Afghanistan: The Aftermath of the Mazar-e Sharif Attacks

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Lynn Yoshikawa

The senseless and brutal attack on innocent UN staff in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif continues to horrify the international community days after the fact. Last Friday, a mob of 2,000 people stormed the bunker where four foreign staff hid while Afghan staff managed to blend into the crowd. Four Nepalese guards were killed trying to defend the compound and UN staff and three more were murdered. Debate swirls as to whether some of the victims were beheaded or their throats slit - either way it was an act of misguided anger and revenge.

The mob was protesting last month's burning of a Koran by followers of the Florida based pastor, Terry Jones. The UN says that Taliban fighters had infiltrated the mob. However Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied all responsibility for the high-profile attack. The fact is, today most Afghans conflate the UN with the worst acts of some in the international community - the murder of three Afghan civilians by U.S. soldiers and the graphic photos they took of themselves posing with the corpses; the sexual abuse of young boys by private security contractors; and U.S. airstrikes which killed nine children collecting firewood. Blaming the UN for the burning of their holy book was no stretch for many Afghans.

Mazar-e Sharif is - or in reality - was one of the safest cities in Afghanistan. My colleague and I visited the same compound just last November to interview staff researching human rights abuses by parties to the conflict, including the government, and others who coordinate the humanitarian response of aid agencies to the region's frequent floods and increasing displacement of villagers due to fighting. The UN staff we met with are dedicated and their work has a real impact in improving the lives of Afghans. We hope that the chief of the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Staffan De Mistura, will ensure that UN staff will be able to continue this important work.

Mr. De Mistura, rightly blames the Florida pastor for inciting hatred by burning the Koran. He has expressed defiance and the commitment of the UN to stay. But there is no doubt that the attack will have an indelible impact on security measures for UN staff. After the 2009 attack on UN election workers, it seemed that UN security measures could not get more restrictive. All UN staff in Kabul were forced to live on a sprawling compound on the outskirts of town and were forbidden from going to any of Kabul's heavily secured restaurants. New security protocols formulated in reaction to Friday's mob attacks will likely further restrict staff's ability to travel, conduct investigations into human rights abuses and corruption, and support Afghans with development and humanitarian aid - not to mention the UN's ability to recruit experienced staff.

Refugees International expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the eight UN workers killed on April 1.