Press briefing by Manoel de Almeida e Silva, UNAMA Spokesman 23 Jan 2003

News and Press Release
Originally published
Emergency Medical Assistance Reaches Badakshan in Time to Stop the Spread of Whooping Cough

We now have an update on the whooping cough outbreak in Badakshan Province that we received from Dr. Jon Fleerackers of the WHO is in Maymay, a sub-district of Darwaz District.

According to Dr. Fleerackers the joint Government/interagency health taskforce deployed in Badakshan is containing the spread of the disease in the two districts affected. The emergency response to the outbreak has so far reached 71 (out of an estimated 189) villages affected by the disease in the Darwaz and Kwahan districts. The team is also expected to reach another 30 villages in those districts in time to stop a further spread and prevent severe complications such as pneumonia. The antibiotic erythromycine is being administered over a two-week period to all children up to 15 years old. Seventy-eight volunteers and 15 medical staff from Kabul and Faizabad are currently working to contain the outbreak. A team of two volunteers currently administers erythromycine to 100 children per day.

As we have been telling you since 2 January, emergency teams, medicines and other equipment have been rushed to all five-sub districts of Darwaz (Qaleh-e-Kuf; Shahr-i-Sabz; Nusai; Jamarj-i-Payan and Maymay). These supplies have not only treated whooping cough but are also being used too combat other vaccine preventable diseases such as polio and measles (immunization for all children under five).

Dr. Fleerackers also informed us that he would be in Kabul either today or Friday the latest. We will try to arrange for him to come to the briefing on Sunday to give you a first hand account of the situation on the ground. Conditions on the ground -- snow all over the place -- are delaying his return.. It is a place without roads, or whenever there are roads, they are very difficult roads. That is the only part of the country, which is basically blocked by the snow, as it happens every winter.

Winter -- road clearance

Snow in other areas such as the Central Highlands, Western and Northeastern Afghanistan resulted in major road blockages. However, snow clearance, which is part of the winter response programme allows access to vulnerable people in the winter time.

As part of the labour intensive projects, 2000 Afghans, who received heavy coats, boots and are well equipped with the necessary tools for snow clearance, are currently working on road/passes clearances. The snow clearance is monitored and administered by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, United Nations Joint Logistics Centre and United Nations Office for Projects Services.

In the West and Central Highlands recent heavy snow caused major road blockages and the snow clearance teams are working around the clock to keep the roads and passes open. Though, alternative routes are open, there are currently four passes/routes closed.

In Bamyan province the Shatu Pass between Yakawlang and Panjao is blocked. The snow clearance works are going on. Snow clearing works continue along main route from Yakawlang to Bamyan and further to Shibar Pass.

In Wardak province the Hajigak pass on the way from Bamyan to Behsud remains blocked on the southern side. The snow clearing works on Qunak Pass between Panjao and Jawaz started. The route from Bandshoi to Panjao with Molla Yaqub Pass is open.

In Badghis province the Sabzak pass between Karukh and Qala-E-Naw remained blocked due to heavy snow. Currently, IOM trucks are stuck on this route. The reopening of the route is expected today.

The Salang tunnel in Parwan province is open since yesterday for commuters from the south to the north. In fact due to light snow conditions over the past three weeks small vehicles can pass both directions each day. [Should a major accumulation of precipitation fall, traffic will return to the regular uni-directional schedule].

Also, for your information, the flights to Hirat and Mazar resumed on Tuesday after one week of cancellations, which was due to poor visibility and snow.

In the back of the room we have maps prepared by the Afghan Information Management Services, AIMS that shows the areas covered by the snow.

Rain falls

And let continue with the "weather report". As you know this week there were torrential rains in the southwest, south and southeast of Afghanistan, particularly in Herat, Farah, Helmand, Nimroz and Kandahar provinces. Our UNAMA offices in Kandahar and Herat informed us that there have been no reports of major floods or blockages of road in the area.

These rains brought optimism to people in the southern area of the country. People are hoping for a productive harvesting year of the winter rain fed crop. They are in fact anticipating more rains and river flows when the snow melts in the central highlands and the mountains. So far, it has rained 5 times in the south, and it is evident that the area is experiencing a relatively soggier winter than it has been in the past 5 years. These are impressions by local people, not estimates by the experts. We asked our colleagues in FAO about the rain situation and their assessment is that in South, Southeast and Southwest of the country has not yet improved, while the water levels in the north and east are more positive.

