Aid groups still slow in getting to needy southern Afghanistan

Monday, August 5, 2002

QALA-E-GHAZ, Afghanistan -- Harsh climate, uncleared land mines and crumbling infrastructure have made southern Afghanistan among the country's poorest regions. Those same problems also are keeping away the very aid workers needed to help this former Taliban stronghold.

Since the Taliban collapsed in December, most aid organizations have chosen to set up in the capital of Kabul, where the climate is kinder, communications and roads marginally better and security enhanced by international peacekeepers.

That means less attention is directed to the south, the homeland of the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. They already are feeling estranged from the central government many Pashtuns believe is dominated by their ethnic Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek rivals.

"There has been a lot of trouble getting aid donors in this southern area," said Roy Olliff, with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "I don't think it is the flavor of the month."

Unlike Kabul, there are no peacekeepers in the southern provinces, and the U.S. and coalition forces are here for war or protecting their own military base.

Aid workers frightened

Safety concerns were underscored Thursday, when two men on a motorcycle threw a grenade into a U.N. compound in Kandahar. No one was hurt, but fears were heightened among aid workers already complaining of the region's difficulties.

"Up until then, this was one of the safest parts to work. Of course it's made us all nervous, but it's going to affect us getting new recruits here, which we struggle to do already," said Wil Newman of the Britain aid organization Oxfam.

Her Kandahar office has sandbags stacked against the windows to protect against such attacks.

For Western aid workers, the transition to life in southern Afghanistan can also be tough.

Because of lingering anti-Americanism, many aid workers who look Western fear reprisals. Most aid workers abide by 9 p.m. curfews. Alcohol is nearly impossible to find. And the conservative culture can be particularly hard on women, who are expected to wear head scarves and dress modestly.

The south also still has the largest number of uncleared land mines in the country. In the summer months, temperatures can top 118. Poor roads mean even relatively close villages can take days to reach.

Then there are the region's enormous needs -- a quarter-million people uprooted by war and a seven-month drought.

Ahmed Munir, area coordinator for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, admits the United Nations was unprepared for the daunting task.

"This is the most severely affected region," he said. "We're already stretching our resources now."

The south also continues to be a hotbed of regional conflict between tribes and warlords, bucking the newly established power of Afghanistan's central government headed by Hamid Karzai.

Donors are concerned that "if they come and pump money into a project that they won't be able to continue it because of instability," Munir said.

Competing factions

All this has caused grumbling among the Pashtuns, who formed the basis of the ousted Taliban. Even though Karzai is Pashtun, many Pashtuns complain they are being punished by Tajiks and Uzbeks of the former, U.S.-backed northern alliance now controlling key ministries.

"This area is the most backward compared to other parts of the country," said Sher Shah, 25. "The northern alliance people are in the government now and because they're in power, they're not giving us money from the budget because we're Pashtun."

Haji Amir Jan said aid has been hampered by poor security and tribal bickering.

"Tajiks and Uzbeks are in power and there are many development projects in their areas," the 48-year-old cook said. "Pashtuns need to be united."

Although the United Nations says it does not declare regions in the south off-limits because of security, some U.N. workers recently were prohibited from traveling to Uruzgan province, where a U.S. air raid on July 1 killed many civilians.

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