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Reconstructing Afghanistan: Statement by Global Exchange Women's Delegation to the Region

6 December 2001

The following is a first-hand account of current conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan from human rights organization Global Exchange, which recently completed a two-week fact-finding trip is presenting their report and recommendations in Washington this week.


A four-person women's delegation, organized by Global Exchange and led by Medea Benjamin, traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan from November 20 to December 3.

The purpose of the trip was to investigate the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and among the refugee population, to assess the consequences of US bombing, and to talk to women's groups about what role they would like to play in a transition government.

The group traveled to Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan, refugee camps along the border, and Jalalabad and Kabul in Afghanistan. Our group met with a wide range of women's organizations involved in activities such as educating Afghan youth, providing economic alternatives for street children and beggars, running clinics and health care centers, assisting refugees, educating women about their rights, and promoting the legal rights of women in a post-Taliban government. These groups include the Afghan Women's Council, the Afghan Women's Network, Women's Commission for Peace, the Afghan Women's Resource Center, Afghan Women Skills and Development Center, Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and the International Human Rights Law Group.

In addition to women's groups, we met with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program, the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities. We also met with foreign and local non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam, Save the Children, the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation, the International Catholic Migration Commission, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee, and the Japan International Friendship and Welfare Foundation.

The conclusions and recommendations of the delegation are outlined below. The first section addresses how to get assistance to the millions of Afghans suffering absolute deprivation. The second examines how to best assist Afghans in their effort to rebuild their devastated country. And the third looks at how to ensure that women play a substantial role in a post-Taliban government.

Emergency Assistance to Those in Need, Both Inside and Outside Afghanistan

We are gravely concerned about the situation of the refugees, the internally displaced people, and the needy population in general. The fighting that has ensued in the wake of the September 11 events has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans. The recent US military actions have created a whole new class of refugees. Many of these people - predominantly women and children - are receiving little or no assistance. Many are already malnourished and face starvation with the onset of winter.

Reaching the needy inside Afghanistan: The populations facing the greatest disaster are those who remain inside Afghanistan in refugee camps, in the areas where fighting continues, or in areas where access to humanitarian aid is blocked by fighting and/or looting. Aid workers spoke to us of extreme misery in the internal refugee camps, where there is an alarmingly high incidence of malaria, malnutrition and dysentery. There is a shortage of food, blankets and tents; many of the children have no warm clothing, or even shoes and socks. With no toilets and no clean drinking water, hygiene is abysmal. People are dying every day from cold and starvation.

"My little sister died from the cold when we were refugees in Afghanistan, " an 11-year-old boy named Hamasa who made it to a camp in Pakistan told us. "There we went days without food, we slept on the cold ground with no blankets. Many people died."

Many of the refugees are from rural areas already devastated by a three-year drought. The international aid they had been relying on for food stopped with the US airstrikes, when most relief agencies closed their offices. While relief workers are restarting their efforts, they are overwhelmed by the need and the inaccessibility of the refugees.

It is the "wild west" along some of the roads, with trucks looted, provisions diverted, and truck drivers putting their lives at risk to deliver aid. Looting and sudden eruptions of violence are making humanitarian deliveries difficult and dangerous in areas around Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif. The refugee camps themselves are also plagued by violence. Women are especially vulnerable, and face rape and other abuse.

"I came here with 8 children from Kabul, but two died along the way," said a woman in a refugee camp outside Jalalabad who did not want to give her name. "I was forced to accept food from men in the camp to feed my children. They would come to my tent at night, then leave me some bread."

The US airlifts of food are not an adequate way to reach the needy. The food and supplies are often commandeered by those with guns, and either taken to feed troops or sold on the market. There are also reports of food landing in fields laced with land mines, making the gathering of rations a risky affair.

Recommendation: Given that the humanitarian crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the US bombing campaign, the US has a grave responsibility to help. The air drops of food are inappropriate, dangerous, and should be discontinued. There should be a halt to the US bombing and an immediate deployment of a UN security force to ensure the safe distribution of food and supplies. As the cold intensifies, so does the horrific humanitarian crisis. This is why time is of the essence.

It is unconscionable for the US to focus solely on the destruction of the Taliban regime and the Al Qaeda network. The vast majority of the Afghan people have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or the Al Qaeda network. They are now innocent victims of this war. It is our responsibility to help stave off mass starvation and help rebuild the country. This is not only the right thing to do for the Afghan people, it is also in our self interest. If the US contributes to the starvation of thousands of people, it will feed the cynicism and anger that people in the region feel toward the US, setting back the larger campaign against terrorism.

