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Food or Cluster Bomb?
30 October 2001
A handful of readers were outraged a few weeks back when I employed some imagination -- an indispensable tool of journalism -- to put two and two together and suggest that in the matter of the U.S. assault on Afghanistan, feeding and bombing wouldn't mix.
Now, sadly, there's no doubt that many of the food packets the U.S. forces have dropped have gotten into the wrong hands and as the U.S. bombing mission enters its fourth week, the United Nations' World Food Program is saying that the first snows -- expected around November 15 -- are about to block mountain passes and roads, making it hard to get more effective aid deliveries through.
Relief officials on the ground are fearful that if there is no suspension of bombing long enough to let sufficient numbers of truck shipments into the country, millions of Afghan civilians will starve to death: "Millions -- literally millions -- of Afghan civilians will starve to death this winter unless the U.S. military suspends its attacks and allows the UN to re-establish effective food distribution." Sarah Zaidi, research director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights in Pakistan told the Institute for Public Accuracy at the weekend. Zaidi's group has produced three comprehensive fact sheets on Afghanistan since September 11.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has sounded an alarm over the use of cluster bombs by American aircraft. According to a report published Friday, in the News International of Pakistan, U.S. cluster bombs killed eight people in a Herat village called Shaker Qala last week.
Cluster bombs are dropped in a casing which is supposed to split open in mid-air, scattering up to 200 bomblets the size of soft drink cans over an area as big as a U.S. football field. They are used to destroy vehicles, to start fires and as an anti-personnel weapon. Sometimes they descend with mini-parachutes designed to prevent explosion on impact, so that they deny the enemy the use of an area such as an airfield. (Shaker Qala, we're told, lies near a military camp.)
"The villagers have a lot to be afraid of, because these bomblets, if they did not explode, are very dangerous," Dan Kelly, manager of a UN mine removal program for Afghanistan, told the News. "They can explode if the villagers so much as touch them."
And finally, here comes this news, from the BBC: "The United States is seeking to avert further criticism over the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan by warning the Afghan people not to confuse unexploded bombs with food drops." The BBC (Sunday, October 28) reported that the yellow casing on the cluster bombs that U.S. forces are dropping on Afghanistan "means that from a distance they are hard to distinguish from the emergency food parcels wrapped in yellow plastic that U.S. planes have been dropping over the last few weeks."
The source for the BBC account was a U.S. psychological operations (psy-ops) radio broadcast. BBC Monitoring, a service based in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages, apparently including psy-op broadcasts.
According to the BBC, U.S. forces are using radio to reassure Afghans in Dari and Pashto -- two of five regional languages. The psy-ops messages also reveal U.S. concerns.
"Attention, noble Afghan people," the messages begin. "As you know, the coalition countries have been air-dropping daily humanitarian rations for you, the food ration is enclosed in yellow plastic bags. They come in the shape of rectangular or long squares. The food inside the bags is Halal and very nutritional."
In future, say the psy-ops broadcasters, "cluster bombs will not be dropped in areas where food is air-dropped."
"However, we do not wish to see an innocent civilian mistake the bombs for food bags and take it away believing that it might contain food."
"In areas away from where food has been dropped, cluster bombs will also be dropped. The color of these bombs is also yellow."
"Do not confuse the cylinder-shaped bomb with the rectangular food bag," the message concluded.
I only wish I was making this stuff up.