Afghanistan + 1 more

UN press briefing in Islamabad 18 Jan 2002

News and Press Release
Originally published
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. Further to yesterday's mention of the new decree banning opium poppy in Afghanistan, we are making available to you a press release from the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP), based in Vienna, and hailing the measure as "a very important step".

Also of potential interest to you are the preliminary findings of a UN-sponsored survey of Afghan opinion concerning development and human rights issues. Mission delegates from the Center for Economic and Social Rights, an international NGO based in New York, conducted interviews with a cross-section of the population in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, Jalalabad, and surrounding rural areas. Staff from UN agencies and non-governmental organizations were also interviewed.

Survey results will be publicly available in mid-February, but preliminary findings show that Afghans uniformly want peace and security with an emphasis on disarmament of local military forces. Rebuilding trust in government authorities is seen as a major challenge. Rural residents place food and work as their first priority, with an emphasis on rehabilitation of agriculture. Rural residents also support education for both girls and boys, but ask for assistance to offset the loss of income from child labor. Urban residents place education, including vocational training, as their first priority.

** Khaled Mansour, Spokesperson for WFP

WFP international staff that returned to Kandahar city earlier this week report that though food is available in the local markets in the city, the prices have skyrocketed mainly due to the appreciation of the Afghani. One US dollar was equal to 72,000 Afghanis on 11 September 2001 but yesterday it was equal to 27,000 Afghanis. Also, the purchasing power of the city residents has gone down with unemployment clearly going up. The situation, however, is expected to improve in the near term as future development and relief activities of both the Government and the international community are expected to create employment opportunities.

It rained on Sunday and Monday and people are having hopes that this year could be less dry than the previous three years.

The population of the city is growing everyday. People who fled to Pakistan and nearby rural areas during the bombing campaign are returning. Shops are open and business is gearing up. Electricity and water supply services in the city are mostly satisfactory.

I should note here that though WFP stopped food deliveries in Kandahar city but not in Kandahar province for a long period. During the height of the bombing campaign, WFP working with NGOs delivered about 8,000 tons of food to needy people in Kandahar and the three neighboring provinces in December and is planning to distribute a total of 6,000 tons this month.

WFP is planning to distribute more than 18,500 tons of food in these four provinces within the first three months of this year. This is enough food for more than 740,000 poor Afghans who are dependent on food aid in this area.

There is a lot of work to do. Our office and warehouse are in shambles. One part of the office was hit by a bomb and completely destroyed. All office equipment are missing. Those who looted the office have even taken some of the windows. All they left are few tables and chairs.

The warehouse did not have a better fate. All the food that was there before the Taliban seized the warehouse in September has disappeared. That was a total of 1,640 tons. The building itself is damaged because of the bombing. Only one out of 10 trucks survived the looting and the bombing but it needs to be repaired.

The area where WFP office and warehouse are also had some Taliban-affiliated buildings that were targets during the bombing campaign. Taliban soldiers had reportedly also occupied our office and warehouse.

WFP staff report that Kandahar is quite safe during daylight. They are now working with the authorities in the province to recover stolen vehicles and equipment but we are also sending prefabricated offices and equipment for them so they can perform their duties. The Governor of Kandahar province has provided WFP with a warehouse that can accommodate up to 4,000 metric tons.

WFP is re-establishing its monitoring and assessment operations fast. In less than one week we now have 45 national and one International staff. Two Afghan women have also joined WFP staff in Kandahar. They have a major task to work with NGOs and other aid agencies fast to assess the needs and ensure that food supplies are reaching those most in need.

** Chulho Hyun, Spokesperson for UNICEF

UNICEF is seriously concerned about indications from the Western Region of Afghanistan that the nutritional status of children is worsening. This appears to be especially true in the more remote areas of Ghor and Badghis Provinces, hard hit by drought, where more than 10 per cent of children under the age of five, of which there are some 147,000, are suffering from global acute malnutrition.

We're looking at children who range from being moderately to severely malnourished, and if you're in the critical age group of up to two years, you face a serious risk to life. One UNICEF nutritionist, recently back from a feeding center in the region, says in this kind of condition, children are very emaciated and completely without strength.

A key, ongoing assistance effort that UNICEF has been a part of this week is to work with implementing partners Medecins Sans Frontieres and OXFAM to provide some 740 metric tons of UNIMIX, the therapeutic feeding mix, to the neediest of communities in Badghis. The anticipated number of beneficiaries: 56,600.

A similar project, with a similar reach, is being planned for Ghor. UNICEF is involved in the process of training of NGO staff on the management of Supplementary and Therapeutic Feeding Centers in the region.

Activities are also pressing ahead in support of rebuilding Afghanistan's basic education sector-the immediate priority of bringing all children back to the classroom.

UNICEF has just completed distributing three months' worth of school supplies for 12,500 primary school age students, boys and girls, who attend 17 schools in Mazar City.

UNICEF-assisted repair work on eight schools for girls in Herat is allowing more than 21,000 students to continue their lessons this winter, before the school year starts in March.

And in Kandahar City, where we know children attending primary schools are often sitting on bare, cold and wet floors, UNICEF is distributing tarpaulin sheets and plastic mats in addition to other learning materials. In Kandahar City alone, there are at least 14,000 primary school students, while the estimate for the province is 120,000.

