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The War on Relief 

With Iraq in crisis, humanitarian efforts around the globe go on hold

Thursday, Mar 20 2003
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In Jordan, just over the Iraqi border near the eastern border town of Ruweishid, the ground is being prepared for war. Relief workers have leveled the soil so tents can be set up; they have been digging trenches for drainage, mapping out the grid of a makeshift city and dotting it with pit latrines and mobile clinics. As refugees begin to arrive, they are fine-tuning registration systems with which they can distribute ration cards for blankets, food, medical supplies. And they await the inevitable: an overwhelming mass of humanity — men, women and children in various states of misery, sickness and starvation — in dire need of clean water, food and medical care.

The world has seen this before, of course, and not long ago — in the early ’90s, when 800,000 citizens of Bosnia fled to various countries to escape Slobodan Milosevic’s murderous regime; in 1994, when nearly 2 million ethnic Hutu Rwandans escaped to neighboring countries; and in 2001, when another wave of Afghans took refuge against the U.S. bombing campaign to oust the Taliban. (After 23 years of war, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees [UNHCR] has just begun a program to repatriate the millions of refugees still living in camps in various Pakistani cities, complete with a policy of “iris scanning” to prevent “refugee fraud.”) But the Iraqi situation, most relief agencies regretfully acknowledge, might be headed for an unprecedented disaster if the forces waging the war remain as frighteningly insensitive to Iraq’s humanitarian needs as they have thus far.

The UNHCR expects some 1.5 million refugees to stream over Iraq’s borders in the first few months of war. Jordan, whose population almost unanimously opposes U.S. involvement in Iraq, will receive them only reluctantly; Iran is waffling, and Kuwait, Syria and Turkey have all closed their borders, citing security risks and economic concerns. No one has enough money. “The U.N. issued an emergency appeal to the U.S. and Great Britain for $130 million,” says Peter Medway, the senior program officer of the Los Angeles–based aid organization Relief International (R.I.). “They’ve got about 30 million of that. But nearly all that has already been spent on supplies.”

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The situation could be worse within Iraq’s borders, where 10 million people will likely need emergency food rations to stay alive through the war — more than half of them children, or women in some stage of childbearing or infant care. In addition, 16 million citizens of embargoed Iraq are completely dependent on the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food rations, the distribution of which will be disrupted as life becomes impossibly dangerous on the ground. Estimates for the first six months of providing humanitarian assistance run as high as $800 million.

Pleas for an increase in relief funding have been forwarded to the U.S. Congress where they will likely be debated until the war is well under way. In the meantime, the Bush administration has ignored the objections of relief organizations such as the D.C.-based consortium of relief agencies InterAction, and turned an unprecedented share of the responsibility for emergency food and medical care over to the U.S. Defense Department, compromising the safety of non-governmental aid workers — whose lives may depend on remaining unaffiliated with a despised superpower.

“It’s a bad state of affairs,” says Richard M. Walden, president and CEO of Operation USA, which has been conducting emergency airlifts into devastated regions since the Cambodian famine of 1979. “You can’t militarize humanitarian aid. It’s one thing to create a security umbrella, but it’s another to get the military so deeply into the relief effort that you can’t work in Indonesia again, or anywhere else where the U.S. isn’t welcome.

“In 1980, you could walk around anywhere in the world and say, ‘I’m a relief worker, no one’s going to shoot me,’” says Walden. Now, even though OpUSA takes no money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or any other government-funded source, Walden fears for the safety of all U.S. relief workers. “Every American, no matter who funds them, is going to be at risk in places where they’re angry at Americans.”

One of those places, unfortunately, is post-Taliban Afghanistan, where despite the prevailing impression that the U.S. military has secured the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan under Hamed Karzai, the renegade warlord Pasha Khan Zadran still ignites skirmishes that result in civilian casualties, and al Qaeda is thought to be responsible for recent attacks on the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. “The government there is a tenuous entity right at the moment,” Medway worries. “The shock of a war on Iraq could turn the place over.”

Violence in Afghanistan’s capital has been escalating as the war on Iraq grows nearer, some of it inspired by anti-Americanism, some of it a matter of convenience. On Monday, just hours before Bush issued his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, Peter Medway’s colleague, R.I.’s executive director Farshad Rastegar, was busily making phone calls to Kabul, trying to figure out how to rescue personnel still at work in the Afghan capital. The Kabul airport had been closed — “for security reasons,” Rastegar told me, and the U.N. was advising people who didn’t get out in 24 hours to “bunker down” for the long haul. “There’s been an increase already in the last three days in the number of bombings, unexpected land-mine explosions and illegal roadblocks,” Rastegar said. “Most agencies are pulling staff out of Kabul into neighboring countries. But for now,” he sighs, “it seems that they’re stuck.”

The development slowdown in Afghanistan is especially unfortunate given that, up until last week, the struggle to rebuild postwar Afghanistan had been going reasonably well. “We’ve built 39 schools in the country,” says Medway, his voice brightening. “Some of them hold thousands of kids. We’ve been working on a big reproductive-health program in one of the northern provinces, training 200 traditional birth attendants in such things as learning to identify and respond to difficult pregnancies. We’ve been training vaccinators and vaccinating the population against measles and tetanus, and we’ve repaired over 100 miles of roads in rural areas — bridges, culverts, reinforcing roads that were eroded by war. We’ve been pleased with the progress.”

For now, however, all that work has stopped. Even without the security risks, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan may have to wait until the Iraqi crisis is solved. “It’s draining all the money out of the system,” says Walden. “I was in Nicaragua two weeks ago, and the head of the U.S. relief agency there said his budget was in free fall — despite the post–Hurricane Mitch pledges for assistance, they were being ignored.” He laments the fate of humanitarian groups that remain dependent on such sources as USAID. “In 24 years of doing this, the single worst development in the relief field is making it all into a government contracting business. With the exception of us and a couple of Quaker groups, just about everyone — from Doctors Without Borders to Save the Children — gets U.S. money.

“They’ve been turned into ambulance chasers,” Walden maintains, “chasing the next war to get money. And then you say, ‘What happened to that women’s-development program in Southern Africa?’ But how can you worry about that when all your resources are going to places where people are fleeing a war?

In light of the vast opposition around the world to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the close association between the U.S. government and the humanitarian-relief agencies is also complicating matters for non-allied countries that would otherwise contribute to relief efforts, but don’t want to appear as though they support the U.S. cause. “We haven’t seen the same level of donations coming from Europe for preparations that we normally would,” Rastegar says. “It’s all become very politicized.” He emphasizes that Relief International is currently more focused on security than on fund raising, but “We definitely need money,” he admits. “There’s not as much funding for preparation as we usually would expect.”

Medway, for his part, is looking toward the future. “We’re still building up our Afghanistan program this year and diversifying it,” he says. “As a humanitarian organization we hoped this conflict with Iraq could be resolved peacefully. But as people with our heads screwed on who understand reality, we’re hoping the war is over just as soon as possible so the situation in Afghanistan can calm down.”

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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