Special Report

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Relief workers fear thousands of Afghans may starve without more food aid

JULIAN BELTRAME November 5 2001
Special Report

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Relief workers fear thousands of Afghans may starve without more food aid

JULIAN BELTRAME November 5 2001

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Relief workers fear thousands of Afghans may starve without more food aid

BY JULIAN BELTRAME in Ottawa

Every few days, a convoy of about 40 dust-covered trucks weighed down with sacks of grain leaves Turkmenabad, a Turkmenistan town near the northern Afghan border, for the uncertain, overnight trek deep into Afghanistan. The drivers, on hire to the United Nations World Food Pro-

gramme, must traverse treacherous roads while skirting lawless bandit gangs to deliver their life-saving cargo. It’s dangerous work, says Abby Spring, a New York City-based spokeswoman for the world’s largest distributor of food aid, but so far, the Taliban and local warlords have let the trucks through. “We’re not moving as much as before Sept. 11,” Spring adds, “but we are still bringing food in.”

Much more aid—food, medicine, blankets and tents—is available. After the UN estimated at least $920 million may be needed in the next six months, many countries promised millions. The United States has already contributed more than half that amount. Canada so far has provided a comparatively paltry $16 million, but officials say that number is misleading. Unlike many countries that pledge money but take years to deliver, government spokesmen say Canadas cheque is in the mail within two weeks of making a commitment. And, they add, the $16 million represents only a start—Ottawa will likely send aid to Afghanistan for years to come. The UN World Food Programme has stored 12,000 tonnes inside Afghanistan and 48,000 tonnes in neighbouring countries. A further 165,000 tonnes donated by Washington is on its way to the region.

CONCERNS FOR THE AFGHAN PEOPLE SHE ADMIRES

Flora MacDonald was literally on the other side of the planet when the World Trade Center’s twin towers came crumbling down. The former Canadian cabinet minister was perched 4,600 m high in the mountains of India’s Ladakh region, near the border with China, after a day of trekking with three friends. Then, as is her custom when in the Third World, she tuned into BBC radio on her shortwave. “We were stunned,” she says of hearing about the terrorist attacks. “It seemed so unbelievable in the quiet serenity of the mountains."

It’s no accident the sprightly 75-year-old was so near Afghanistan on Sept. 11. Unlike some of her former Tory cabinet colleagues, MacDonald was not rewarded with lucrative corporate directorships after leaving politics in 1988. Instead, she has travelled the world on behalf of nearly a dozen international aid agencies, including CARE Canada.

She was about to tour Afghanistan when the terrorist strikes altered her plans.

More important, they shattered her hopes for a people she’s come to admire. Even though Afghanistan was a wrecked country when she visited last March, “I was also seeing so many good things,” she says. CARE Canada, she notes, had 6,000 children in home schools. “They were bright, inquisitive and full of spirit," she says. “I

came back to Ottawa and told the people of CARE I had never been so proud.”

Now, she worries about the schoolchildrenand the 60,000 widows and orphans CARE Canada’s aid workers are feeding. “It’s not pleasant thinking of them being bombed with nowhere to hide,” she says. MacDonald doesn’t oppose the U.S.-led war against terrorism. She believes, however, Canada should do more on the aid front. “We could have launched a humanitarian relief campaign along with participating in the war effort,” she says. “Around Africa and Asia, I see Canadian aid workers helping the local people and they’re always regarded as the best. This is the kind of army that Canada should mobilize.” Still, MacDonald is not as gloomy as some about postwar Afghanistan. She doesn’t believe the Taliban and Al-Qaeda represent the views of most Afghans. Nor do most Afghans hate the West, she says. “When I was there,” she recalls, “the children were eager to present us with gifts.” Most Afghans would welcome an international reconstruction program after the war, she says. It's what is needed to win the underlying war in Afghanistan-the war against the kind of conditions that helped the extremists prevail in the mid-1990s. Says MacDonald: “I’m looking forward to going back.” Julian Beltrame

