Afghanistan + 1 more

UN press briefing in Islamabad 07 Feb 2002

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News and Press Release
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The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's briefing at the United Nations Information Centre in Islamabad by the United Nations offices for Pakistan and Afghanistan (excluding question and answer session).
** Eric Falt, Director, UN Information Centre

Good afternoon. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan briefed the Security Council yesterday on his recent visit to this region and on progress in Afghanistan. He stressed that one key element in the country's recovery will be the support of its neighbors, and that in his talks with the leaders of Pakistan and Iran, they both promised to take action against any Taliban or Al Qaeda personnel found in their countries, and to ensure that their territory would not be used by Afghans interested in subverting the central administration in Kabul.

Mr. Annan also stated: "Both Iran and Pakistan pledged to work with each other, and with Afghanistan's other neighbors, as we move ahead. Such a regional approach holds great promise, and I intend it to be a major pillar of United Nations strategy in confronting this challenge."

The Special Representative for Afghanistan, Mr. Brahimi, is also in New York and spoke in front of the Council. He asked members to urgently consider expanding the current UN-mandated international force from Kabul to the rest of the country to provide badly needed security.

We have for you the text of the Secretary-General's comments, as well as a detailed summary of yesterday's Security Council meeting.

** Ariana Yaftali, Spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan

Ms. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, a well-known Japanese actress, writer, and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador ended today her six-day visit to Afghanistan. She traveled to Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad on a mission aimed at raising awareness about Afghan women and children in Japan and beyond. She visited UNICEF-supported projects and met Afghan women and children.

In Kabul, she visited home-based and girls' schools, internally displaced persons in the ex-Soviet compound, and health facilities. In Herat, Ms. Kuroyanagi visited girls' schools, Maslakh camp for internally displaced persons, a women's group, and a drought-affected village. In Jalalabad she visited a health facility and a program that helps amputees.

Ms. Kuroyanagi usually visits one country per year. This repeat trip to Afghanistan, after her first visit in July 2001, underscores her interest in the situation of the Afghan people. Upon her return to Japan, she will produce a one-hour documentary that will air on her highly popular daily talk show and shorter pieces for her other programs.

News on the avalanche incident at Salang Pass remains sketchy. The accident reportedly happened on Wednesday morning some time between 10-11.00 am at Qabre Kleaner close to the southern exit of the Salang Pass, some 100 kilometers north of the capital, Kabul.

We first heard of the news through a note verbale from the Interim Administration late in the afternoon. It said up to 22 vehicles were trapped in an avalanche adjacent to the Salang Pass and requested assistance in rescuing the people trapped under the snow.

A UN Demining team in the nearby town of Charikari was immediately asked to proceed to the scene of the accident. However, due to bad weather and snowfalls, they were forced to turn back.

Many vehicles are trapped inside the Salang tunnel itself. This morning some 100 people whose vehicles were stuck in the tunnel were rescued through the northern exit. At least three people are known to have suffocated to death inside the tunnel.

The number of people trapped by the avalanche or stuck inside the tunnel is not known. Hundreds of vehicles journey every day through the tunnel linking the north to the south, which was recently re-opened after being cleared of unexploded ordnance and debris.

Bad weather continues to hamper rescue efforts. A seven truck UN demining team left Charikari this morning for the accident scene. Time is running out for the people who have been trapped under the snow for more than 12 hours.

In the west, the aid community is currently drafting a plan to help displaced persons and returning refugees to their homes of origin if they wish to do so. Information will be gathered on the district level to create district profiles in order to determine the kind of assistance needed to make the return of the displaced and of refugees sustainable. The aid community will gather data on a variety of issues including food security, shelter, food aid, nutrition, education, health, infrastructure and mines. Over 12,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have already indicated their desire to return home.

From 26 January 2002 until 2 February 2002, IOM has registered 951 persons (212 families) arriving in Maslakh Camp, a daily average influx of 135 persons. The recent arrivals come from districts in Baghdis province, mainly from Qala-e-Naw, Qadis and Sang-e-Atish.

The closing of Maslakh camp is anticipated to take place in approximately 10 days, and the training for the re-registration is ongoing, besides the information campaign which started on 02.01.

Some families apparently already living in the camp and requesting assistance are unregistered and therefore currently unable to participate in distributions of food and non-food items (although they can access other food, water and health services.) Among these are a number of genuine IDPs who arrived in the camp during one of the periods when registration was suspended for security or other reasons. Registration, which previously took place in the camp, was stopped several times following shooting incidents and when IOM staff were mobbed by non-IDPs demanding registration.

