LIKE all the highly decorated trucks which wind through
Pakistan's north-west frontier, the convoy looks like a fleet of Spanish
galleons on wheels.
These particular trucks carry additional adornment, the fluttering
blue-and-white United Nations flags and the proud message, "Unicef aid for
The convoy, the first of four from Unicef, is bound for the famine-stricken
province of Badakhshan, inside Northern Alliance territory.
A convoy of trucks displaying UNICEF banners carry about 110 tons of humanitarian emergency relief goods to Afghanistan from Peshawar, October 2, 2001. The United Nations top emergency relief coordinator arrived in Pakistan on Monday for a fact finding trip to Pakistan, as it prepares to help hundreds of thousands of Afghans displaced or in flight from hunger and war. REUTERS/Aziz Haidari
It is a race against time. Already the temperatures have started to drop and
the first snows have fallen on the only accessible passes.
In Badakhshan, as in so many parts of Afghanistan, life is hard beyond belief.
Some 1.6 million people will have run out of food here by December. They have
just gone through two years of drought.
Despite this, not everyone welcomes the humanitarian efforts of the UN. "It's
nothing but a publicity stunt," admitted one well-placed UN official candidly,
asking not to be identified for fear of being sacked.
In the remote mountain village of Garam Chashma, surrounded by the towering
peaks bordering Afghanistan, locals and some Afghan refugees looked on as
laborers sweated in the afternoon sun, unloading the Unicef aid, ready to be
carried by 400 donkeys over the Shah Saleem pass into Afghanistan.
What were in most of the boxes? I asked one of the drivers. "Ketab," he
replied, using the Dari word for books.
Some 204,000 books, educational aids, and stationery made up the bulk of the
consignment. Of about 220 tons, only six consisted of food, a high protein
porridge called Unimix.
"Believe me when I say we are grateful for the books and the possibility of
some education for our children, but it is difficult to go to school when you
are weak or dead from hunger," said Haji Mohammed, an Afghan refugee man from
the Panjshir valley, who was standing nearby. He explained, and apologized at
the same time: "Books are important, but these things, the food, warm clothes
and medicines, are what will see us through this winter."
Hermione Youngs, the Unicef convoy leader, admits time is short, but claims
there is no credible alternative to the donkeys. "Do you know how much it would
cost to fly in a consignment, and anyway the Taliban might shoot the plane
down," she insists.
This is not quite right. Another UN agency, the World Food Program (WFP), has
already ferried over 1000 tons of wheat flour into Badakhshan by a much more
direct route overland from neighboring Tajikstan.
The lack of communication is typical of the UN, say insiders.
At one point this week, the convoy was delayed because it tried to use the
unofficial border pass of Shah Saleem, 16,000ft up the mountains. Ms Youngs ran
into trouble with local Pakistani officials, who said the crossing was out of
bounds to foreigners.
That any United Nations humanitarian agency would embark upon what was already
a complex logistical operation, without first having secured such crucial
permission from the Pakistani authorities, astonished other aid workers.
"It's typical of how the UN operate. They launch into these grand schemes
without noticing the devil in the detail," complained one worker from an
independent group. "The point is the pressure was on to be seen to be doing
something, so they got this under way without checking it through first."
Aid continues to arrive in Pakistan from all over the world. Michael Huggins a
WFP spokesman said: "Over 250 tons have already been flown in, and another plane
arrived last night carrying 46 more tons of high energy biscuits. Five of these
a day can keep an adult alive."
Only time will tell how effective the UN operation will be in saving lives.
"What we need is a coordinated and concerted effort and and no more donkey
photo opportunities," observed a UN field worker.
Copyright 2001 The Electonic Herald