Getting the food to hungry mouths, however, is a different story. According to the UN and dozens of relief agencies operating in Afghanistan, between five million and seven million Afghans are in critical need of food. As many as 1.5 million in remote and mountainous regions are facing starvation. But the U.S. bombing campaign and the breakdown in the social order inside Afghanistan have thrown the delivery systems into turmoil. Wayward U.S. bombs hit a compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross holding relief supplies on Oct. 16 and again last week. The Taliban seized two World Food Bank depots in midOctober, returning one the next day. Citing safety concerns, most relief agencies pulled out their Western staff. Many Afghan aid workers have also fled. On top of that, small trucks that could distribute food throughout the country have become scarce, forcing workers to turn to less efficient donkey and mule transport. And with winter fast approaching—normally in midor late-November—the race to get the food to the needy has reached new levels of urgency.

The general consensus is that thousands of Afghans could starve to death this winter, or die of diseases made fatal by malnutrition. Even before the U.S. military strikes began on Oct. 7, the mountainous Central Asian nation ranked among the world’s most destitute. Three years of drought on the heels of two decades of war had dragged Afghanistan down to the bottom of most human development tables. “We’re seeing the cumulative impact now of years of poverty, conflict and neglect,” says Hunter McGill, director general of humanitarian assistance for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). “People’s coping methods have been ground down.”

What to do? The solution isn’t to be found in the controversial U.S. air drops of yellow plastic packets containing daily rations of of rice, lentils, peanut butter and cookies. The critics’ complaints about the food-packet bombardments are numerous: they’re a cynical public relations ploy; they’re not getting to the most destitute; they’re being rounded up by the Taliban; they sometimes land in minefields. But one thing the rations-from-onhigh campaign has accomplished, if unintentionally, is to highlight the scope of Afghanistan’s misery and need: the drops represent less than one per cent of the food aid getting into the country.

Fearing an early snowfall could soon cut off whole swaths of Afghanistan from any relief, many aid experts are calling for safe corridors to be established. “That is the best way to ensure aid gets through,” CARE Canada spokesman Andrew Graham told Macleans in a cellphone interview from Tajikistan. “We would need assurances from the Taliban the food would not be stolen, and from the U.S. that the corridors would not be bombed.” But while conflict-free corridors were employed with some success in Bosnia in 1993 and 1994, they pose more problems in Afghanistan. How can the Taliban be trusted? asks CIDA Minister Maria Minna. “The Taliban have been oppressing that country for a long time,” Minna said in an interview. “And as we’ve seen, they’ve already stolen some food aid.” As well, local tribal leaders with no loyalty to either the Taliban or the Northern Alliance, which controls parts of northern Afghanistan, might raid the convoys.

The fact is, adequate relief is unlikely to be delivered until the Taliban is routed and the terrorist presence inside the country eradicated. Then, Afghanistan will desperately need the kind of sustained nation-building commitment from the

West that—had it occurred after the defeat of the Soviet occupation army in 1989—might have prevented the Taliban’s rise to power. In China last week, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said Canada would likely be invited to play a role in a UN-led peacekeeping mission after the war. Canadian officials expect to participate in an international effort to rebuild everything from irrigation projects to roads and schools. “We can’t make the same mistake again,” Minna said. “We have a moral obligation when the fighting desists to show the Afghan people we have not forgotten them.”

International aid agencies on the ground are not looking that far ahead. They’re scrambling to get as much food in as quickly as possible—and hoping for the best. The World Food Programme says it must have at least 52,000 tonnes of grains inside the country before bad weather sets in. Working flat out, the program’s convoys are only moving about 4,000 tonnes a week, so even if winter comes mercifully late, the target won’t be met. “We have to face the fact that people may not survive the winter,” says Andrew Natsios, the senior official in charge of the Afghan relief effort at the United States Agency for International Development. “Those people are in very bad shape right now and they don’t have food stocks.”

On the other hand, Afghans could get lucky. The drought has devastated local agriculture—but it has also meant little snowfall. Another dry winter, ironically, would allow aid to continue reaching remote rural areas and save thousands of lives. It would be a meagre blessing, but welcomed by Afghans who’ve had few blessings of any sort for a long, long time.

With William Lowther in Washington