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Aid Officials Caution Afghans Against Immediate Return Home - 2001-12-07


International aid agencies say they are concerned that Afghans in the north of the country may face starvation because aid cannot reach them. Afghan refugees are also being cautioned against returning home too quickly.

The Organization for International Migration (IOM) says that some 177 Afghans, mainly children, died recently from hunger and exposure to extremely cold temperatures in a squalid refugee camp in the northern region of Kunduz.

IOM spokesman, Jean Philippe Chauzy, says his agency was only able to distribute aid on six days during the past seven weeks. "In these situations, where assistance cannot be delivered, the most vulnerable always go first and in that case, it was young children and some elderly people," he said.

IOM says 10 truckloads of wheat are heading to Kunduz from Tajikistan, while a convoy carrying jackets, winterized tents and high-energy biscuits is soon expected to arrive to aid some 8,000 families.

The Taleban had denied IOM workers access to the refugee camp following the September terrorist attacks in the United States. Although the Northern Alliance gained control of Kunduz late last month, the IOM only received permission to deliver food aid earlier this week. The area has suffered from three successive years of drought.

In southern Afghanistan, the World Food Program (WFP) says the improving political situation around Kandahar may eventually allow the distribution of aid. Spokeswoman Christiane Bertiaume says WFP hopes to resume its work there soon. "There's at least more than 230,000 people who are in need of food over there," she said. "The last time we have been able to give them food was in September, just before the Taleban occupied our offices and warehouse, so they have nothing."

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says the Taleban surrender of Kandahar has so far had little effect on thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Although 200 people a day are reported to be returning home from Pakistan. Peter Kessler of the refugee agency says the infrastructure is not adequate inside Afghanistan to aid large numbers of returnees and he cautions against returning home too quickly. "This is not the time to rush home," he said. "And this is not the time for Afghans to be rushed home by the host countries. The situation inside the country is extremely fragile, the decades of war, the tons of military ordnance, the recent bombing and of course the drought have created a very fragile situation."

Mr. Kessler says Afghan facilities could be easily overwhelmed by the return of some 3.5 million refugees outside their homeland.

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