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UNHCR Launches Aid to Help Poor Afghans Survive Winter

  • Lisa Schlein

The U.N. refugee agency is launching a program to help thousands of poor Afghans survive the harsh winter. It says it has begun distributing supplies to 1,500 returnees and internally displaced people in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is pre-positioning winter supplies throughout Afghanistan before the weather gets too bad and road conditions make it impossible to move to certain areas.

It says assistance packages vary in different locations, according to needs, but all include plastic sheets, blankets and jerry cans.

It says more than 177,000 blankets, 600,000 items of warm clothing and tens of thousands of plastic sheets and jerry cans have been sent to UNHCR's regional offices for countrywide distribution.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says supplies were strategically moved to the areas with harsh winters, such as the western region, where heavy snow would otherwise impede access.

"The beneficiaries are a mix of vulnerable, recently returned refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons], as well as others at particular risk in the cold winter weather-such as the disabled, the elderly and single mothers." said Machecic. "Temperatures in Kabul can plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius in January, which is the coldest month of the year. In other regions, such as the central highlands area, winter temperatures are as low as minus 30 degrees."

Mahecic says some of the 250 deprived families that will receive UNHCR'S winter aid in Kabul, are returned refugees. He says they are unable to stay in or return to their home villages because of lack of jobs or personal enmities.

In some cases, he says families cannot return because they have grown so large during years in exile there is not enough land or shelter for them back home.

"A group of 60 families live in an abandoned former kindergarten in Kabul, without running water or electricity, in tiny rooms with plastic curtains covering gaping holes to keep the cold out." said Machecic. "Some of these people were among the first to return to Afghanistan in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban, but are now facing their eighth harsh winter in tough conditions. They struggle to feed their families, heat the house and organize education for their children."

Mahecic says the UNHCR is coordinating its winterization program with its partners and the Afghan government. He says the program will continue over the coming weeks and is expected to be complete by the end of December.