Afghanistan + 1 more

UN press briefing in Islamabad 14 Feb 2002

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News and Press Release
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PRESS BRIEFING BY THE U.N. OFFICES FOR PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN
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. The situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East topped the agenda of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's meeting yesterday with President George Bush in Washington, D.C. On Afghanistan, the question of security was prominent in the discussions. The Secretary-General backed Afghan Interim leader Hamid Karzai's call for an expansion of the Security Assistance Force to areas outside Kabul and also stressed the importance of financial support to the interim administration.

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

In Mazar-I-Sharif, the issue of the numbers and the authenticity of displaced persons has been a long-standing issue. Both the UN and NGOs have been battling with this issue for months, given the fluid situation of movements of population in the region. One important problem is the rise of so-called camps of displaced persons, who are in fact local people in search of international aid. Separating the real IDPs from the fake IDPs is difficult.

For example, following the distribution of assistance by an NGO in Kunduz, thousands of new families appeared the following day in the camp. This seems to be typical of the situation in the north, as well as other parts of the country. Unplanned aid can further damage the current situation. It can act as magnet. For example some people who formerly benefited from the WFP bakeries seem to have moved to the camps.

An international NGO, in conjunction with IOM and a national NGO, conducted a survey in early December to find out how many IDPs there were in Mazar and in the surrounding areas. Of about 50,000 who called themselves IDPs, only 10,000 to 15,000 were found to be genuine IDPs. Twenty-eight "camps" were counted.

It must be noted that people are resorting to these measures because of the high levels of vulnerability. In other words, while displaced people are in need, in many areas, non-displaced persons may be just as needy and are trying to get help any way they can.

International Rescue Committee, the Office of the UN Regional Coordinator, and IOM have set up a commission in order to deal with the situation. They aim to transfer the vulnerable IDPs to a transit camp, prior to helping them return home. They are also working with local authorities to close the settlements inside the city. Several distributions were carried out late at night in order to access those who were truly in need--however, the aid received was often stolen or shared in return for security. Moreover, some displaced persons are being prevented from returning by local influentials, who extract informal taxes, in the form of a cut of the aid, from the displaced.

An information campaign is underway, in cooperation with local authorities, warning local people to stop setting up fake camps. Moreover, the World Food Programme is undertaking general food distributions in major cities-now including Mazar-in order to help urban dwellers; bakeries are also being temporarily re-established in Mazar. Finally, more needs assessments are required in order to determine who the most vulnerable are.

Another so-called camp was Babayadgar Kammarband, a camp surrounded by a village. It is now almost empty, and the would be IDPs are in the houses in the village. The "camp" is empty for now, but it is believed that people may again emerge from their homes and install themselves in tents hoping for aid.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) chairs the Return Task Force, which was established in the second week of December last year. The task force has now established a return registration form, village survey form, reintegration package consisting of food for three months, shelters kit, blankets and soap. This form will help the task force to establish a database prior to the return of the displaced.

Meanwhile, IOM has set up a field office in Maimana in Faryab Province and will be joined by various UN agencies. It may be recalled that Faryab Province was hard hit by the drought. Plans to scale up staff presence in Maimana, which were in place last summer, were delayed by the Coalition bombing campaign.

There have been problems in other locations as well with local populations showing up during surveys and distributions claiming to be displaced in order to try to get a share of the aid. This has occurred in the east, as well as in the West, where an unknown percentage of some of the "displaced" are actually people from in and around Herat, including nomads who have shown up in considerable numbers. Once Maslakh Camp is closed, this situation may prove easier to control.

The United Nations has also received various reports over the past few months about inter-ethnic conflict, discrimination, and victimization in various parts of the country. These reports have been received from the east, from Badghis Province, from IDP camps in Herat and from Sakhi Camp in Mazar. It is imperative that local authorities in the respective areas assure the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups such as women in the areas for which they are responsible.

Meanwhile, in the West, a recent Oxfam assessment to Jawand district in Badghis Province found that the humanitarian situation is extremely poor with coping mechanisms at rock bottom. Although families are currently receiving wheat distributions, many households remain severely food insecure. This is due to households using the wheat to repay debts incurred during the suspension of deliveries (Sept-Dec 2001), the change in the dollar/afghani exchange rates decreasing the value of the wheat; and the costs of transporting the food from distribution points to their homes. Minimal resources to pay for heating, lack of health services and potable water are also making life difficult for families in this area, where gearing up the communities for self sufficiency, and the return of IDPs, will be very difficult.

