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US Food Drops `Useless' For Hungry Hordes

Sunday Mail [UK], 14 October 2001


Aid agencies last night warned food drops to Afghanistan were doing more harm than good.

They said more than a million people faced starvation as refugees fleeing the Taliban were trapped between allied bombs and the closed Pakistan border.

Glasgow-born Zia Choudhury, 29, humanitarian programme director for Oxfam, is in Islamabad, desperate to deliver food to the Afghans but unable to reach them.

He said: "It is extremely frustrating to be sitting here in the knowledge that things are getting worse every day and we are unable to do anything about it.

"We are facing a race against time to get enough food into Afghanistan to see them through the winter.

"If the aid agencies are allowed to enter Afghanistan and the people trying to get into Pakistan are allowed over the border, we still have time to prevent a catastrophe.

"But I am not hopeful we are going to be allowed to do that."

The Americans claim they have been trying to deliver aid to the country. More than 130,000 food parcels were dropped on Afghanistan in the last week.

But Zia said: "Air drops have worked in other parts of the world but only as a last resort. In this situation, they are not effective and they are very expensive."

Other aid workers agreed, claiming many of the packages, which are dropped from a great height, have been scattered across Afghanistan's many minefields.

Organisation of Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation spokesman Alhaj Fazel said: "When the food lands, these desperately hungry people will simply rush towards it. Woman and children are most vulnerable."

And a spokesman for French aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres added: "This is not a humanitarian effort, this is part of a military campaign designed to gather international approval for the attacks. It is virtually useless and may even be doing harm."

Aid agencies said the food itself was of little use because it is totally unsuitable.

Most Afghans live on bread and rice and have never seen the kind of food in the parcels. They contain baked beans, beans in a tomato vinaigrette, peanut butter, strawberry jam, a biscuit, salt and pepper and a fruit bar.

None of the food has been meets strict Islamic food-preparation requirements.

And reports from the few aid workers left in the country say those who do eat it suffer digestive problems because their malnourished stomachs cannot cope.

Zia Choudhury said: "Where air drops have been effective, they have been dropped on to a specific site where aid workers are in place to distribute it to those who most need it.

"We have worked out that this food costs 10 to 15 times more than the wheat and grain we would like to distribute in Afghanistan. The best thing would be to stop the air drops and open up two roads into Afghanistan so we can deliver food by truck. That way it will reach the people who need it most."

Some supplies are getting through. A convoy of 40 World Food Programme trucks carrying 1000 tons of food aid left Peshawar, near the border, on Wednesday.

Aid agencies believe they need to get 56,000 tons of food into Afghanistan in the next month if they are to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

But The World Food Programme estimates that even if the borders were opened immediately, just 1800 tons could be moved into the country every day before the harsh Afghan winter sets in, making roads impassable.

They have almost 300,000 tons of aid ready and waiting to be moved from Iran and Pakistan.

Another problem for the aid agencies is the attitude of Afghans toward westerners. There are reports of aid workers being attacked by people who make no distinction between western charity workers and the people who are bombing their country.

Zia said: "This is something we encountered in Kosovo too. When we arrived in our white vehicles, they thought we were the military because they also had white vehicles.

"It takes a lot of hard work to convince people that we are there to help them.

"They want to know why we are doing it. They think we are missionaries. We have to explain that we are non-political and non-religious. All of that can hold up the aid operation."

© 2001 Sunday Mail
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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