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Action Alert 

Killer Food Drops

8 October 2001

Here's the half of the story that the media and the Bush team bring you: Under cover of darkness, U.S. food packets rained from the sky like manna upon the hungriest parts of Afghanistan.

Here's the other half -- which requires some independent research and imagination: unguided crates crash to ground in the pitch black. Hungry Afghans rush to gather them up. Too late. Another explosion, then another. Parents watch in horror as the brightly colored packets tempt their children onto landmines.

We should be getting good at this by now. George W. and Donald Rumsfeld give us a bit of the story. The power press fill in some details. It's up to us to do the rest. In his address to the nation Sunday afternoon, George W. Bush announced that U.S. and British air strikes against Afghanistan had started. Also started, said Bush, were humanitarian aid drops. "We will also drop food, medicine and supplies to starving and suffering men and women and childrenof Afghanistan."

An hour later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that food drops had begun. Two U.S. C-17 cargo planes, flying low over remote regions under cover of night, were releasing 37,000 individual rations containing "foodstuffs culturally and religiously acceptable to the civilian Afghan population, as well as medicines, blankets and other items."

By the end of the day, media reports were elaborating: The "Humanitarian Daily Ration" packets were wrapped in yellow and white plastic. A photograph in the New York Times details the contents: beans with tomato sauce, peanut butter, strawberry jam, beans and tomato vinaigrette, biscuit, fruit pastry and shortbread, not to forget -- utensils, salt, pepper, napkin and a match. Nutritional value: 2,300 calories -- ideally, a day's supply.

Here's where the media-consuming public have to exercise some imagination and activate their historical memory. For help, we can turn to the excellent information that is on the record, compiled by, among others, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and humanitarian aid groups that work in Afghanistan like Oxfam.

The population of Afghanistan, we know, is roughly 20.9 million. UN agencies recently estimated some 7.5 million of those were "on the brink of disaster." What does the UN reckon is needed? $584 million in food aid and water aid before the onset of winter. The U.S. has pledged $320 million.

Oxfam reports that this is the last month that critical food and grain and medical aid can be shipped to some areas before the winter cuts them off. What is needed? Supplies to last local people not a day or two, but until spring.

52,000 tons per month should be delivered, reported Oxfam October 5. Some 4,500 tons had been shipped out as of last week. "Since September 12, we estimate that little more than 15 percent of Afghanistan's pre-crisis food has been met, after a break of nearly three weeks," reported Oxfam, October 5.

"To feed 6 million people we would need more than 125 flights of Hercules airplanes each day," says Paul Smith-Lomas, Oxfam's Humanitarian Director. "This might be mathematically possible but unlikely to happen because civilian planes cannot fly in a war zone."

And unlike in-the-field aid workers, U.S. troops flying on high, can do virtually nothing to guarantee where the food goes. Relief organizations working in the area say that the best way to deliver food into Afghanistan is by truck.

Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's director, told the British Guardian that "all aid should be channeled through the UN "to be seen as impartial and separate from military action. Trucking of food is cheaper and is tried and tested. Air drops are risky, random, expensive, and likely to meet only a fraction of the need. Aid workers would be put in a difficult position if food aid came to be viewed as part of a military effort".

Yet in the run up to air strikes, fearing a massive influx of refugees, Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan closed their borders in line with an American request.

The director of the Catholic charity, Cafod, Julian Filichowski, said: "It is a matter of fact that even the threat of military action has made the humanitarian situation worse. The start of military attacks on Afghanistan, even if limited, will exacerbate problems." The threat alone, had sent tens of thousands of Afghans away from the urban areas where relief operations are already in place.

Sunday's U.S. and British air strikes were launched on a trapped nation; a day's worth of food for 37,000 was dropped on a land of 20 million people, some 7 million of whom are on the verge of starvation, many thousands of whom have fled their home areas to be stranded without access to aid.

And rushing for those "humanitarian rations" may kill them.

According to the International Campaign: "Afghanistan remains one of the most mine and UXO [unexploded ordnance] affected countries in the world. According to the United Nations Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA), landmines and UXO contaminate 724 million square meters of land....Mined areas are still being discovered at a rate of 12 to 14 million square meters per year." Says the Campaign: "In the year 2000, an average of about eighty-eight casualties per month were attributed to landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Afghanistan."

Alex Renton works for Oxfam International in Islamabad, Pakistan. "I cannot overstate how lethal it is to drop anything on Afghanistan," Renton said today. Bush and co will do that part of the story-telling that suits them. It is up to us to do the rest.

Laura Flanders.

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