WFP has distributed at total of 23,106 metric tons wheat in the Western Region during the month of January. WFP has opened a bakery through the implementing agency War Child, and bread will be distributed on a daily basis in one of the camps, instead of wheat distribution.

UNICEF is planning to start a "Back to school campaign" by 23 March, including approximately 200,000 children in the Region. Rehabilitation of schools will therefore be a priority in conjunction with the return program. In Maslakh camp they are initiating another program "Child Friendly Space", which will include some non-formal education activities. Tents will be provided by several agencies for that purpose, in which DFID funded tents are meant to be brought back to villages without adequate schooling facilities.

UNICEF have recently conducted a rapid assessment to Qadis District in Baghdis Province, and reported a worrying nutritional situation in some of the villages. Wheat was available, but there is a lack of complementary feeding. There are discussions between health organizations on use of screening methodology for nutritional standards. UNICEF will organize a meeting in Kabul on 10-11-02, to design a common strategy for such surveys.

** Jennifer Abrahamson, Spokesperson for WFP

At a press conference in Washington DC this Tuesday, WFP Executive Director Catherine Bertini announced the agency's new nine-month Afghanistan operation, which begins in April. In addition to continuing immediate relief, the operation will focus on shifting to longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan. WFP will help rehabilitate irrigation systems and reconstruct schools, hospitals, roads and bridges through food-for-work schemes, and will help get boys and girls back to the classroom with particular emphasis on school feeding for education. WFP will also help rebuild the decimated civil service sector by providing short-term food rations for employees and will help displaced Afghans return to their villages in time to plant their crops.

Reports have been made that trucks carrying humanitarian aid were recently temporarily delayed on the Sabzak Pass between Herat and Qala e Naw in Badghis province due to heavy snow. However, the main pass in Badghis province remains open at this time. We have received news that Oxfam sent a mission to Qala e Naw today to check the conditions of the roads to ensure that relief, including food aid, gets to needy people as quickly as possible.

Food security continues to be precarious in areas of the northwest such as Siah Sangh in Badghis province, which was the focus of a February 5 BBC story.

Siah Sangh is located in Jawand district, which is one of the most seriously drought-affected and difficult-to-access areas of the country, and is therefore an area of strong concern for WFP. Residents of Siah Sangh province are among the 6.6 million Afghans who have received WFP emergency food since September 11 and the agency has moved in large amounts of wheat which can keep people alive, but with no reserves, heavy debts and disease, they are very weak.

Because the town is extremely difficult to access in the winter, six-months worth of WFP wheat, or 300 kilograms per family, were distributed in Siah Sangh in early January. WFP is gearing up to move in other food items as soon as possible, including pulses, oil and the highly nutritious Corn Soya Blend. By early January, 5,000 tons of food were delivered to Jawand province, to a total of 15,000 households, or roughly 90,000 people.

WFP has averted a famine and imminent starvation in Afghanistan by rushing in some 290,000 tons of food over the past four months, but pockets of hunger in places that are difficult to access remain. It is for this reason that WFP is deploying six helicopters into the country to assess the condition of hungry families as quickly as possible in isolated areas such as Jawand district.

Heavy snow and icy conditions have prevented the first two helicopters from arriving in Mazar-I-Sharif earlier this week. As soon as the weather clears, they will be deployed immediately.

The installation of the WFP/Ericsson GSM mobile telephones for the humanitarian agencies and the Interim Administration in Kabul was completed in late January.

This is the first time ever a fast response GSM system was installed to support communications in an emergency. The system was tested and proved to give excellent indoor coverage in the center of Kabul, but also covered up to 12 km from the center of town on the main exit roads. An initial allocation of 200 phones has been made. Among the recipients, is the Chairman of the Interim Administration, Mr. Karzai.

Citywide food distributions in Mazar-I-Sharif began on Tuesday 5 February. Some 53,000 families will receive food rations totaling 2,500 tons of food.

WFP is using experts from the Swiss federation for mine action in western and northern Afghanistan. The team in northern Afghanistan led by Patrick Hirard, a veteran French de-miner, is currently busy removing UXOs and clearing mines in Hairaton port, north of Mazar-i-Sharif along the borders with Uzbekistan. Aided by two Afghan de-miners, one translator, and one medic, Patrick and his team were able to remove 17 bombs, two 122-mm rockets and 17 fuses on Monday alone. WFP-sponsored experts work in close coordination with UN OCHA during these projects.

The teams have been deployed to ensure that the routes, warehouses and offices WFP is using are mine and UXO-free.

