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The War's 'Dispensable' People

10 November 2001

As we bear witness to the thousands of Afghan refugees flooding into Pakistan, I am haunted and transported back to my childhood, seeing some version of my young, anxious face, clutching the hands of worried parents stumbling through the rugged terrain of the Khyber Pass. In the 1970s, after the overthrow of the former king, my family was among the first waves of the 5 million Afghan refugees who were made homeless in the decades of war in Afghanistan.

Since Sept. 11, Afghans have been driven by terror and fear that once again political decisions beyond their control have branded them the enemy - this time by one of the most powerful nations in the world. Many have given up their life savings, a measly $30, to be guided with their few belongings on a mule, or struggling on foot with just the clothes on their back, through the Khyber Pass. And the majority find themselves standing at Pakistan's closed borders with nowhere to run.

Now as the bombs are falling on Afghanistan, the international community cannot once again blind itself to the impending disastrous humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has predicted that this could be a worse humanitarian disaster than Rwanda. More than 7 million people inside the country and in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan will require humanitarian assistance to survive.

The international community has come together, setting a common agenda to combat terrorism, and has chosen Afghanistan as the first line of battle against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. We must simultaneously develop a common humanitarian agenda to avert a deadly crisis of calamitous proportions. To do this right, the United States and the international community have to be as invested in truly averting the impending humanitarian disaster as they are in achieving a military success in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration's pledge of $320 million for food and medicine to help Afghanistan's people survive the approaching harsh and deadly winter is an important and positive development. While this is commendable, it is only a small part of the solution.

A comprehensive humanitarian strategy will require action on multiple fronts, including supporting the World Food Program's efforts towards a large scale airlift of food this winter to 600,000 to 1 million Afghans isolated in remote areas. The program has requested a donation of planes, pilots, and cash from the international community.

In addition, it will be necessary to set up human corridors and food and safety operations for the thousands of refugees trapped at Pakistan's border. Finally, it is vital that the US support the efforts of Ruud Lubbers, the UN high commissioner for refugees, to persuade Pakistan and Iran to keep their borders open to the fleeing refugees during the duration of the bombing campaign.

Addressing the plight of the refugees is essential, not only from a moral but from a strategic standpoint. Afghans are needed as allies to prevail in this war, and the world has to win Afghan hearts and minds by rectifying a history of using Afghans as military allies and abandoning them to their fate when the agenda has been met. The situation of thousands of hungry people can also, as it has been in the past, be a breeding ground for a new swell of radicalism and violence if it is left unattended. Moreover, thousands of frozen and dead refugees will only undermine the US public relations efforts in the Muslim world.

Many have resigned themselves to the idea that the Afghan refugees already have many odds against them and it is inevitable that they will be the casualties of this war. Or, as one of my friends said, ''Well, Rina, no offense, but it's a war, and if innocent Afghans have to die, well then, innocent Afghans have to die.''

He had forgotten that I was one of those innocent Afghans, one of the refugees once caught up in other people's wars, other people's politics.

An Afghan life, a refugee's life, is equally valuable to any other population. It is morally imperative that the international community reflect this, not just in rhetoric or symbolic displays, but in sustained humanitarian action and with the commitment of vital resources.

Rina Amiri.
Published in the Boston Globe.
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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