War-ravaged Afghanistan ignored by international aid agencies
International agencies are studiously ignoring the plight of the estimated 8 to 10 million Afghans who have been caught up in the war inside Afghanistan, although they have provided considerable support to the nearly 3 million refugees who have fled to Pakistan.Skip to next paragraph
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Virtually forgotten or ignored, the plight of the Afghans has failed to ignite the humanitarian concern of the West in even remotely the same degree as the plight of the Cambodians several years ago.
Notwithstanding its old anti-Soviet rhetoric, the Reagan administration has effectively turned a deaf ear to the Afghan cause. Nor have American humanitarian organizations such as the Afghanistan Relief Committee, Care, or Save the Children soug Not to be faulted for their expansive relief activities among Afghans in exile, both Western governments and most relief agencies have consciously neglected to deal with what many informed observers consider to be the root of the refugee problem.
''The less aid the Afghans receive inside Afghanistan, the more refugees will be forced to flee,'' said Etienne Gille, head of the Paris-based Afrane, an organization which has been running food, clothing, and medical caravans to the interior.
Many Afghans find this deliberate lack of support hard to understand. Washington's obsession with the Soviet use of chemical warfare is seen only as an attempt to build up its propaganda arsenal against the Kremlin and avoids the issue of human suffering. Resistance leaders consider it an irrelevant exercise in armchair academics to differentiate between death by starvation or by bombs and chemical gas.
The standard argument put forward by the Reagan administration, which has conceded only a dribble of mainly small arms to the guerrillas, is that there is no united resistance authority through which to route outside help. Nor would the Pakistani government, they say, permit resistance supplies to swell beyond present discrete proportions. Albeit sympathetic to the Afghan plight, US relief organizations point out that American wariness of getting involved in a Vietnam-type conflict has affected their responsiveness to the Afghan problem.
A number of international organizations such has UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Development Program are still active in Kabul, but because of the war can provide assistance only in areas controlled by the communists. Out of some 50 UN-supported technicians and advisers who remain, only a handful are from outside the East bloc.
Apart from UNICEF, an almost pathological reluctance characterizes the international agencies' willingness to discuss operations in Kabul. It is as if Afghanistan no longer exists. At UNESCO, where officials are more than enthusiastic to elaborate on Lebanon, Israel, and South Africa, Afghanistan has yet to be examined in their general conference. As one former European UN official put it: ''The Soviet Union presupposes that the international organizations will not lift a finger against its activities in Kabul.''
Of the six primarily educational projects in which UNESCO has a hand, the national literacy campaign is one of the most controversial. Originally designed to span 20 years, it has been whittled down under Soviet and Afghan pressure to a four-year crash plan. Hundreds of anti-communist Afghan teachers who would logically be involved in such a program have been hounded out, imprisoned, or killed by the authorities. Afghan defectors and resistance sources complain that the primarily Soviet-staffed program is nothing but an instrument for Marxist-Leninist indoctrination.
WHO, for example, by virture of its charter, can involve itself only in projects sanctioned by the regime. Excluding clandestine assistance provided by French volunteer doctors, the vast majority of Afghan citizens are therefore denied any form of international health care. Some former Kabul-based development personnel maintain that the continued presence of the United Nations in Afghanistan legitimizes the Soviet occupation. As long as the UN General Assembly recognizes the present Kabul government, the agencies can technically justify dealing with the Afghan communists.
Critics argue, however, that Afghanistan is no longer a sovereign state, as all major decisions are taken by senior Soviet advisers attached to the ministries. Yet other aid officials suggest UN activities can still serve as a valuable link for Afghans with the outside world. A government claim earlier this year that any respected neutral organizations would be allowed to investigate charges of chemical warfare or political repression has yet to materialize. Amnesty International has not been allowed in since February 1980 to check on alleged human-rights violations.
Late this summer, Afghan authorities permitted an International Red Cross delegation to visit 338 prisoners over several days at the notorious Pul-e-charkhi prison in Kabul but were then asked to leave. Thousands of political prisoners are reported to be held not only in Kabul, but also in Herat , Jalalabad, and other towns. The Red Cross, which negotiated the transfer of five Soviet prisoners from the guerrillas to internment in Switzerland, is nevertheless continuing talks for ''further future visits.''
Lack of unity among the resistance has led to costly diplomatic failures. Unlike the Palestine Liberation Organization or the anti-Vietnamese Cambodians, the resistance has failed to persuade the UN to recognize it as the legal representative of the Afghan people, or at least to grant it observer status.
Even during World War II, however, the sort of unity the West and third-world supporters are demanding of the mujahideen was hard to find among European resistance movements.