Update on the North

At the last briefing we reported that a disarmament exercise began in Maymana, Faryab province on 18 January and that 500 light and heavy weapons had been collected. We have been informed from UNAMA-Mazar that the disarmament in Farybad has unfortunately been stalled due to differences between Jamiat and Jumbesh. Negotiations are ongoing to settle these issues. We also told you that a disarmament delegations would be dispatched to Almar in Faryab and four other areas in the province where weapons collection was expected to continue. That has therefore been put on hold.

Launch of Afghanistan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment

We have been asked to inform you that Afghanistan's long-awaited Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment will be launched this Wednesday 29 January by Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, Minister for Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment, and Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of the Afghanistan Taskforce of the United Nations Environmental Programme.

As you may remember we told you back in September a UNEP mission comprised of 20 Afghan and international scientists as well as experts conducted a month long assessment in Afghanistan on vital environmental issues. The assessment also included a review of the institutional and policy issues required for environmental management. The assessment report presents facts on the state of the environment, specific findings concerning the natural resources of Afghanistan and recommendations on how to improve environmental conditions and policies.

You are all invited to attend a special press briefing on the launch of this important report on the same day at 2:00 p.m. in the new UNAMA Conference Room in Compound B. It will be in our new conference room. Starting from Sunday, we will no longer be briefing you here. We will brief you in our new conference room in compound B.

Agreement between UNDP and UNHCR -- Maki Shinohara, spokesperson

UNHCR and UNDP signed this morning an agreement, or a letter of understanding, in an attempt to promote a smooth transition between relief and development activities.

The agreement is based on a concept referred to as "4Rs" (repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction) or four stages through which development agencies gradually take over from the humanitarian agencies. The agreement also builds on what is known as "Ogata Initiative" -- an idea promoted by the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Sadako Ogata, to pursue an integrated approach in bridging the gap between relief and development assistance in Afghanistan.

Recognizing that refugees, internally displaced and returnees are valuable resources in the recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, the two agencies agreed to targeting assistance particularly to communities or areas with high number of returns, which would also benefit the local population.

Working closely with the Afghan government and within the framework of the national strategy, other agreed areas include: making joint efforts to mobilize resources; encouraging the participation of other competent agencies; helping the government set up an employment database containing data on individual skills, absorption capacity and job opportunities; and joint monitoring of progress with the government.

The challenge of this year's repatriation operation is how to allow returning Afghans to stay in their home communities. UNHCR will continue to assist returning Afghans with a focus on shelter and water and UNDP, along with other development agencies, will support the Afghan government to make the transition from post-conflict recovery to long-term development.

There is a press release available in the back of the room.

Western Afghanistan

UNHCR's Chief of Afghan operation Filippo Grandi visited Herat and Farah provinces over the weekend, to see the situation of assistance to returning Afghans and internally displaced people.

Wedged between Herat and Nimroz, Farah province is rather an isolated "transit" province between Herat and Kandahar. During 2002, over 3,500 refugee families have returned to Farah, but there are more than 600 internally displaced families there.

Grandi met with Governor of Farah, Mr. Ab Hai Nemati, who predicted more returns to the province this year, given the relative stability, but he was very much concerned about the absorption capacity. Cities in the province had been destroyed mainly in the fighting during the Soviet occupation in the 80s, but practically all sectors remain unrestored -- such as schools, medical facilities, roads and karez. What was once a fertile agricultural land has been reduced to sand and dust due to the drought, which decreased considerably the provincial income.

UNHCR office in Farah, which was established in 1996, re-opened in April 2002 after temporary closure in October 2001. Since then our local Afghan staff has built 1,250 shelters, restored 190 wells and waterways throughout the province, working closely with the local authorities. UNHCR is also helping to clean-up some karez, which has an enormous impact on the local communities, and restore smaller roads. But the province is in desperate need for longer-term development assistance for further stability. The governor requested Grandi to call on other agencies, which tend to concentrate in Herat, to bring assistance also to Farah.

Although the number of refugee returns to the western provinces may be lower compared to eastern Afghanistan (Farah, Herat, Badghis and Ghor received 16% of the total refugee returns) and a significant number of internally displaced people have returned home in 2002 (Maslak camp population reduced from 140,000 to 40,000), the problem of internal displacement in the region remains a difficult one.

Grandi met with groups of displaced people in Farah and Herat, whose chances of returning home at this time seem limited. They belong to three categories of displacement: those who fled harassment and illegal taxation in northern provinces, such as in Faryab, those who had to abandon their homes due to severe drought in provinces like Ghor and Badghis, and also landless people, including nomadic Kuchis who lost their livestocks.

