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Fears of Famine Grow In Afghanistan, Despite U.S. Assurances

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Humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan are not ready to call famine relief efforts in the region a success.

Following recent assurances from the White House and the United Nations that widespread famine has been averted in Afghanistan, reports came that local warlords looted the food stored for distribution among civilians, according to U.S. and British media.

The bad news came a few days after Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the Washington Post his fears of famine were likely gone.

“I thought and feared earlier I would be facing a famine next spring, but now I believe we will not,” he told the Post in a Dec. 31 interview. He was careful to say food will be needed for at least another year but also said only some people in fringe areas may still need emergency relief to avoid famine.

On Jan. 3, an effort to feed Afghan refugees in Jalalabad turned violent as food ran short and soldiers began beating the crowd back from the Red Crescent Society compound, according to the New York Times. Some soldiers hit children, old men and women who sat on the ground and begged.

“There are too many people who come here for food,” Abdul Basir Basirat, the Red Crescent Society supervisor in Jalalabad, told the Times. “All of them need rice and other things. What should I do?” He said the soldiers, members of the Eastern Shura, an anti-Taliban force, were linked to food shortages.

The thefts were confirmed by Atiqullah Mohmand, the Jalalabad program director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “That is true,” he told the Times. “Right now, we don’t have a proper system of government in this province. The mujaheden put force on us and take the food.”

With as many as 300 families arriving daily in Jalalabad, truckloads of wheat and rice rolling into Afghanistan won’t be enough to keep the fear of famine from spreading. The situation may be worse in other regions.

At the Maslakh camp, home to more than 350,000 Afghans, nearly 100 of them die each day of exposure and starvation, according to the Guardian in Britain. Maslakh translates as Slaughterhouse in English.

Izzah Burza, 38, told the Guardian she and her family traveled 125 miles to the camp drawn by the rumor of food. “When I arrived I had four children, now I have two,” she said. “We’ve had nothing to eat for a week.”

Four bakeries at Maslakh turn out roughly 8,000 loaves a day, not enough to feed 350,000 people. Ian Lethbridge, deputy director of the Berkshire, U.K.,-based charity Feed the Children, said Maslakh is among the worst he has experienced in 15 years of battling humanitarian disasters.

“I don’t think we averted a famine,” Nigun Ogun of Save The Children, a relief group working in Afghanistan since 1994, told the Times. “I would say that the problem has been averted for two months–no more.”

“Nobody really knows at this stage what we’re really facing,” Darcy Christen, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Post.

Alex Smirnov is BCE’s research associate.