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Famine and threat of war force Afghans from their homes

By Cedric Pulford
[Episcopal News Service]  The development agency Christian Aid has warned that at least 3.5 million people face starvation in Afghanistan, with only two weeks of food relief left in the country.

Estimates are being revised daily as thousands of refugees rush to the borders amid fears of bombing raids by the United States and allies following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US.

Chris Buckley, Christian Aid's program officer for Afghanistan, told ENI that the famine had originated in a three-year drought in the north and west of the country. The United Nations had estimated, before the present political crisis, that 5.5 million people--about a quarter of the Afghan population--would be dependent on food aid by December.

Buckley said that with Afghanistan's borders now closed, no food was coming into the country. Much of the imported wheat had come from the United States, he added.

Christian Aid, which is supported by all of Britain's mainstream churches, also expressed its concern by joining 13 other UK-based aid and development charities in what the organizers described as an 'unprecedented joint call for restraint' by the United States and allies.

Hundreds of Islamic clerics have urged Osama Bin Laden to leave Afghanistan in a bid to preempt an attack on the country by the US and allies. But it was uncertain whether Bin Laden, alleged to be the mastermind of the terrorist strikes against the US, would comply.

In a statement issued on September 19, the UK-based charities expressed their horror at the terrorist attacks in the US, but warned against a 'descent into a spiral of violence' if military retaliation caused the deaths of many more innocent people. Signatories to the statement include Amnesty International UK, CAFOD (a Roman Catholic development agency), Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK and Tearfund.

A similar statement--signed by 1000 US religious leaders of various faiths--posted on the website of the National Council of Churches in the US warned against 'indiscriminately retalia[ting] in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life.'

Along with the United Nations and other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Christian Aid has withdrawn its expatriate staff from Afghanistan because of the prospect of military action against the country.

Although Christian Aid still had local staff in place, the crisis meant that they could not operate, Buckley explained. 'There have been reports from some NGOs of harassment [by the ruling Taliban and its supporters] of local staff because they are perceived as being on the Western side.'

Such incidents look set to get worse if the United States and allies mount attacks in the country.

Christian Aid's activities in Afghanistan have included supporting health and farming projects as well as food relief. All are now under threat, and Buckley does not see the expatriates returning before December even if the political crisis is resolved. By that time winter will have added yet more to the numbers of those who cannot feed themselves.

Buckley stressed that the Afghan people wanted to be able to feed themselves. He had visited a camp near Herat with 200,000 people and spoken with a group of farmers. 'There were 10 in a family occupying a tent two meters by two meters. They said, 'We would rather go back to our land and die there'.'

Buckley added that food supplies were also in jeopardy in the parts of Afghanistan held by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, although the danger had more to do with fighting than drought. These areas represented about 10 per cent of the country.

Meanwhile, a British cabinet minister, Clare Short, called for 'proportionate' and 'informed' military action in response to the terrorist attacks on the US.

Short, the international development secretary in the government led by Tony Blair--who has promised to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with the United States--said: 'All serious people do not want a lot of innocent people to be bombed and lose their lives. Everyone who's got any influence ought to use it to try to achieve that outcome.'

Christian Aid is one of three member organizations of Action by Churches Together--an ecumenical emergency aid network supported by the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation--working in Afghanistan. The others are Norwegian Church Aid and Church World Service of the National Council of Churches in the US.