The Coats of Oxfam

FOR an estimated 5 million people in war-torn countries stretching from the former Yugoslavia to Albania, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Afghanistan, the approach of winter threatens privation and, for some, even death.

Forced to flee their homes because of fighting, these refugees and displaced persons often lack not only adequate shelter but also warm clothing.

To help them survive, Oxfam has launched a ``Cold Front Appeal'' in Britain. The international charitable organization is asking Britons to donate a million coats and warm garments, plus British pounds1 million in cash (about $1.5 million) to pay for transporting them to those in need.

The appeal, which last year collected three times as many items as Oxfam had requested but fell short of the sums needed to deliver all of them, represents a laudable effort. However, as Oxfam officials are quick to point out, this humanitarian aid meets only a tiny part of the urgent needs that exist in these ravaged lands. International governments, the group emphasizes, must continue to seek an end to the wars that cause most of the suffering in these countries.

For almost four decades, everybody on the globe lived under the projected shadow of World War III - a nuclear ``holocaust'' leading to a nuclear ``winter'' according to the scenario dramatized again and again. Repeatedly the superpowers calculated the potential overkill of a single preemptive strike. But however ominous the statistics, they remained just that: statistics.

On the other hand, since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war, the anticipated peace dividend has proven anything but that for the starving nomads of North Africa, the men, women, and children caught in crossfire in Bosnia, the Kurds besieged in Iraq, or the dispossessed of Armenia and Azerbaijan. These casualties, running into the millions, are not statistics in a computer war game but faces seen every night on the news.

The coats of Oxfam and the food shipments of private relief organizations, small as they may seem in the face of unthinkable hardship, are practical gestures of aid and comfort. They signal that no matter how far removed any one person is from a crisis, he or she still has an opportunity to try to ease the plight of others - even when governments cannot or will not.

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