Another international NGO, World Vision, has just completed a five-day assessment of remote villages of Qala-e-Naw District in the northwestern Afghanistan province of Badghis. This team also found alarming conditions. The NGO will work on distributing 430 metric tons of food sent in by UNICEF and WFP to eleven distribution sites in the area, which will pose enormous logistical challenges. The shipment is designed to look after the needs of 26,000 pregnant and lactating mothers, and children under five.

** Jennifer Abrahamson, Spokesperson for WFP

WFP's three-month rapid assessment mission is up and running in the northern region of Afghanistan. In order to re-assess food needs, teams are moving into remote mountain villages, where extremely vulnerable inhabitants are suffering the ravaging effects of a punishing three-year drought and years of conflict.

For the past two days, Mi-8 helicopters leased by WFP have been carrying teams into isolated areas of Dara-e-Suf district of Samangan province. Villages to be assessed in Dara-e-Suf include Koita, Ahangaran, Zardsang, Tolanak, Khawal, Shira, Kamach, Ashliz, Zai Dori, Podinagak, Godam and Lobabi.

Dara-e-Suf has been plagued by a complex set of problems that directly affect the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. Including the drought, which decimated families' ability to grow crops or support livestock, Dara-e-Suf lies in the crossfire of continued factional fighting and banditry. It is also historically one of Afghanistan's poorest districts.

WFP has provided some 1,500 tons of wheat for nearly 84,000 people in Dara-e-Suf in January, and more than another 500 tons is on the way. WFP wheat in threatened areas of the north such as Dara-e-Suf has helped people survive, but many villagers remain extremely weak and depend on humanitarian aid for survival. They are in need of medicine, seeds, tools, clothing and clean water.

While wheat has kept millions alive through the height of the crisis since October, other basic nutritious food items, such as beans and oil, are also lacking in many areas and will be delivered by WFP over the coming weeks and months.

Over the next week, the rapid helicopter assessments are also planned for six locations of Balkh province, and beyond that, in Baghlan, Faryab, Jawzjan and Saripul provinces. A total of 65 locations will be assessed by the WFP teams in the north.

WFP completed an assessment on February 9 in Chakanak village in the Alborz area of Balkh province. WFP travelled to Chakanak by road from Mazar-I-Sharif for this assessment. Located only 50-100 kilometers from Mazar-I-Sharif, it took the WFP team some 5 hours each way to reach their destination because of slippery, muddy and snowy roads.

Initial findings show that inhabitants were living in highly precarious conditions, suffering from lack of clothes, medicine, soap, sanitation and clean water. In this area, people traditionally eat three meals per day consisting of rice and meat. Now, they are surviving on a wheat porridge and wild grasses, seeds and roots found around their village. The general nutritional status of children seemed very poor.

WFP is using these findings to streamline its plan of action for delivering more food to the hungry in Chakanak and other villages and districts that will be assessed by helicopter mission over the next few months.

In addition, helicopter assessment missions will soon be launched throughout the country in the Herat region, the Central Highlands and other severely-affected regions in the northeast. Populations to be assessed will include resident drought-affected; marginal and isolated groups; IDPs and returnees.

Journalists are allowed to accompany the teams by helicopter into any of these isolated areas on a first come, first serve basis.

In other news, the urban distribution in Mazar was completed on 12 February. A total of 2,720 tons was distributed to 54,400 families. Each household was given a 50 kg bag of wheat, to last one family a month. It is estimated that the total number of beneficiaries to be assisted is 326,400 people; around 75% of the city population. WFP of course targeted the most vulnerable. The survey for the distribution took 400 surveyors, half of them women, 2 weeks to prepare; whilst the distribution itself took seven days to undertake.

In the western Herat region, WFP is actively involved in an exercise to re-register people in Maslakh Camp began on 4 February and is reported as being peaceful. Preliminary indications are that so far, the number of people living in the camp may be significantly lower than the number of people who were officially registered in the past.

From 1 to 12 February, about 5,500 tons of food was dispatched to the western region, including almost 3,000 tons for Badghis.

A WFP monitoring mission returned 12 February from Ghor after spending more than two weeks in different districts. They got stuck in the snow in Pasaband district, but managed to cross Bor pass yesterday. There they met a team of the Swedish Rescue Services, who had cleared the passes on the road to Chaghcharan district and managed to keep them open. They are now starting to work on the pass to Pasaband.

