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Refugees in Afghanistan with Ruud Lubbers

November 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


LINDSEY HILSUM: Some tens of thousands of Afghans have fled to Pakistan, not the million initially feared. That’s a relief for the Pakistan government, which thinks more would destabilize the country. But Afghans still need help.

The U.N. refugee agency keeps pressing the Pakistan government to open the border so more refugees can come across. The government is not going to do that, and most aid agencies now agree that it’s more important to get help to people inside Afghanistan.

The World Food Program says it must supply 52,000 tons of food each month to feed 6 million Afghans through the winter. The neediest areas are in the Northwest where the drought is most severe. Places which will be cut off by the snow also need urgent help.

At the WFP Warehouse in Quta, wheat arrives destined for Afghanistan. Inside the country, the food is distributed by non-governmental organizations. The truck drivers who take it in may have bin Laden as their icon, but they’re nearly reaching their targets and the WFP Says winter won’t stop them.

HEATHER HIL, U.N. World Food Program: We’re taking every precaution we can, from stockpiling fuel to bringing in the heavy equipment needed to keep these roads clear to keep the trucks moving even after the snows fall.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Two things would swell the numbers. Lengthy ground fighting and starvation. Life in Afghanistan is unbearably hard. One in four children dies before their fifth birthday, but a swift war and a concerted aid effort could now prevent the worst.

JIM LEHRER: And to an interview with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers. He’s a former Dutch prime minister. Robert MacNeil talked with him earlier this evening at the U.N. In New York.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Mr. Lubbers, thank you very much for joining us. A couple of weeks ago, you said right now we’re losing the struggle to keep millions of Afghanis from starving or freezing this winter. With the recent advances by the Northern Alliance and the change on the ground, has the situation changed for you in the refugee… In the plight of the refugees?

RUUD LUBBERS: Yes, it has changed. In the first place, since that, what I said, you quoted, we have seen World Food Program pretty effective in bringing in food. Second, now the successes, military successes of the Northern Alliance have created a situation by which it must be really possible to enter, let’s say, 50 percent of Afghan territory, and the poorest part, the part which was mostly in need of food is the northern part.

So that can be brought in much better now. So think this is a turning point for humanitarian, a very good development. Having said that, the scariest, of course, the situation in the South and East, basically where the Pashtuns live and where the Taliban has retreated to.

ROBERT MACNEIL: And where there’s heavy fighting again today?

RUUD LUBBERS: Heavy fighting and difficulties, and I’m worried about what they call “the guests” or “the Arabs” or “the terrorists,” it is more or less the same in that part of the world, which are sort of special militia going the wrong way. So it must be a terrifying situation for the people.

We have seen a few hundred thousand fleeing, even when the borders were closed with Pakistan, going secondary and tertiary roads. We are trying to accommodate them. And that battle, in relation to the people there in that part of Afghanistan, is certainly long.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Inside Afghanistan, how many people are now at risk, do you think, and where are they — at risk of starvation or not having shelter in the winter?

RUUD LUBBERS: Let’s say this. Earlier, an estimate was made 7.5 million are in trouble. When I count down from that, I would say most of them have food, so there might be remote places of a couple of hundred thousand people who are starving. But it’s certainly not the millions.

Then we have the people who had to flee with the air strikes, the cities of Kandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad, that part of the country they are fleeing to the countryside and to the mountains. There I see serious trouble of people who couldn’t find shelter in the villages. And so let’s say there were a couple of hundred thousand in real difficulties there, with shelter questions. Now, winter is coming.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But not with food?

RUUD LUBBERS: Food is better at this moment, I would say. Food is better.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Does that mean more food is not needed?

RUUD LUBBERS: No, it has to go on. And more recently, the last days, we have problems with the truckers, I mean mainly World Food problems; we ourselves also. There, in the eastern part of southern Iraq, one is waiting, because as you say to yourself, one has the military successes, but in the part which is still dominated by Taliban, there’s, again, fighting, there’s uncertainty, there’s risks.

And that means that the truckers who have contracts to bring in food and things are at this very moment refusing to go. And this is rather recent. I’d say, four days ago the rest were going. So this is a bit of a paradox: The success in the North created an even more uncertain situation in the East and the South.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Outside Afghanistan, on the countries on the borders, there are millions of refugees. What is their situation as regards food and shelter now in Iran, in Pakistan?

