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Food Shortage May Be Worsening
By Marc Kaufman and Peter Finn Washington Post Staff Writers Tuesday, October 9, 2001; Page A01
U.S. military transport planes dropped another 37,000 rations over Afghanistan yesterday, but relief officials worried that U.S.-led military strikes were making the country's food emergency significantly worse.
The rations dropped yesterday and Sunday will feed only a fraction of the 7.5 million Afghans believed to be in danger of serious hunger or starvation as cold weather approaches. But yesterday, the United Nations' World Food Program stopped deliveries to Afghanistan, citing the danger the fighting poses to its truck convoys. Officials said they didn't know when they could resume the convoys.
"Before the current crisis, we were already seeing pre-famine conditions in some parts of the country," said Abigail Spring, a WFP spokeswoman in Washington. "We still have some stock inside the country, and we believe many people are getting our food. But there's no question this is a race against the clock."
Officials from the WFP and other relief agencies withdrew their international staffs last month, and have had limited or no contact with their Afghan staffs since Sept. 22, when the Taliban government banned communications outside Afghanistan. Spring said there are about 8,000 tons of wheat stored in Afghanistan, but almost 2,000 tons will be needed daily.
The desperate conditions in Afghanistan are the result of Taliban misrule, a three-year drought and decades of civil strife going back to the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, relief officials said. They estimate that one-third of the country's population will need international aid programs for food this winter.
With no new food coming into the country by road, the American airdrops of rations are increasingly important, said Peter Bell, president of CARE USA. He said he was encouraged by the U.S. commitment to humanitarian aid, but worried that airdrops are "at best a temporary and imperfect solution."
"They can fall on people, they can cause hungry people to trample over one another when they land, and they can fall into the wrong hands," he said.
Others have raised more pointed questions about whether the airdrops are more public relations and psychological warfare than food relief. That's because the drops are expected to include messages explaining U.S. actions and encouraging people to abandon the Taliban and turn in Osama bin Laden, the suspected force behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The French group Doctors Without Borders said yesterday that dropping cases of medical and food supplies into Afghanistan by night was "virtually useless and may even be dangerous."
"Furthermore, the confusion between military and humanitarian operations only increases the danger for already complicated humanitarian action, limiting even further the possibilities of intervention," the aid group said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended airdrops yesterday. "It is quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings," he said. "On the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you'd be appreciative."
Abdullah, the foreign minister for the Northern Alliance opposing the Taliban, said in northern Afghanistan he welcomed the drops as a "natural symbolic gesture and a necessary one."
But, he added, "The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is so large that it requires a large scale of humanitarian assistance."
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the World Food Program was planning to start its airdrops of food later this winter to feed people isolated in high mountain valleys in central Afghanistan. But officials at the WFP, which gets the bulk of its funding from the United States, say they cannot begin while the fighting continues.
The American airdrops were made from a previously untried altitude using two U.S. C-17 cargo planes, military officials in Germany said. The two planes left the Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany around noon Sunday on a 24-hour, 6,000-mile round trip to the skies above Afghanistan.
Military officials declined to say from what altitude the food was dropped but described it as "unprecedented" and "high-risk" because of the possibility of altitude sickness.
The food was dropped in rural areas in large cardboard boxes without parachutes that are designed to break open on impact without destroying the contents.
Capt. Shane Balken, the public affairs officer at Ramstein Air Base, said the military used intelligence to select sites near where refugees have been assembling.
The 30-ounce food packages are designed to be religiously and culturally acceptable to all people. They include rice, vegetables and fruit but no animal products.
The WFP stopped hauling food into Afghanistan for several days last month, then resumed limited shipments on Sept. 29. Before last week, food was shipped into Afghanistan from Pakistan, which meant it had to travel through Taliban hands.
Spokesmen of the opposition to the Taliban have complained for years that they and their people were not getting proper amounts of WFP food. Last week, the WFP began shipping food directly into northern Afghanistan from Tajikistan, WFP spokeswoman Spring said. But that supply was cut yesterday as well.
Finn reported from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Staff writers Peter Baker in Afghanistan and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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