By Stephen McKinley
As U.S. and British warplanes attacked targets in Afghanistan with missiles and bombs, Irish aid workers who have been on the ground in Afghanistan as recently as Sept. 11 continue to try to provide food and shelter relief from across the border in Pakistan.
The two Irish-based aid organizations in the region are CONCERN and GOAL. Both have had extensive experience in providing emergency relief as well as more long-term assistance for needy parts of the world, and both had been working with a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan before the events of Sept. 11.
But it was not until after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that the world’s attention was suddenly focused upon the harsh and rugged Central Asian country, believed to be the hideout of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. CONCERN and GOAL representatives are quick to point out, however, that Afghanistan’s people have suffered from famine and distress because of war for more than 20 years.
GOAL’s Ray Jordan crossed into Pakistan on Sept. 9, followed by the rest of his team on Sept. 11.
“The people were on the verge of a large famine,” he told the Echo. “This has been well documented by the United Nations.” In the province of Samangan, “we were providing food assistance for 110,000 people and shelter, water, sanitation and winter quilts for 25,000 internally displaced people.”
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Belfast man Dominic McSorley of CONCERN, said that his organization also evacuated Afghanistan after Sept. 11, but both groups have left teams of trained Afghani natives who are still providing aid as best they can in what is now effectively a war zone — four UN civilian workers were killed during Tuesday’s bombing raids on Kabul, where the humanitarian situation, both organizations warn, can only worsen.
McSorley noted that “more than 3 million Afghan refugees have languished for decades in the squalid camps of Pakistan and Iran, [another] four million inside the country, dependant for food aid for daily survival.” CONCERN started work in the country in 1998, after an earthquake killed 15,000 people, a tragedy that came after civil war and the 10-year guerilla war during the 1980s with troops from the Soviet Union.
Now, as strife returns anew to Afghanistan, both aid organizations are calling for immediate international help for the ordinary, distressed population.
“Some means of getting aid into these hapless people is urgently needed if a massive humanitarian disaster is to be averted,” GOAL’s Jordan said from his new base in Islamabad, Pakistan. “Dropping food parcels from planes is not sufficient,
such is the size of the problem. What is needed is convoys of trucks bringing in serious quantities of food and shelter materials.”
Currently, CONCERN has been using not trucks, but a fleet of 10 donkeys branded with the organization’s logo. Even this traditional method of transport could be ineffectual in the coming weeks. The Afghani climate plummets to extreme cold by November. Jordan warned: “In the next few weeks the harsh Central Asian winter, with temperatures of minus-20 and lower, will set in and many of them, already weakened by hunger, will surely perish.”
Both aid organizations have called for air corridors to be opened so that supplies can be flown into the country. They have also called that UN pressure be used to make sure that the borders of countries next to Afghanistan be made open so that refugees can pass safely to camps such as the ones in Pakistan where Ray Jordan is working. Officially, all neighboring countries have closed their borders with Afghanistan, but it is still possible for refugees to cross over the rocky terrain.
GOAL director John O’Shea called upon Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen, to use his current position as chairman of the UN security council to make sure that the humanitarian effort is given equal footing with the military activity. “Civilians will inevitably suffer,” he said.
Both CONCERN and GOAL have said that their representatives will return to Afghanistan as soon as the security situation is acceptable. According to CONCERN, conditions are also bad in Pakistan, where the government, cautiously backing the U.S. strikes, is terrified of a violent anti-Western backlash among its populace.
For further information, CONCERN can be contacted at (212) 557-8000 or www.concern-us.org. GOAL can be contacted at (212) 698-9860 or at www.goal.ie.