Urgent Action for Humanitarian Relief for Afghanistan Refugees

Afghanistan Campaign - Physicians for Human Rights

December 1999

Overview: In late July, the Taliban launched an intense offensive in the northern Shomali plains against their only remaining military opponents, Northern Alliance forces led by Tajik general Ahmad Masood. Since then, Taliban attacks and counterattacks have displaced over 200,000 people from their homes, many forcibly.

The United Nations has documented the following Taliban violations of humanitarian law during the attacks: "forced involuntary displacement of civilians, deliberate burning of houses and crops, summary execution of noncombatants, arbitrary detentions, family separations and deportation of women, forced labor and other atrocities." Amnesty International has condemned much of these atrocities as targeted specifically against Tajiks living in the Shomali. Credible news reports also indicate that the Taliban is recruiting students - often as young as 14 - from Pakistani religious schools to fight on the frontlines against the Northern Alliance forces. The Northern Alliance has also committed extensive abuses against civilians throughout the civil war, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The UN estimates that, of the civilians who have fled the Shomali since July (the majority of them of Tajik ethnicity), over 100,000 are currently in the Panjshir valley, stronghold of the opposition forces. Over 60,000 have gone to Kabul. Continued Taliban attacks in northern cities have also displaced over 10,000 to Kunduz City and other northern cities.

Displaced Afghans residing in Panjshir - the majority of them women and children - are facing extremely dire conditions. As of early October, at least 20,000 were living with no shelter. Humanitarian aid agencies working in the area have reported serious diarrhea among children, stating that medical aid is needed immediately. While aid agencies have been providing some relief, their efforts have been repeatedly thwarted by lack of access to the valley. Of the two major supply routes, one has been made impassable by snow, the other, by fighting. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says it has been able to supply only one third of the food aid needed if 50,000 displaced people in the Panjshir Valley are to survive the winter. A safe humanitarian corridor from the south is required, but the warring parties, particularly the Taliban, have shown no indication that they will cooperate by agreeing to a ceasefire.

The situation in Kabul is only slightly less dire. Of the 65,000 displaced there, most of whom were forcibly relocated by the Taliban, over 12,500 are residing in the old Soviet embassy. Aid agencies are providing food and sanitation. However, significant needs are not being met for many of the people staying outside the old diplomatic compound. Shelter remains a problem in Kabul as it does in Panjshir.

International aid: In September, the UN conducted an assessment of humanitarian need, and soon afterwards issued an emergency appeal for funding along with a number of aid groups supplying relief to the displaced. The appeal requested a total of $3.3 million for the humanitarian crisis faced in Panjshir and Kabul. The U.S has pledged over $1 million, but major shortfalls exist. In all, the agencies providing relief in the Panjshir and in Kabul need at least $980,000 more than they have received to meet present needs.

In early November, 1999, the United Nations enacted sanctions against the Taliban (as current effective government of Afghanistan) for its continued refusal to extradite Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi national believed responsible for terrorist bombings in Africa last year, to a country where he would stand trial. The sanctions ban all flights owned, leased, or operated by the Taliban or on behalf of the Taliban, from taking off or landing internationally. Despite its exemption for humanitarian relief, some in the relief community fear that this sanction may make it even more difficult to provide significant aid to Afghanistan.

Action: The urgent situation of the internally displaced people in Afghanistan requires action before winter totally impedes access to the Panjshir. Women and children are particularly at risk of hunger and exposure. Action by PHR's network can help alleviate the immediate situation by reminding policy-makers that funding for Afghanistan must be expanded and sustained. Specific action includes writing letters in your personal and professional capacities to Taliban and Pakistani representatives, as well as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and your Senator and Representative in Congress. You should:

  • Write to the Taliban's unofficial representative to the United Nations, Noorullah Zadran, 55-16 Main Street, Suite 1-D, Flushing, NY 11355 (phone: 718-359-0457; fax: 718-661-2721), and convey your concern about the risks to unarmed men, women, and children in Afghanistan. Urge the Taliban to suspend immediately military operations so that United Nations agencies and humanitarian groups can saturate the Panjshir valley with food and supplies. Further urge that the Taliban permit these neutral organizations to keep a safe corridor open for the delivery of relief throughout the winter. Also express your concern that the Taliban has deliberately displaced people from their homes and committed serious abuses of human rights in the context of the recent fighting.
  • Write to Pakistan's acting ambassador, Mr. Shahid Kamal, Charge d'Affaires, Embassy of Pakistan, 2315 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, and express your dismay at news reports that the Taliban is recruiting child soldiers from religious schools within Pakistan. Urge the Government of Pakistan to denounce such practices, to immediately investigate reports of child soldier recruitment, and to prosecute those found to be involved in it or complicit with it.
  • Write to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520, and commend her for the United States' provision of emergency humanitarian assistance. Express your support for additional funding to help close the $1 million shortfall, so that the needs of those who face the winter without shelter in both the Panjshir and Kabul might be met. Urge the Secretary to press both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance to enact immediate unilateral ceasefires, both in order to permit humanitarian groups to provide critical aid to displaced civilians immediately and to allow the opening of a safe corridor for relief throughout the winter. Also urge her to press the Pakistani government to investigate and end Taliban child soldier recruitment. Further, call on her to secure assurances from the United Nations that the recently enacted sanctions on Taliban-run flights (including Ariana Airlines) will not impede a generous relief effort. Finally, urge that the U.S. not grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban unless and until human rights, especially women's rights, are respected.
  • Write to your Senator and Member of Congress expressing your strong support for humanitarian relief assistance for Afghanistan. This includes emergency funding as well as longer-term support for education and health care for Afghan women and girls both in Afghanistan and in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Urge them to contact immediately the Secretary of State and the President to support such assistance. (Note: Humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan does not go to Taliban or the opposition but to humanitarian groups that provide aid to civilians in need.)

Please send copies of any letters sent to:
Betsy Williams
Physicians for Human Rights
100 Boylston Street, Suite 702
Boston, MA 02116