NATO offensive turns thousands of families into refugees

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THE number of those displaced by the US/NATO military surge against the Taleban resistance in Nad Ali District, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, has more than doubled over the past four days.

‘Over 3,700 families (some 22,000 people) displaced from the Marjah and Nad Ali areas have been registered in Helmand’s capital, Lashkargah,’ Dawood Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand governor said.

Some of those arriving in Lashkargah on February 20-21 said they had left their homes in Marjah because of the lack of food.

‘Food prices have skyrocketed in Marjah and Nad Ali and people cannot afford it,’ said another man, Ghulam Mohammad.

‘All shops and markets are closed and there is no food for people to buy locally,’ said one displaced man, Abdul Bari.

Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been hosted by relatives and friends, but a few had sought refuge in abandoned buildings.

The Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) said over 450 families (about 2,700 individuals) had fled to Nawa District and other nearby locations in Helmand since shortly before the February 13 offensive.

Prior to the offensive Marjah’s population was estimated at about 80,000. Over 40,000 people are believed to be still there, according to ARCS which has volunteers in Marjah and elsewhere in the province.

‘People are unable to leave Marjah because of scattered mines and threats by the armed opposition,’ said ARCS’s Ahmadi.

NATO and government officials keep promising the locals they will improve services and rebuild quickly in Marjah and Nad Ali once the area is cleared of Taleban fighters, but it is unclear how much longer the fighting may go on.

Aid agencies are concerned that if the conflict intensifies many more people could be displaced, placing a severe strain on local families in Lashkargah as well as the government and aid agencies.

‘Response activities need to be enhanced, coordinated and made more effective in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis of conflict IDPs,’ warned ARCS’s Ahmadi.

The government has ruled out the establishment of a new IDP camp in Lashkargah, saying it could result in a protracted emergency.

Meanwhile, the only functioning health post in conflict-affected Marjah in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, is not being used because people fear they could get caught in crossfire if they try and get there, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

A staffed and functioning ICRC health post was set up in the town before the February 13 NATO/Afghan offensive, and both sides notified of its existence.

‘We treat both sick and wounded civilians and fighters,’ Bijan Frederic Farnoudi, ICRC’s communication officer in Kabul, said referring to the organisation’s role under international law.

ICRC said it is having problems communicating with its medical staff in Marjah and is concerned about their safety as fighting continues.

A few ICRC health workers were visiting those in need of health care in, or near, their homes.

‘Our main concern is patients being able to either safely access them, or our own staff safely accessing patients in their homes,’ said Farnoudi.

The ICRC has taken nine people to the provincial capital of Lashkargah for hospital treatment.

Evacuating the wounded and sick from Marjah had been tricky: The main road to Lashkargah is inaccessible and taking alternative routes is risky as no one knows where a roadside bomb might be.

Over 1,400 displaced families (more than 10,000 individuals) have been registered in Lashkargah; 110 families have sought refuge in Nawa District, and 300 families in the Kashrod District of Helmand’s neighbouring Nimruz Province, according to aid agencies.

‘Because internally displaced persons (IDPs) do not live in a camp or one specific area, we have launched two mobile health teams to serve them in Lashkargah city,’ said Enayatullah Ghafari, provincial director of the health department.

Ghafari added: ‘Thirty displaced patients, most of them children suffering from acute respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases, were treated by mobile health workers on February 17.

‘Some of the treated children were also “malnourished”,’ he said.

Prior to the Nato military operation, the health department was delivering basic health services in Taleban-controlled Marjah through a community health centre and two sub-posts.

‘We have no news of our staff and don’t know about the status of our health centres in Marjah,’ Ghafari said.

Meanwhile in the border area of Pakistan, military operations continue in northern areas, and military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas has said they will go on till ‘the Taleban are defeated’.

Aid agencies are preparing for an influx of a possible further 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northwestern Pakistan in 2010, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other agencies.

A map created at the end of last year shows that new IDPs could pour out of the tribal areas lying along the Afghan-Pakistani border

The summer of 2009 saw the displacement of 2.3 million people at the peak of the fighting. While most of these IDPs have returned, a large number remain in camps or with host families.

Manuel Bessler, head of OCHA in Pakistan said: ‘The moment we have the ‘Green Light’ from the government we will launch the Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan for 2010, which will help us to coordinate our humanitarian efforts and raise the necessary funds to finance our activities.’

Muhammad Arshad, emergency programme manager at CARE International in Pakistan, said:

‘According to projections from international agencies, more displacements are possible.

‘These are most likely to come from tribal areas, but it is not inconceivable that they could also take place from Malakand Division comprising Dir, Swat, Chitral and Malakand districts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP)] again, because a military operation continues there.

‘As military operations continue in various areas of the northwest, there could well be new displacements in 2010 from the tribal areas, though we do not expect anything on the scale we saw from the Malakand area in May 2009,’ Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency, explained.

‘Around 1.1 million individuals are still displaced. Around 113,500 of these are still living in camps and 97,000 are at Jalozai, Billi Bierling, OCHA public information officer said.

The rest are staying with host families – 360,000 of them in Mardan District and 200,000 in Tank District in NWFP.

‘We expect the IDPs from South Waziristan to start returning home by March,’ Lt-Gen Nadeem Ahmad, chairman of the Pakistan Army’s Special Support Group, told the media recently. He said the ‘displacement crisis will be over soon’.

Azamullah Jan, from Swat, who is still based at the Jalala Camp in Mardan said: ‘Times are constantly getting harder for us as there is less and less help from the government or international agencies’.

He described winter at the camp as ‘especially bleak’ because ‘the tents offer no protection against the cold and it is freezing at night’.