Aid Group Returns to Afghanistan

The U.S.-led military campaign against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis in and around Afghanistan. is sharing the stories of aid workers assisting refugees in the region. Below are comments from a Nov. 15 conversation with Christopher Stokes of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). His group has just returned to Afghanistan after a two-month absence.

We're in Mazar-e-Sharif now. We were the first foreigners people had seen for two months, and the Afghans were quite surprised to see us arrive there yesterday during the night. I think they were quite pleased as well because they saw the first signs of humanitarian assistance coming back into the north. We have three people here now, and we have more people on the way.

Having been here only 24 hours, it's quite hard to say how secure we are. But I've lived here in 1996 and 1997, and I've seen the conditions when you have different commanders in town, and we've worked in conditions similar to this basically for the past 20 years now in Afghanistan.

You can never say things are totally peaceful, but you are usually able to work and you can negotiate your way through the different areas controlled by different people. And you are able to provide assistance. So I think the conditions aren't perfect, but they are workable. There is opportunity to bring humanitarian assistance into the north, and definitely into Mazar-e-Sharif.

Support Comes from Individuals, Not Governments

It's hard to tell what level of support we'll need. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working here for over 20 years, basically without support form the Western military. And we're back in Kabul; we're back in Herat; we're back in Mazar-e-Sharif; and we're back in Taloqan. We're restarting the aid operation, and we're doing this in a way that's as independent as possible, basically.

We're relying on the generosity of the public; this is our main source of funding for operations. And we're not taking funding from any of the belligerents — any of the parties or governments involved in the conflict. It's a general rule with MSF — one that we apply in other conflicts as well. But we certainly have appeals toward the donor public in Europe and in the States, and they've been very generous up until now. The financing we're using over here is coming from ordinary individuals.

I think we don't really feel the need for any Western troops to come in and provide security today. The situation is quite workable. Also, we know that if foreign troops come in — if American, British or other Western troops come in, there's also a risk for us. Many of the people we send in here — the international staff, the doctors, the nurses, myself and others — come from the United Kingdom, the United States and the West, and there's a risk of association.

The Afghans always ask you why you're here, and if you have other motives. If we have the military providing humanitarian assistance, there's a risk that people will think that things are being done for other motives — political or military or propaganda.

Looting Common Among Taliban, Northern Alliance

It's important to get as many of the aid agencies that have been working here back into the country. For the moment, MSF is the only aid agency present in Mazar-e-Sharif, but I'm sure others will come as soon as they can.

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