United Nations aid agencies are speeding the shipment of food and other relief supplies into border areas close to Afghanistan in preparation for a multi-million dollar emergency operation. The UN aid agencies are preparing to assist up to 1.5 million refugees who manage to flee to other countries and millions of others remaining inside Afghanistan.
The United Nations aid agencies say they are particularly concerned about the welfare of millions of people inside Afghanistan to whom they have no access.
Carol Bellamy is the executive director of the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF. She says she is particularly worried about the children and women who she says are among the most vulnerable. She says that even before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Afghanistan was suffering the collective misery of 20 years of war and three years of drought. Of the 7.5 million people inside Afghanistan needing aid, Ms. Bellamy says 70 percent are children and women. "We were already worried about the nutritional status of children, the high degree of diarrhea and respiratory diseases, and now we are worried about exposure. We estimate that about half of Afghan children are malnourished," she added.
Afghanistan has one of the worst under-age-five child mortality rates, in fact probably the worst outside some countries in sub-Saharan Africa. One in four Afghan children die before the age of five. It also has one of the worst maternal mortality rates. Ms. Bellamy says one Afghan mother dies every 30 minutes after giving birth. That is 16,000 deaths a year.
All U.N. foreign staff pulled out of Afghanistan, fearing U.S. military strikes in response to the terrorist attacks. Local Afghan workers are running humanitarian operations inside the country.
Because of security concerns and lack of access, U.N. agencies have drastically cut their relief programs. The World Food Program (WFP), for instance, used to feed nearly four million people inside Afghanistan. WFP spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume, says this number has been radically reduced. "Right now, inside Afghanistan, we are feeding one million people with a skeleton staff. We do not have enough staff," she stated. "We only have local staff over there. There is already food in the area that we can get into Afghanistan very quickly. If we can go back over there."
The United Nations refugee agency reports the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains officially shut. Despite this, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says thousands of Afghans are getting into Pakistan through the mountains. "Anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people are believed to have arrived in Pakistan's Quetta region over the past week. Most people are staying with relatives and friends or trying to blend in existing Afghan refugee settlements in an effort not to attract attention," he said.
Mr. Redmond says a first relief plane, loaded with 44 tons of plastic sheets, is scheduled to leave for Quetta from Copenhagen Friday evening. He says other relief flights will follow.