On Sunday, Grandi met with Governor Ismail Khan in Herat and requested his support in addressing harassment cases and in finding solutions to some 60,000 difficult displacement cases in the region. The governor agreed to work with UNHCR to improve the conditions in the areas of return, but requested that the returns be gradual and matched with development assistance in the return communities.

2003 Return stats

As you know, the daily number of returning refugees has gone down considerably during the winter months. During the first three weeks of this year, a little over 4,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan. The number of returns is slightly higher from Iran than that from Pakistan. The total number of refugees returned since last April stands at 1,808,000.

Questions and Answers (due to tape failure the first two questions are not full transcripts)

Question: Is there any indication of what is the dispute between Jambiat and Jumbesh?

Spokesman: It's the usual question of a local power struggle. I know that General Ata Mohammad is not in the country right now, therefore I am not sure how fast they will be able to solve whatever differences there are. If they require his presence here. But, I am just making speculations here.

Question: on UNAMA's reaction to announcement in Heart that only female teachers can teach girls.

Spokesman: In our last briefing I told you that the Human Rights Advisor was due to leave on Sunday for Herat but the flight was cancelled due to the weather conditions. This would be the second meeting of the joint UNAMA-Afghan Human Rights Commission group with Hearti authorities. Our concern is access to education for girls and the right to work of teachers. The meeting will happen very shortly and we will report to you on it.

Question: Do you know where the 300-400 families who are living in camps in Kabul are from?

UNHCR: We are aware that there are some people living under the tents or public houses. We do recognize that the Kabul city itself did receive a high number of returnees. Although the strategy of UNHCR assistance is to pull assistance to the rural communities, so that people could go back and they will not really pile up into the cities. At the same time we recognize that are some people who are in need in Kabul. Since beginning of this winter we are working with other agencies to provide at least assistance that these people can get through the winter. Last week there has been winter supplies provided to them. The reason why they are in Kabul living in these conditions really vary. Of course there are some people whose houses have been destroyed and not necessarily conducive to the winter weather, also some people may not even have land, which is our very big problem that we have to address in a long term. But there are also some people that do try to be visible, thinking that they would attract attention therefore they would receive assistance. It is a very complicated thing, because once if we start really giving a lot of aid that sort of undermines the whole purpose, because we want to help these people to go back to their homes. And we want to help them back in their homes. Depending how we do it, lets say we start in the district 10, then the chances are the next day all these people are going to move to the next distribution center. It is a complicated matter but we do know the problems. Not only among the UN agencies but also a lot of NGOs who are focused on Kabul, we are trying to provide some assistance to these people.

Question: What type of rule the UN has in the disarmament process?

Spokesman: It's not a UN sponsored exercise. The one in the area of Mazar. is organized and sponsored by the Mazar Security Commission, which is integrated by the main factions of the north. They have asked UNAMA to be present and in some cases to just observe, or sometimes to help to count weapons or help register them. But the process is initiated and run by the factions themselves, so there is no UN rule.

A national disarmament programme has not yet been started. As you know the decree signed by president Karzai on December 1, on a national army, [also determines] demobilization and disarmament programme in the country. That was further confirmed earlier this month where there was a meeting of the Defense Commission. You know that the Defense Commission was established by president Karzai, following the Loya Jirga which brings together not only government officials, including Defense Minsiter Fahim, but also brings together in that Commission factional leaders, who have to be involved in the discussions that will determine the conditions for the new Army, demobilization and disarmament. The Defense Commission agreed on the names that will chair four Commissions that will be following up the on the December 1 Decree. These Commissions are still being formed, but planning is already happening and hopefully they will be in a position very soon to finalize how demobilization and disarmament will take place.

Question: Do you know anything about an attack by armed people on the Focus office in Pul-I- Kumri?

Spokesman: I do not know about this, we will have to look into it.

Question: On the Whooping Cough outbreak -- is it contained now?

Spokesman: It is considered contained for the moment but of course they still have to reach number of other villages. That area of the country is one of very difficult accesses. They can affirm containment where they have been and where action has been initiated. But they have not heard more reports [of new cases] but they still have work to do.

Question: Is there a disarmament process elsewhere in the country?

Spokesman: There is also disarmament in Kunduz, but again it is a local initiative. I have heard of other initiatives elsewhere, but in those we have no involvement and no request of involvement from the parties to UNAMA. I will not be able to give you details on that.