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This is Not a Place for Life

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opednews.com Headlined to H1 2/3/11

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KABUL - "The NGO's offices were sparse and well worn, but they bustled with a palpable sense of purpose.  Our host's hospitality was unerring.    For reasons that will become obvious, we will call him Dr. Ahmed Hasan.    Everything else about him and his work is precisely as related.

Dr. Hasan is director of operations for an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) providing relief for "Internally Displaced Persons," (IDPs) or refugees as they were once called.     He said he coordinates an agriculture and livestock project, midwifery services, immunizations, women's empowerment, women's shelters and a "weatherization" program that consists primarily of distributing firewood and small, tin heating stoves to people living in mud huts that have blankets for doors.  

Since 2002, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the good doctor and his staff have pushed this boulder of aid programs uphill.    With each influx of refugees from each new military operation it rolls back down.

The doctor describes one of the three camps in his charge, housing about 1,000 families averaging 7 to 8 people each.  The weatherization process provides each family a firewood ration of 120 kilos per month, during the coldest months of the year only.  This equals about 10 pounds of wood per day per family for all cooking and heating.  

Beyond the director's responsibilities, five more large IDP camps and several smaller ones "house" about 10,000 families, in and around Kabul.  

Most people living in Hasan's camp came originally from Pakistan, disrupted by the violence of U.S./NATO campaigns waged against the complex web of groups lumped into "the opposition." Residents in other camps came directly from the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan.  

The site is on land previously owned by the Ministry of Defense and allegedly purchased by an Afghan National Army officer whom Hasan says claims authority to remove the families whenever he wants.

Water for these 7,000 people comes from two hand pumps and what UNICEF can truck in. The assumed owner of the land does not allow any drilling for water.

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Most of the people in the camp have nothing left back home and don't want to return, Hasan explained.   What's needed, he said, is to create a plan to improve their lives, including housing, education, jobs, water and sewer.  "It is not sustainable to have them stay in their present conditions, surviving on food drop-offs. They need the other services to be able to work."

Asked who is responsible for the refugees' desperate situation Dr. Hasan replied, "The United States, Afghanistan, the Taliban and the militias should all be held responsible."

"The U.S. tells the people, "We are bringing security.'  The Taliban tell the people, "We are bringing security.'  The problem is that no one is bringing security.  If they keep fighting only, everywhere there will be IDP's."

"U.S. is responsible even more than the Taliban," because of its advanced weaponry, numerous air strikes and the large number of nighttime house raids U.S. troops routinely carry out, he added.  "I hoped to see things return to peace with the intervention of the U.S. but unfortunately it's getting worse."

In response to the escalating violence, Hasan's agency joined 28 other NGO's in signing an Oxfam International report titled,  "Nowhere to Turn: The failure to protect civilians in Afghanistan." While acknowledging  that " AOG (Armed Opposition Groups) continue to be responsible for the great majority of casualties," the report also condemned U.S.-NATO night raids and the U.S. practices of arming militia groups and ignoring regulations established to clearly separate humanitarian aid from the military.

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In order to "win hearts and minds," a core principle of counter-insurgency warfare, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops often take a "carrot and stick" approach of mixing military and aid programs.  To highlight the problems caused by this practice, the Oxfam report referred to a document adopted by ISAF and the U.N., Guidelines for the Interaction of Civilian and Military Actors in Afghanistan.   

That document repeatedly stressed that the line between aid and military operations is not to be blurred, even elevating that dictum to one of its "Guiding Principles." 

"A clear distinction must be retained between the identities, functions and roles of the different entities in order to preserve the humanitarian actors' neutrality.    The independence and civilian nature of humanitarian assistance should be clear at all times(importance of the perception by the population/uniform -" vehicles -" etc.)" only in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, military assets...may be deployed for the purpose of providing humanitarian assistance." (Emphasis in original)

Even in the case of the Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRT), the Guidelines state that ""humanitarian assistance has to be provided only "in extremis' and must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship-building or winning hearts and minds." (Emphasis in original)

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Mike Ferner is a writer from Ohio, former president of Veterans For Peace and author of "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq." (Praeger)

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