Silence of the damned
West ignores African and Afghan crises
Wednesday February 21, 2001
In West Africa and Afghanistan, major humanitarian crises are unfolding almost unnoticed by the west. Tens of thousands fled camps in Guinea last week where up to half a million people from Liberia and Sierra Leone have taken shelter during a decade of fighting. The UN believes 200,000 may be on the move or hiding in the Parrot's Beak region of south-west Guinea, uprooted again by clashes between rival armies, militias and guerrilla factions across the tri-state area. Some are heading north, deeper into Guinea. Others may take up a suspect offer by Sierra Leone's RUF rebels of safe passage to the south.
Ruud Lubbers, the UN's new refugee chief, sounded the alarm during a visit to the region last week. But with relief organisations pulling back from the Guinea border and lacking international help, he was reduced to appealing to the RUF's humanitarian conscience. Yet this, with one or two different leaders, is the same RUF that has ruthlessly terrorised Sierra Leone and still holds most of the country in its grip despite various interventions by the UN, Nigeria, and Britain. A settlement in Sierra Leone remains elusive; elections have been postponed; and the UN's $1.5m-a-day peacekeeping operation is at less than half strength now the Indians have quit. Rooted in Freetown, the UN force declines to support British-backed Sierra Leone army plans to advance into rebel-held areas.
Liberia meanwhile has its own intensifying problems of stability and survival as war returns after a sort of peace lasting four years. Charles Taylor's regime, which says it is under attack in the Lofa County area, went onto a full war footing last week. It is closely linked to the RUF and faces American and British-initiated sanctions over it arms-for-diamonds rackets. Guinea claims in turn that it is facing Liberian-backed rebels and threatens to invade its neighbour. A 1,700-strong peacekeeping force agreed by West African states last December has yet to deploy. In the making is another regional war akin to that devastating Congo and central Africa. Given its open-ended commitments in Sierra Leone, Britain ignores this crisis at its peril.
Switch focus to central Asia, where the the combatants and causes have different names but the victims look much the same. Afghanistan, dominated by fundamentalist Taliban zealots, devastated by 21 years of foreign intervention and internal strife, the subject of recently tightened UN sanctions and the playground of drug smugglers and terrorists, also faces a humanitarian disaster. War and drought have now combined with winter cold and hunger to threaten over 1m people, according to UN estimates.
In recent months, 170,000 "internally displaced people" have struggled east towards the Pakistan border and up to 100,000 more west towards Iran. Islamabad already has 1.2m Afghans on its territory; Iran an estimated 1.3m - and they do not want any more. New arrivals daily join those already stranded in makeshift border camps lacking fresh water, sanitation or regular food aid, "a sea of people living in unbelievable misery", according to Kenzo Oshima, a senior UN official. In the north, Tajikistan has closed its border to civilians fleeing fighting between the Taliban and forces loyal to the deposed government. The ostracising of the Taliban means outside help is doubly hard to get. Complaining that all its Afghanistan programmes have been cut back, the UN says that it has received only $14m of the more than $200m it requires this year. Since the seed for this year's crops has been eaten, the risk of a prolonged famine is increasing. Help is urgently needed.
The political roots of these two, separate conflicts and crises are tangled and exasperating; their colonial and cold war histories even more so. Unlike the Gujarat and Salvador earthquake zones, they are man-made disasters. But the plight of their ordinary, vulnerable casualties is identical. The west, whose policies have contributed to this misery just as much as these countries' warring factions, should hear their cries.
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