Turkmenistan: Turkmenabad to remain key humanitarian hub
"Turkmenabad is the most important hub for humanitarian assistance in Central Asia today and will remain so for quite some time," a logistics officer for the World Food Programme (WFP), Abdul Jabbar Bhatti told IRIN on Wednesday. Since 11 September, over 194,000 mt of food assistance had been dispatched to Afghanistan from the city, a fact often unacknowledged or unreported by international media, he asserted.
Located 330 km north of the Afghan border along the Amudarya river, the city, formerly known as Charjau, is the capital of the country's eastern Lebap Province and well placed for logistical operations such as the WFP's. Today it provides a vital regional hub for the storage and transportation of aid through Turkmenistan to Afghanistan.
According to WFP figures, in October 2001, 7,128 mt of food assistance was dispatched from the city, jumping to a staggering 54,318 mt in December. "This was the real crisis month in Afghanistan. We had to cover the food gap, Bhatti explained.
The landlocked Central Asian state, which shares 744 km of border with Afghanistan, was the only country to keep its borders open to the country, thus providing it with a critical food corridor -- a fact, Bhatti maintained, had been instrumental in saving the lives of millions.
Between 30 and 35 percent of all wheat dispatched from Turkmenistan is locally procured, the bulk of it coming from neighbouring Kazakhstan. Conversely, donated wheat to the UN comes via the southern port city of Bandar Abbas in Iran -- either by rail or road.
Working from seven warehouses with a total storage capacity of 16,000 mt of mixed food, WFP maintains a 40-man team in Turkmenabad working around the clock, promptly dispatching food to the western Afghan city of Herat and the northern cities of Mazar-e Sharif and Andhkhvoy as it arrives. Additional consignments are sent to the southern Uzbek city of Termez for onward transportation into northern Afghanistan.
Echoing Bhatti's enthusiasm for the operation, Jacques Opperman, a senior technician for the Nector Group, a WFP subcontractor responsible for bagging the food, told IRIN that the city had proved a strategic base from which wheat from surrounding countries could be received by rail. "From here it can be easily dispatched by either rail or truck to needed points in Afghanistan," he said. "This is solid proof of our humanitarian capability."
Asked about the future of WFP's activities in Turkmenabad, Bhatti said he expected dispatches to stabilise, but to continue for quite some time. "It all depends on the situation inside Afghanistan. Even if the situation stabilises, it will take a long time for the Afghans to develop their agriculture sector to sustainable levels," he said. "They will be dependent on food aid from the outside, and Turkmenabad is going to play a major role," the WFP official maintained.
Indeed, the food agency has already effected two local purchases of wheat from Kazakhstan for May and June totalling some 39,000 mt to be bagged and dispatched to Afghanistan. "Regarding the importance of the Turkmenabad office and the food corridor, the volume speaks for itself," Bhatti said. "If there is a delay in dispatching food, millions are going to suffer."
But while the achievement of WFP and its staff during the crisis has proved exceptional, it also represents a tribute to the cooperation of the Turkmen government and people in facilitating it. Turkmenistan was the first Central Asian nation to allow cross-border humanitarian operations, and has yet to receive recognition for this.
Overseeing a truck brimming with wheat as it left for Afghanistan, a WFP local staff member, Ruslan Annayev, told IRIN how proud he was to be part of the effort. "We are doing something positive for the Afghan people, and my city is a part of it," the 22-year-old Turkmen said with a smile.
Turkmenistan is currently the second leading aid corridor to Afghanistan. Of the total WFP wheat delivered to Afghanistan since 11 September, 48 percent has entered via Pakistan, and 29 percent from Turkmenistan, followed by much smaller figures from neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
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