RUUD LUBBERS: Yeah. Let’s talk Pakistan. There we have big numbers of refugees which are poor, like many Pakistan people are poor. But it is not starvation. One… Second, we have a number of people who came in more recently. There were 200,000 coming in before September 11; another 150,000 now.

Here we have a problem that the government of Pakistan refuses to adjust to them, it’s difficult to reach the people and assist the food when you cannot reach them. So here we have reason for concerns.

Thirdly, now finally, they accept that we start to bring these people in situated camps around the border, and there we have the food available and shelter for them available, so I think we can do improvement. That’s the situation in Pakistan.

In Iran, we have, I guess, 100,000, let’s say, at the border, on two sides at this moment just at Afghan territory and at the border itself. In Iran, there is not a big food problem at this moment, and most of the people there are living in the cities, not in isolated situations and not in refugee camps.

ROBERT MACNEIL: There had been a lot of talk since the war began of a human disaster, a disaster of monstrous proportions building up. Are you saying now there is not a large-scale disaster facing…

RUUD LUBBERS: No, I think it is a disaster anyhow. The country was already a disaster, that’s one. It has devastated the whole infrastructure, agricultural, went into the drain because they have very nice systems to bring water in and irrigation, it’s all demolished, that’s one.

Secondly, we have had so many people fleeing, fighting, there was persecution of certain tribes, like the Hazarias — there where people came out of the war zones. I mean, it seems modest, but hundreds of thousands of people really having to flee from very difficult situations is a ground. The only thing one could say is that at least there are some positive signals that maybe there is coming a solution for Afghanistan, but it’s still a very human ground.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The reporter who preceded this interview said that a swift and concerted effort could prevent the worst. Do you agree with that?

RUUD LUBBERS: I agree with that.

ROBERT MACNEIL: And what is a swift and concerted effort? I mean, there are many relief organizations, non-governmental as well as governmental organizations, pushing aid towards Afghanistan. Can you quantify their efforts and how far short they fall of what’s needed?

RUUD LUBBERS: I think the basic point is that whether or not an alliance is now– although there might some backfiring — basically we can go in as humanitarians, and bring this stuff, and that requires swift action. It’s going on.

Right now that we are talking, people, again, for the first time, are moving into the country — to the city of Kabul, the people will go again, they’ll go to Iraq, they will go to Mazar, and from there in the country side.

Secondly, which is much more difficult, how can we enter the Taliban-dominated part of the country where all these difficulties are going on if the swift action is needed. It’s very difficult to achieve that. So here I simply have to say the analysis is correct, it’s neat, but it’s still not done, and it is difficult to perceive what to do exactly.

Here I would say that I make a strong plea here, once again, to the government of Pakistan and a certain extent Iran, where the southeast border with Iran is, as well, that they really accept the people…

ROBERT MACNEIL: Allow the refugees to come in.

RUUD LUBBERS: Allow the refugees to come in. I’m not saying keep them back. We are not talking millions there, but maybe are talking hundred thousands. And those will now flee to the war through very difficult areas, take those risks and really people in need of assistance and protection, and we should give that.

So I think the international community should assist, of course, in terms of burden sharing financially, fine, but we have to say to the governments of Pakistan and Iran, “You should not w hundred thousands of people to be in immense misery in a war- torn country where fighting is going on.

ROBERT MACNEIL: When you were on this program last March, you were facing a certain amount of donor fatigue from the rich countries, regarding Afghanistan. Has the war on terrorism, as it’s being called in the United States, has that changed all that?

RUUD LUBBERS: It has changed, but to limit it. We have enough money, to be frank, to do our operations today. So this is good. And that’s because there is enough generosity putting money on the table. So what we’re doing now is going fine. But I’m rather concerned that it’s still not really done. We are still a long way to go.

And we have another problem: Some countries divert money– what they have promised us for other actions in Africa and so — now to Afghanistan, because in the parliaments and in politicians and with the public at large, it’s so much more attractive to say, “we are there for Afghanistan.” So there is a sort of…

ROBERT MACNEIL: Money is being siphoned from other places.

RUUD LUBBERS: Yeah, yeah, that’s not good.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, Mr. Lubbers, thank you very much for joining us.

RUUD LUBBERS: Thank you.