian populations at risk, monitoring their situation and prompting all authorities to ensure their security, dignity and access to vital supplies and services

  • confirming the whereabouts and well-being of previously-registered detainees

  • wherever possible, re-establishing RCM networks, working in cooperation with National Societies concerned

  • encouraging all sides to respect medical services and monitoring facilities to ensure equal non-discriminatory access to care

  • restarting the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data on mine/UXO injuries in order improve targeting of mine/UXO action

  • renewing support for Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) mine awareness activities

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 Cooperation within the Movement  

The ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have established that the ICRC assumes the function of Lead Agency of the international relief operation in Afghanistan, as specified in the Seville Agreement.

Appeals by the two organizations will be launched and managed separately, but coordinated and adapted within the framework of an overall needs assessment.

The International Federation will place special emphasis on reconstituting the ARCS, developing its operational capacity and assisting in its management. The ICRC has also requested that the Federation assume responsibility for the ARCS clinics programme. The Federation will also, in close coordination with the ICRC, continue to assist the population in selected drought-affected areas. The ICRC will resume its support for ARCS activities in the domains of tracing, dissemination and mine awareness, and is presently assessing the security situation allows the direct operational involvement of Participating National Societies through project delegations.

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 Coordination with other humanitarian actors  


Within Afghanistan, in Islamabad, and in Geneva the ICRC regularely participates in meetings with other major humanitarian actors to share information and coordinate activities.

 For further information, please contact, the External Resources Division.  

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