External refugees: The refugees who have migrated to Pakistan since September 11 are in a precarious situation. The Pakistani government has been reluctant to accept new refugees, insisting it was already overburdened with nearly 3 million Afghans who had fled over the past 23 years of fighting. Thousands were turned back or walked for days in the mountains to enter through unpatrolled border areas. Those who have managed to cross the border are not given refugee status and therefore have not been receiving UN assistance. The UNHCR estimates 135,000-200,000 Afghans have crossed into Pakistan since September 11, most of them "illegally."

Some refugees have entered already-existing refugee camps such as Shamshatoo and Jalozai, moving in with relatives who must then share their meager rations with the "illegal" newcomers. The overcrowding and inadequacy of the aid in several of the camps has led to a hostile atmosphere that negatively impacts the refugees, particularly the newcomers. Those who have not entered the camps have melted in with the general population, but without money and few possessions, they are barely surviving. Children as young as five are working as carpet weavers, maids or street vendors to supplement the families' meager income. Hundreds of women, mostly widows trying to raise their children, beg in the streets. The new camps that the UNHCR is organizing in the tribal areas along the Afghan border are better organized and provide rations to all, whether they entered legally or not. However, they are located in Pashtun areas that support the Taliban. The locals have threatened to attack non-Pashtun refugees, leading the UNHCR to exclude non-Pashtuns from these camps for the time being.

Recommendations: The refugees must all be given legal status and registered with the United Nations so that they may receive aid. Non-Pashtuns must be given special attention and relocated to areas where their security can be guaranteed. The level of aid in the camps, particularly the quality and variety of food, must be improved. As more Afghans flee from Kunduz, Kandahar and other front lines, it is more vital than ever that Afghanistan's neighbors allow refugees to cross their borders, without the threat of involuntary return, and with proper assistance and security in those neighboring countries. Donor governments must urgently provide the cash, not just the pledges, so that this substantial burden does not fall o n Pakistan and Iran in particular, which already host so many Afghan refugees.

Direct victims of US bombing

Everywhere we went, both in Afghanistan and in the external refugee camps, we met people who lost loved ones or were injured by US bombs.

"We lived in Kabul near one of the Taliban military bases, where my father had a small grocery store," explained 12-year-old Haziza. "One day I was out with my father, when we heard planes roaring overhead and scary, loud sounds like thunder. When we returned home, we found my mother and younger brother lying dead in a pile of rubble that was once our house. My father went into shock and lost his mind. Now I'm the one in charge of our household, taking care of my five brothers and sisters. We have no money and itıs hard for me to find them enough food to eat." Children are traumatized by the loss of their parents and are left with no source of sustenance. Parents are traumatized by the loss of their children. We heard of several cases where the deadly cluster bombs, which break up into hundreds of bright yellow bomblets, were picked up by curious children‹and then exploded. Once injured, there is a severe lack of medical care.

Rasmir, a 24 year-old mother from Kabul that the delegation met in Peshawar, told of how on October 11 a bomb landed on a park in the capital's Makrorayan neighborhood, killing three children and injuring others. "All the mothers were screaming, 'where's my child?' After that all the kids stay at home because everyone is too afraid to go out," Rasmir said. "Now my five year-old has mental problems from the shock."

Little is known about the actual numbers of innocent civilians killed. The US says the casualties are few. Aghans we spoke with said there are probably thousands of dead.

Recommendations: We must conduct a serious investigation of the innocent victims of the bombing. And just as we have made a strong commitment to help the families of those innocent civilians who died or were hurt in the September 11 attacks, so we must make a similar commitment to help the innocent Afghan civilians injured by US bombs.

Moreover, we must stop the loss of further innocent lives. The US must put an immediate end to the use of cluster bombs, which have been denounced by the human rights community. But we must put an end to the entire bombing campaign. Too many innocent people have been killed, maimed and displaced to justify a continuation of the bombing.

Reconstructing Afghanistan

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. Infant mortality is one of the highest in the world at around 165 per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy at birth is an abysmal 41 years of age. Due to decades of war, Afghanistan has the world's largest population of disabled.

The nation's economy is in a state of collapse, crippled by the three-year drought, two decades of war and the present bombing campaign. Social services such as schools and health care facilities are non-existent or woefully inadequate. Basic infrastructure - roads, bridges, irrigation, canals, telecommunications, electricity, markets - have been destroyed. In the countryside, crop production has plummeted and livestock herds heavily depleted. Drug production is one of the only cash crops, making Afghanistan the largest opium producer in the world.

A massive reconstruction and development program is needed and will require a significant investment of funds. The World Bank estimates that merely the clearance of landmines from all mine-contaminated areas in Afghanistan could cost as much as $500 million. Total reconstruction and devel opment costs may total $30 billion.

During our visit, we encountered much skepticism about America's long-term commitment to Afghanistan. People wondered if the US would even repair the damage of the bombing campaign. Some said that once the US finds Osama bin Laden, it will simply abandon this poor nation. Others expressed the view that the US simply wanted to use Afghanistan to extract natural resources and as a conduit for the vast oil and natural gas reserves in Central Asia. They speculated that reconstruction would put Afghanistan on a debt treadmill and leave the country indefinitely beholden to the West.

