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.

It's important because looting is taking place in most of our offices, both under the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Some of the supplies and medical supplies have been taken. And some of the clinics and hospitals were running out of supplies. So I think our return is timely. The past 24 hours have been reasonably calm.

We visited hospitals in Mazar-e-Sharif and we assessed the needs. Clearly, there's going to be a need for supplies in the coming days, and we have them on the way.

I think our major concern would be nutrition. There's been three years of drought in the north of Afghanistan and over 20 years of fighting, and people are really reaching the end of their coping mechanisms. Our major concern is the situation in the countryside, which is harder to reach. And this is our objective for the next few days. So I would say food is clearly a priority.

After the U.S. strikes began, a lot of the medical care was provided by Afghan doctors and nurses. But they need foreign assistance in terms of medical supplies, as well as for their salaries to be paid. The Afghans have been able to carry out a lot of MSF's work, in spite of ongoing looting. They really have done a fantastic job.

We’ll Be Back to Pre-Attack Status Soon

We've got experience of working in this kind of area and of having to leave because of security reasons and then coming back very quickly. I think it's going to go very quickly — maybe a week, 10 days, maximum two weeks we'll be up to the level of support we were providing before the strikes began.

The second task will be to see if we can expand our relief sites into areas previously inaccessible due to the civil war. We hope to return to the center of the country, in Hazarajat, for example. We haven't been able to work there for a number of years, and we certainly expect to find major needs there.

Help from Neighboring Countries Crucial

It would certainly be helpful if countries north of Afghanistan — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan — facilitated the humanitarian assistance by opening their borders and streamlining their bureaucratic procedures with visas. It seems ridiculous, but that's what's really slowing down a lot of the aid efforts. It's not so much security. One of the things that took us so long to get here was the bureaucracy and the red tape of many of the countries of Central Asia. It took us more than a two-day drive just to get to Mazar-e-Sharif. If the Uzbek border were open, we could have been here in an hour and a half.

We've been in daily contact with governments of all these neighboring countries in the north to facilitate. And it's still taking a long time to get things done. We're lobbying for greater assistance, but without a huge amount of success for the moment.