The amount of food dispatched into Afghanistan between 2 -8 February inclusive was 22,747 MT; an average of 3,249 MT per day. During January, WFP delivered 65,941 MT of food into Afghanistan. Now that sufficient cereals have been positioned, WFP is concentrating on providing mixed commodities consisting of oils and pulses. Since October, 314,000 tons of WFP food has been delivered to Afghanistan

** Lori Hieber-Girardet, Spokesperson for WHO

The World Health Organization is set to begin a survey of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases in Afghanistan.

There is little information on the number of HIV and AIDS cases in Afghanistan, nor amongst the refugee population in neighboring countries. Therefore, a priority in the months ahead will be to carry out a survey to get a better idea on the prevalence of the disease within the Afghan population. By the end of the year 2003, a national plan of action on infection control of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, such as gonorrhea and syphilis, will be completed. The plan will focus on how best to develop culturally sensitive public awareness campaigns, and counseling services for individuals and families. It will also propose the best strategy to contain and treat HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases in Afghanistan.

To date, ten cases of HIV/AIDS inside Afghanistan have been reported to the World Health Organization. Although this is a limited number, health officials recognize the need to start early in developing activities to contain AIDS because of the rapid speed in which the disease multiplies. Every day, 14,000 people around the world are infected with the deadly virus. Forty million people are living with HIV or AIDS, and about a third of them are between 15 and 24 years of age. As in other countries in this region, HIV infection is concentrated in specific groups of the population, such as drug users, migrants, and those who practice risky sexual behaviour.

HIV/AIDS can be transmitted through unprotected sexual relations, intravenous drug use, contaminated blood and re-use of medical equipment without sterilization. One of the key elements of the HIV/AIDS program in Afghanistan will be to ensure safe blood for the population. Although it appears that AIDS is still a minor health problem in Afghanistan, other blood-borne infections, including hepatitis are major health concerns. Therefore, the establishment of safe blood banks will be prioritized in the upcoming year.

There are currently 44 medical facilities performing surgery in Afghanistan but just over half are testing blood. The WHO has sent 18 HIV/AIDS testing kits to Afghanistan (that is three for each of the six regions; each kit allows for one hundred tests) and has trained lab technicians to use reagents to trace HIV in blood. The WHO goal is to have all facilities testing all blood before transfusions by the end of this year.

Making blood transfusions safe is especially important for maternal health care. One of WHO's objectives for the reconstruction of Afghanistan's health sector is to increase access to emergency obstetric care through the development of referral centers. Emergency births often entail surgery and subsequently, blood transfusions. Therefore, there will an increased need for labs to test blood for hepatitis and HIV before mothers receive the necessary transfusions.

The WHO program will prioritize training Afghan staff working in health facilities in infection control. Training will focus on safe disposal of syringes, and needles and sterilization of surgical equipment.

** Yusuf Hassan, Spokesperson for UNHCR

Tuesday saw the closure of the infamous Jalozai site, where for more than 12 months, thousands of Afghan refugees endure enormous suffering and misery. It was indeed a happy moment for all of us to see the smiling faces of the last families to leave as their buses pulled out of the site heading towards their new destination. Three convoys transported 1,570 people from Jalozai to three new camps in Bar Kili in Bajaur, Shalman in Khyber and Ashgaro in Kurram. A total of 45,000 people have been moved from Jalozai to the new camps.

Since October 2000, where Afghans fleeing the combined effects of conflict and drought began to arrive in the North West Frontier Province, UNHCR has transferred more than 105,000 people from Jalozai, some 60,000 of them to the New Shamshatoo refugee camp, which is about 35 kms south-west of Peshwar.

I will like to pay tribute to all the dedicated UNHCR field workers and their counter parts in the Pakistan Commissioner of Refugees who have carried out this relocation exercise in a record time. The NGOs, the medical, sanitation, water and community workers.

I will also to speak about the spirit of generosity of the Pakistani people, who rushed to the aid of the Afghan refugees. Many of these kind people remain anonymous but their contribution in kind helped minimize the suffering of the Afghans.

I will also like thank the many Pakistani journalists who by writing about the agony of the Afghans, made sure that they weren't forgot and left to continue to wallow in misery.

Since mid-November, a total of nearly 60,000 new refugees have been moved from Jalozai and urban areas in and around the city of Peshawar to the new and better equipped refugee camps of Kotkai, Old Bagzai, Basu, Shalman and Ashgaro.

Now that the successful relocation of the refugees in Jalozai is over, UNHCR will concentrate in helping the homeless and undocumented refugees in Peshawar and Quetta, as well as prepare for the voluntary repatriation of Afghans.