** Melita Sunjic, Spokesperson for UNHCR

Once Afghan refugee girls and women return home, they will carry an invisible, yet very valuable asset with them provided by UNHCR: A new self-esteem that comes with learning and working for the community. For many years UNHCR has conducted a large variety of programs with and for refugee women in refugee camps and will continue to do so upon repatriation. In more than 95 % of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan UNHCR together with a number of NGOs is running community services and education programs with a special focus on girls and women.

In traditional social structures of the Afghan society women stay invisible and without networks of their own. UNHCR with the consent of the (male) Elders initiated women's committees in nearly every camp and village. The members are respected women of a certain age who are allowed to move around in the camp. They visit the younger women, detect their problems and bring them to the attention of the Elders. Domestic violence for instance cannot be discussed on a personal basis in the Afghan society. The women's committee together with the Elders can raise such issues and seek ways to help the victims.

According to their traditions many refugee families were initially reluctant to send their girls to schools. As an incentive, those girls, who attended school regularly received a tin of edible oil each month from WFP. Over the years acceptance of formal education has improved among Afghans. This is reflected by a tremendous increase of primary education for girls during the last eight years. Now, on an average, 60 % of refugee children attend school, one third being girls.

UNHCR runs a scholarship program to finance the university studies of outstanding students of either sex. Many young Afghan women were thus enabled to finish their studies and acquire a university degree.

A large number of girls and women have been trained as health and childcare workers. They look after some thirty families, teach the women and detect vulnerable cases. Sometimes it just takes a simple advice to improve the health and well being of refugees. Newly arrived refugees for example, try to keep their babies warm just by covering them with quilts. In a tent they also have to protect them from the cold of the earth but they do not know this unless told by health workers.

In their projects for women UNHCR always emphasizes marketable skills. Thousands of refugee women have been involved in vocational training programs such as rug-making, quilt-making or embroidery. Free loans have enabled women to start small-scale enterprises.

Over the years tens of thousands of Afghan refugee women have benefited from such projects. Their effects are sustainable and will have an impact even upon their return to Afghanistan. UNHCR will continue to run women's projects in Afghanistan as well.

** Lori Hieber-Girardet, Spokesperson for WHO

The World Health Organization is planning to airdrop urgent medical supplies into Ghor province, one of Afghanistan's remote regions that has been cut off by heavy snow falls. The World Health Organization is negotiating with the International Committee of the Red Cross to drop medical supplies from helicopter into Chaghcharan, the capitol of Ghor province, in the upcoming days. On board will be a medical kit containing drugs, particularly antibiotics, to treat acute respiratory infections (ARI) such as pneumonia. The medical kit will be dropped to a safe area, where local health authorities will ensure safe passage to the provincial hospital. ARI is a major killer in Afghanistan, and without access to essential drugs, fatality rates can be high.

In addition to Chaghcharan, clinics in Shahrak, Saghar and Taiwara have also reported running out of essential drugs. The World Health Organization is currently negotiating with the World Food Programme to send in emergency medicines and supplies by road to these three districts. provided access is available. The last medical shipments reached Ghor province in late December.

The WHO has seven tons of emergency medical kits on stand-by for Ghor province and is considering all options to bring the essential material to the region, including the further use of helicopters, if necessary. However, air-dropping medical supplies is much more difficult than air-dropping food and requires careful coordination with someone on the ground to receive the supplies. One of the big problems in Ghor province is that even if medical supplies reach clinics, it is unlikely that people living in remote villages will be able to access these clinics. This may mean that thousands of people are cut off in their villages, without any access to doctors, health care or medicines. There are an estimated 550,000 people living in Ghor province.

The province of Badghis is also facing a shortage of medical supplies. WHO is concerned about the potential consequences of lack of access to medicines for the estimated 380,000 people living in Baghdis. It is therefore moving rapidly ahead with plans to transport emergency medicines in the days and weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Ministry of Public Health are discussing how best to move ahead with the measles campaign in Paktia and Ghazni provinces after fighting in Gardez forced the evacuation of WHO training teams in the region. UNICEF and WHO are undertaking a nation-wide campaign to protect Afghanistan's children against measles which kills 35,000 children a year. Training teams, vaccines, syringes and all other necessary equipment were in place last week, when fighting broke out in the city, forcing the evacuation of six WHO staff, and one UNICEF employee. Paktia and Ghazni provinces are considered underserved regions of Afghanistan. This means the population is unlikely to have access to adequate health care. If a measles outbreak were to occur now, the fatality rate amongst children could be very high. Despite the latest outbreak of violence, preparations are still continuing for the next round of polio vaccinations in the region, scheduled for 5 to 7 March.