There's much more to do and more will be done, simply because the benefits go beyond the individual. One more child back in school is one more to an educated population's ability to make an enormous contribution to Afghanistan's future.

And finally, an additional item from Mazar to share with you, this one related to this week's opening of a women and children's ward at the Civilian Hospital. UNICEF had supported local public health authorities in the previous months, by providing supplies and equipment, and funding facility renovations. The new ward can accommodate up to 70 patients at a time, and has fully-equipped operating and delivery rooms.

** Yusuf Hassan, Spokesperson for UNHCR

After ten years of exile in Islamabad, the Office of the Chief of Mission for Afghanistan has returned to Kabul. All UNHCR's five sub-offices - Kabul, Herat, Mazar- I-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar - are back in business and from now onwards all our Afghan country operations will be directed from Kabul.

After a cleaning up operation, our Kandahar Office re-opened today. For the first in four months, three UNHCR international staff returned to Kandahar on Wednesday. They found the office completely ransacked and the windows shattered by explosions.

A shipment of emergency aid packages (stoves, kitchen sets, plastic sheeting, blankets, charcoal, hygiene items) for 20,000 people reached Kandahar earlier this week. UNHCR hopes to begin shortly the delivery of these packages to the most vulnerable among the displaced families through Mercy Corp International.

Tomorrow, we are sending a team to Spin Boldak, to try to re-establish our field unit there and assess the feasibility of extending assistance in the area, where tens of thousands of displaced people are huddling in tents.

By next week, UNHCR plans to increase the number of international staff in Kandahar to five. But the security in and around the city remains extremely fragile, which continues to frustrate our aid operation in southern Afghanistan. In the town itself, our staff has been advised to remain either in the office premises or the guesthouse and not to venture around town unless necessary.

The security situation is improving in the north, allowing our staff to take field trips this week outside Mazar-i-Sharif. UNHCR has sent staff to Faryab province to the west of Mazar, Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri provinces to the east, to assess the situation of returnees and internally displaced population, as well as the situation of minority Pashtuns in the region. UNHCR also hopes to set up 5 field units in the northern provinces to prepare for the return of refugees and lDPs.

There are 41 camps in the Mazar area, with an estimated 50,000 families (250,000 people), mainly of Tajik and Uzbek origin like other regions in Afghanistan, these camps are attracting not only the displaced people fleeing drought or conflict, but also vulnerable families in nearby villages, as well as those trying to take advantage of aid for commercial gains.

The local governor has agreed to set up a commission for lDPs to conduct registration and identify needs in their villages of origin. Aid agencies operating in camps are currently assessing the camp population, so that those coming from nearby villages can be assisted in their home areas. UNHCR will focus on identifying the needs in the villages of origin, so as to begin assisting the voluntary return of displaced people in the spring.

It has been 10 days since UNHCR's international staff returned and re-established the office in Jalalabad, the hub of humanitarian operations for eastern Afghanistan. But the security situation remains difficult, mainly due to tribal disputes. Staff movements are confined to only 10 km from the city. The provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost still remain no go areas. UNHCR plans to deliver emergency aid to 10,000 displaced people in Kunar province, but the implementing NGO is hesitant to deliver due to the insecurity.

Aid agencies in Jalalabad met this week with the governor of Jalalabad, who assured his co-operation with humanitarian agencies. The governor agreed to provide security and escort for the humanitarian workers and convoys in the region.

UNHCR field monitors at the Torkham border crossing report that there is an increase in returning refugees from Pakistan. There were 2, 700 returnees recorded on Wednesday alone, up from about 1, 000 in previous days. About half of the returnees are Pashtuns from eastern and northern Afghanistan, while the other half consisted of Tajiks returning to the central region. The majority of the returnees were individuals (male and female), declaring themselves as returning home, while others were families with belongings. Some say they were returning home after 5 years of exile in Pakistan.

In the last two months, UNHCR has moved thousands of Afghan refugees to 13 new refugee camps in Pakistan. As of yesterday, over 83,000 Afghans had been shifted to 7 camps in Baluchistan province and another 38,000 refugees to 6 camps in the tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province. Since 19 November, UNHCR has re-located a total of 121,398 refugees.

** Lori Hieber-Girardet, Spokesperson for WHO

Baroness Emma Nicholson was today named World Health Organization Envoy on Health, Peace and Development for WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa.

Baroness Nicholson will promote health as a tool for peace and development. She will also advise WHO on particular health needs related to peace and development. She is expected to travel extensively in the region and will report her findings to the European Parliament as well as to the WHO.

"This is an exciting opportunity for me to contribute what I can to peace and development in the region," said the Baroness as she accepted the position during a meeting with WHO Director General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, Dr. Hussein Gezairy.

"The health needs of the Afghan people-whether within the country or outside its borders as refugees- are enormous. Improving health services will be a crucial part of rebuilding the country and improving stability and dignity for the Afghan people," she said.

Baroness Nicholson has a long and outstanding political career, both as a member of the UK House of Lords, and as a member of the European Parliament. She has for years been engaged in humanitarian activities, including the start of the Stop Polio campaign in 1979, child health and development in Eastern and Central Europe and emergency health care programs in Lebanon and Iraq. She has visited Afghanistan and Iran several times over the past months.

She currently serves as Vice-President of the European Parliament's Committee for Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Defense and Security Policy. She was created a life peer in 1997.