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UN, Other Groups Aid Displaced Afghans - 2002-02-01

United Nations relief agencies say preparations are under way to help hundreds of thousands of Afghans return home. Other organizations are working on organizing aid to the largest camp of displaced people inside Afghanistan.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said it is planning the return of some one million Afghans this year. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the agency is holding talks with Pakistan and Iran about the best way to help refugees return safely. Both countries host some 3.5 million Afghan refugees.

Mr. Redmond said basic conditions, like housing, landmine clearance and ways to earn a living must first be in place in Afghanistan before refugees think about going home. "These people have got to have something to go back to," he emphasized. "They have to have the necessary assistance to make the journey back and we will be providing that as well as some transport assistance. And then they have to have something to go back to so that they can rebuild. So the longer-term rehabilitation and development [of Afghanistan] are also crucial to this process."

Although organized returns will not begin for several months, Mr. Redmond said many Afghans are spontaneously returning to their homeland. Last month alone, 105,000 Afghan refugees - out of a total of 170,000 since November - returned.

In western Afghanistan, relief agencies have begun a re-registration of up to 350,000 Afghans at the largest camp for displaced people inside the country. Niurka Pinerio of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said people are being registered again at the Maslakh camp in Herat to find out exact numbers and the aid required for these people. Mr. Pinerio said there had been reports of food and other relief supplies misappropriated. "The Taleban authorities made us - UNHCR and others who were in this camp - register the people that they brought to the camp," he said. "So in fact, not only were there people who were not internally displaced, but who were from the Herat region and they were brought into these camps by the Taleban, but also people were registered twice and three times."

Mr. Pinerio said once a proper re-registration is completed, the Maslakh camp will be closed and another camp will open nearby to assist new arrivals.

The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, is concerned about severe malnutrition in western Afghanistan. UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte said 10 percent of children under the age of five in this area are emaciated and are fighting to stay alive. "The rate of malnutrition is six times what it normally is and we are already talking about parts of Afghanistan that are very, very poorly off because they are so remote," she said. What is going on in this part of Afghanistan is the cumulative effect of years and years of drought."

Ms. Belmonte said UNICEF is trying to set up feeding centers and distribute high protein biscuits to the children of western Afghanistan. But she said despite UNICEF's best efforts, not all the children will survive.