"I don't know if the US is a friend or foe. That remains to be seen," said Orzala Ashraf of the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan. "The proof will be whether or not the US sticks with us not only to oust the Taliban, but to ensure that we are not oppressed by another group of thugs - the Northern Alliance - and that we can feed, house and find work for our people."

Recommendations: The US must show a long-term commitment to rebuilding, and demonstrate that its support for reconstruction is not tied to its own narrow economic interests. The model of development we promote should not be in the interests of oil companies such as UNOCAL, a company that has long been anxious to build a major pipeline through Afghanistan, but in the interests of the people. It should not be a top-down, centralized model, with huge projects controlled by government that would just lead to corruption. Financing micro projects and giving micro credit will be the best development path, especially for revitalizing the critical rural sector that has been so devastated by drought and providing farmers with an alternative to growing opium poppies.

To show the goodwill of the international community, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund should cancel the debts Afghanistan owes them. (The World Bank/ADB debt is $38.7 million, and the IMF debt is $9.6 million, for a total of $48.3 million.)

Security conditions permitting, Global Exchange and other groups plan to sponsor a sustainable development summit in Kabul in the spring that would bring to Afghanistan some of the best examples of locally-based, bottom-up development that reaches those in most need. These would include the Grameen Bank model of micro loans, agricultural cooperatives, village-based health care that combines western and local medicine, decentralized energy generation from clean sources such as solar and wind.

Also, redevelopment must help the most oppressed and depressed sector of society, i.e. women. Respect for women's rights should be a pre-condition for funding. Just as the US and the international community threatened to withhold reconstruction funding if the Northern Alliance did not accept a broad-based interim government, so they should use their financial muscle to ensure gender equity. Moreover, women should be major beneficiaries of the aid money, particularly the hundreds of thousands of widows who must support their children. Micro loans should be targeted to women, women's groups should receive significant resources, and activities such as women's education and health care should be top priority.

If Afghanistan is to emerge from the nightmare of 23 years of war and mass destruction, and cease to be a safe haven for terrorists and a major producer of drugs, there must be a serious commitment of funds from the international community. The US is willing to spend over one billion dollars a month on its military campaign in Afghanistan; it must also be willing to spend billions on rebuilding. This will not only be good for the people of Afghanistan, but it will show the entire Muslim world that we are their friends and that we do, indeed, care about the well-being of the Afghan people.

Ensuring a Significant Role for Women in the Future Government of Afghanistan

While it is a positive development that several women were asked to participate in the Bonn talks on the transition government, the women were selected by the male delegates in a completely undemocratic fashion. We met many women who felt that several of the women delegates were selected primarily due to family connections. Women's group that have been on the forefront of defending women's rights under the reign of the Taliban were not invited. Moreover, out of a delegation of 57, only five were women.

A larger number of women were invited to participate in a separate meeting of civil society groups taking place in Bonn as well. However, those women were also chosen in a top-down manner (in this case by the UN), according to many of the women we spoke with. They also complained that the civil society meeting was not given nearly the weight of the political meeting. Women insisted that civil society groups should not get just a backseat role. In fact, several women said that the only way to build a stable government would be to give less importance to the "guys with guns" and a more critical role to those with the skills and commitment to rebuild the country.

Women were also concerned that the US was giving far too much power to the Northern Alliance, a group they greatly distrust given their past record of brutal killings, rape and looting when they were in power from 1992-1996.

One of the women's groups, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is vehemently against the Northern Alliance, saying that many of the leaders should be prosecuted for the war crimes they committed. They are afraid that as soon as the journalists leave and the international attention is shifted from Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance will revert to their old ways. There are already allegations that Northern Alliance soldiers have mistreated women.

"Before the Taliban there was the mujahadeen, who kidnapped and raped women," Zarlasht Waziry told us. "Being from a family of five sisters, my father was afraid to let us leave the house. Then when the Taliban came, women were imprisoned in their homes. And now the mujahadeen leaders are back as part of the Northern Alliance, and women are once again afraid to leave the house. We don't trust them."

Recommendations: There are hundreds of distinguished Afghan women, both inside Afghanistan and in exile, who have done incredible work opposing the Taliban and providing basic services. These women are the real building blocks of a democratic, peaceful society. They must be represented, in significant numbers, in all phases of the post-Taliban government, and they must be equal participants. Some women have suggested a quota system to guarantee significant representation by women.

We strongly support this suggestion. We also recommend that a womenıs forum be convened as soon as possible in Kabul itself, composed of women inside the country and abroad who have a proven commitment to womenıs rights, peace and sustainable development. The purpose of this forum would be for the women themselves to choose their own representatives in the transition government.

Global Exchange.

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