Afghans' misery

Print edition : October 13, 2001

AFGHANISTAN is a veritable hellhole. For nearly two and a half decades now, the fate of the 30-odd million Afghan population has simply refused to change.

Since the invasion of the country by the Soviet Union in 1979, perhaps Afghanis have suffered much more than any other people around the globe. Millions of them perished in the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union on Afghan soil. The Soviet withdrawal brought about little change in life in the country as it soon plunged into a civil war. The U.S. and its allies, who poured billions of dollars into the country and supplied loads of arms and ammunition, disappeared from the scene the moment they achieved their goal - the Soviet defeat. The "international community" lost interest in Afghanistan once the last Soviet soldier left the country. The world that made Afghanistan the theatre of a Cold War conflict has paid scant attention to the plight of its people. The international outcry when the Taliban militia destroyed the Buddha statues in Bamiyan early this year best illustrates the point.

An Afghan worker carries a sack of wheat distributed by the World Food Programme in Peshawar on October 5.-AFP

Ironically, the concern of the international community over the miseries of the Afghan people has more often than not just been lip-service. The callous response of Australia few days before the terror attacks in the U.S. to a group of 400-odd Afghan refugees who were waiting to enter its shores is a case in point.

As sneighbours and other vested interests played games in their endeavour to instal a regime of their choice in Afghanistan, warlords and thugs emerged all over the country carving out little empires for themselves. There are numerous tales of plunder, destruction and molestation until the Taliban emerged on the scene in 1994 and gradually began gaining control. But while the Taliban ensured a semblance of law and order, it imposed a writ of its own. The puritan militia with its mediaeval mindset enforced its own version of Islam. Women were the worst-hit. Thinking sections of the populace became enemies of the Taliban; thousands of professionals are supposed to have left their homeland in search of a dignified life.

The civil war rages on even as the country faces the worst drought in the last several decades. Today, as another war on Afghanistan has begun, the human catastrophe of a bigger magnitude is in the making. The tragedy of an Afghani is that his/her suffering is the same within and outside the country. Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction of having produced the world's single largest refugee community for the 22nd year running. As per the estimates of the United Nations, over four million Afghans, nearly one-sixth of the population, are currently refugees - an estimated 2.5 million in Pakistan and 1.5 million in Iran. Millions of others are lining up at the borders to be allowed to cross over. About 800,000 Afghans had to leave their homeland in the period between September 2000 and August 2001.

The Amnesty International has urged the international community to take the responsibility for the unfolding humanitarian crisis. "Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan must reopen their borders and provide protection to Afghan refugees. However, they should not bear a disproportionate cost - the international community must assist," the organisation said. "The people of Afghanistan have suffered conflict and famine for decades. The international community must offer protection and relief immediately and provide adequate resources to the UNHCR for it to carry out its mandate in an effective manner," it said.

Before the current crisis at least 1.1 million Afghans were internally displaced owing to drought, armed conflict and food shortage. According to some reports, more than 100,000 people have left Kandahar, the seat of the Taliban. There are many obstacles for people seeking to flee. Many of them are too poor to obtain transport, some are too weak to move.

Pakistani security forces have reportedly sealed the border with Afghanistan with barbed wire in a number of places, despite the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) appeals not to turn back refugees. Only those with valid visas are currently allowed in; Pakistani authorities have ceased issuing permits altogether. Up to 15,000 Afghan refugees reportedly made it through in mid-September but hundreds of others have been turned back.

The Amnesty has pointed out that neighbouring states have certain obligations under international law. States are prohibited from returning anyone against their will directly or indirectly to another country where they are in danger of serious human rights abuses.

Over one million Afghan people do not have the resources to see them through to the next harvest. World Food Programme (WFP) officials say that the foodstocks in Afghanistan will last only until mid-October. Since they, and the non-governmental organisations who used to work with them, have been forced to evacuate, there is no way the stocks can be disbursed or replenished. Food distribution has come to a virtual standstill.

This year Afghanistan appealed for $229 million in aid from the world community but not even one-tenth of it came. Add to this the branding of international aid workers as zealots spreading Christianity in the Islamic Republic, with punishment as per Islamic law, and you have a recipe for disaster for the common Afghans who, deprived of any sources of income, have become heavily dependent on this dole.

An indicator will be the plight of the Afghani, not the man in the street, but the currency. In 1979-80 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Afghani was in the ratio of four to one Pakistani rupee, which currently equals about 60 Indian paise. In 1992 it was 16 Afghani to a Pakistani rupee. In 1993, when Afghanistan was in the first throes of a civil war, it went down to 380 Afghani to a Pakistani rupee. In 1996, it was 600:1, and this year it stands around 1,300:1.

A doctor earns about $10 a month. The salaries increase 10-fold if one finds employment with an international aid agency but even that opening is now closed following the strictures against them and their final withdrawal in the face of the present threat of war on Afghanistan.

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