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Relief Efforts in Afghanistan

As fighting across most of Afghanistan comes to a halt, Gwen Ifill reports on attempts to send relief to the hungry people living there. She talks with Mark Bartolini, vice president of the International Rescue Committee, and Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    These have been the chaotic scenes in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as hungry crowds jostle for food. At 16 collection points, scuffles erupted and mobs broke through police barriers, as aid workers distributed 110-pound sacks of wheat, about a month's supply of food for the average Afghan family.

  • WOMAN (Translated):

    Right now, I don't have anything in my house. I have nothing.

  • WOMAN (Translated):

    It is not enough. It is only wheat. We want sugar, oil, and wood, because it's winter. We are very poor people.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Food is being delivered this week to an estimated 1.3 million Kabul residents, as part of a massive aid distribution launched by the United Nations World Food Program. In spite of such scuffles, relief officials said the operation is going smoothly.

  • DR. MASOOD, UN World Food Program:

    The food distribution is going well today, than it was before, and so everything is correct. We have brought security forces here.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    A UN survey reports nearly three-quarters of Kabul's inhabitants need aid, and millions more across Afghanistan need the foreign assistance to survive the winter. Before the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida, the situation in Afghanistan was already desperate. Food shortages were made worse by two decades of fighting, massive unemployment, and a three-year drought. But the United States' top relief official told reporters in Washington yesterday fears of a countrywide famine appear to be waning.

    ANDREW NATSIOS, U.S. Agency for International Development: It was quite dire before. But as I said before, since the end of November, they have proved that they can, in fact, distribute… They can move across the border, and then move from the warehouses within the country to the villages the amount of food necessary to drive the death rates down and stabilize the situation, which is what I think is going on now. And so long as we get security in those couple of last- remaining areas that are– you know, Kandahar is one of them, Mazar is another– I think we can get hold of the situation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Today, a convoy of aid workers crossed into northern Afghanistan from neighboring Uzbekistan, following the reopening of a bridge linking the two countries. The route had been closed since 1997 because of fighting in Afghanistan. It is now expected to be a major aid corridor for the war-torn country.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For more, we are joined by Mark Bartolini, vice president of the International Rescue Committee. It is distributing food for the UN's World Food Program in Afghanistan, and Nicholas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, an independent medical humanitarian organization. Mark Bartolini, what is the status, as you understand it, of the relief situation right now in Afghanistan?

  • MARK BARTOLINI, International Rescue Committee:

    Well, Gwen, it depends on the area you're operating in. We're operational in three regions in the country: In the North, in the West, and in the East. And our biggest problems right now are in the North and in the East. In Mazar-e Sharif, where we had a fairly substantial program, we're having significant problems with the security situation on the ground. There have been lootings, there have been kidnappings, sexual assaults, attacks against aid workers. The civilian population has been armed. This has greatly impeded our efforts to get food to the most needy people.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How significantly has that impeded your efforts? Does that mean that the food is there, but it's just not getting to people because of lawlessness?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    Well, the World Food Program did very well last month in terms of reaching their target of 52,000 metric tons of food in. There still needs to be more to come in, we think. We're not convinced that the figures that we're working on, which predated September 11, are wholly accurate. And we're also clearly having problems… We're operating, I would say, at 60% to 70% of our capacity right now.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nicholas de Torrente, What is your take on how things… How aid and relief is getting to the hungry people in Afghanistan?

  • NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE, Doctors Without Borders:

    First of all, I'd say that we see clear signs from our medical teams on the ground. They've been back into some of these areas of Afghanistan for a month now, since there was a change from the Taliban to the Northern Alliance, in Herat, Mazar, and in other areas. We've seen clear signs of a very worrisome situation, a real nutritional emergency. People are still fleeing from remote areas to the displaced persons camps around Mazar and Herat, for instance. We've done nutritional surveys in these camps while immunizing kids. We see malnutrition rates that are very high — 3% severe malnutrition in Mazar, 9% global malnutrition. These are high rates. We also see evidence of scurvy. We had an outbreak of scurvy in this region last year. And we see evidence that this may reappear because the food that is being distributed– and it's for sure not enough, as we've seen in your tape on Kabul– is wheat. Wheat is not the kind of food that you need to sustain people who are undergoing a very severe and nutritional crisis.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Bartolini says it's a security issue right now. Is that the same way you see it?

  • NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE:

    Well, certainly the security is very, very difficult and precarious. We have a number of commanders, a patchwork of different factions on the ground. We feel that we're able to operate not to the extent that we would like, but we have international staff there. We've had them for a month. They have negotiated access with the local commanders, and we're basing really our access on the fact that we are a very independent organization and with a clear humanitarian mission. And by talking to the commanders– we've been working in this area for 20 years– we're able to maintain our presence, although the situation, as Mark has said, is very difficult in terms of the security.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Bartolini, let me ask you what may sound like a dumb question, but somehow, does war prove itself to be incompatible with humanitarian relief? Does the bombing that takes out roads and closes bridges make it impossible for you to do the job of feeding people who were hungry even before September 11?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    Gwen, we have some 1,600 national staff that have been working in the country following the events prior to and following the events of 9/11. Despite those kinds of conditions, they continue to work, and they have been able to get relief supplies to needy people. It doesn't make it impossible, but it complicates the matter. And what we're seeing, as Nicholas said, with people as malnourished and having lost their coping skills after 22 years of war, after three years of a very excessive drought, what we're seeing is that they die when they have to move. So these factors complicate our mission in the sense that once people are displaced, as they have been over the last two months, it's a much more serious humanitarian crisis.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. De Torrente, does this make it difficult to provide for the safety of aid workers themselves, the relief workers?

  • NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE:

    Well, that has to be based on negotiated access with the local commanders, and a clear understanding of why we're there. We're there only to help, and we have no other motive than to help the civilians. And this has enabled us to work. We are not seeing as many organizations on the ground as there should be to address this very difficult situation in Afghanistan today. And we encourage people to come and to make their assessment, and to see how they can deliver aid. For instance, in Faryev Province, which is between Mazar and Herat, we have 450,000 people at risk there. In our nutritional centers, we've seen an increase of 1,000 kids last month that we've admitted into our feeding programs. There is no general food distribution for these people. We need to see the agencies come in with supplies, get on the ground, monitor, assess, and actually distribute. We're not seeing this happening in northern Afghanistan today.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is that not happening?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    It's not. There's also an issue that we haven't raised yet. It goes beyond food, and that's shelter. Winter has hit up in the north. In Mazar and one of the camps where we work, we got reports that 12 people, mostly children, had died of exposure. Again, when people are in as bad physical condition as we're finding, they're much more susceptible to cold. And so we're trying to work to get them off the ground– blankets, tents, and shelter material, as well as food.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You're depending on who to do the shelter?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    We're also doing that as well.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And what are the consequences in terms of numbers? You talk about a dozen people who died. Do you know whether the death rate has risen dropped as these relief efforts have picked up steam?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    I think it depends on the time and the place where you're in Afghanistan. You can't say it countrywide. Certainly we've seen an increase over the last few months of deaths. Since the territories have changed hands to the Northern Alliance because of the security problems, we're seeing more deaths in some areas due to these access problems.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk about access for a minute. Mr. De Torrente, there was the much ballyhooed reopening of the friendship bridge from Uzbekistan over the weekend. Does that change the way you are able to do your job? Does that make it significantly easier?

  • NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE:

    It's a welcome development for aid to come in. There's been a lot of backlog of aid in Uzbekistan, and not enough aid in northern Afghanistan. We were able to get our aid in through Turkmenistan. We did not have that problem. We were not blocked to the same extent as the UN and the World Food Program was. To be frank, there's not enough food in northern Afghanistan today to implement the general food distributions that are required to help avert a massive disaster there. And so if this bridge, the opening of the bridge will help to bring in the food– and we certainly hope it will– it's a welcome development.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Are these programs… Your program, and Mr. Bartolini's program, and the others who are trying to do this, are you coordinated at all?

  • NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE:

    Yes, we are. We're a medical relief organization. We do the medical work. We supply the clinics, the hospitals, and we do specialized nutritional programs for kids, for women who are already malnourished. We are… our efforts need to be complemented by general food distributions — you know, for the mass of the population to prevent people from becoming malnourished, and that component of it, which is really the World Food Program, the International Community, the Red Cross and other organizations' responsibility, that needs to happen at this point.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, Mr. Bartolini, how do you ensure continuing stability, assuming that you get these programs up and running to the degree that you would like, to see them running in the areas most in need?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    Our organization has called for some sort of international stabilization force. We, like MSF, have been working in the region for over 20 years. We saw in the early mid-90s, during the civil war years, some of the same players we're seeing today in control of some of these regions. And with General Dostum coming out recently saying he won't honor the Bonn agreement, that he would restrict access of the interim government to areas in the North, we think it's imperative in order to create some stability to be able to get to the people we need to get to.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How do you create the stabilization force? Who does it?

  • MARK BARTOLINI:

    Well, that's going to be something that the international community… There's talk now, there's talk of having several coalitions of the willing– France, Britain, Jordan, I think, Bangladesh– have all offered troops.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And a final question, Mr. De Torrente, which is, who is suffering the most in this?

  • NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE:

    Clearly it's the most vulnerable segments of the population. And these are in Afghanistan, as elsewhere children, children under five who are predisposed to illness and to malnutrition when it strikes; and in Afghanistan, women. It's very striking for us to see in our feeding programs that we are admitting two-thirds children and one-third women, adult women who are not able to cope. If they've lost their breadwinner, the man in the family, for instance, they have to cope on their own, widows. These are very vulnerable people. They need to be helped urgently.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nicholas de Torrente and Mark Bartolini, thank you both for joining us.

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