- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

HERAT, Afghanistan At least 1 million people face starvation in Afghanistan, where cold, drought and the long-running civil war have combined to uproot entire communities and claim hundreds of lives.

The famine, combined with the impact of new international sanctions, is driving the nation's Taleban rulers to consider new options for dealing with suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

More than 500,000 villagers have been forced in the past year to leave their homes, sell their few belongings and travel to makeshift refugee camps where they depend for survival on a slow trickle of foreign aid.

Every day adds another 360 people to the 80,000 already living in tents and mud huts in six camps around Herat, a once prosperous city in western Afghanistan famed for its rich architecture.

More than 170 people, including 130 children, have died in the last month at the camps, where nighttime temperatures can fall to 10 below zero Fahrenheit. Snows are beginning to melt, but more refugees die every week from hunger and exposure.

To compound the problem, heavy fighting between the Taleban militia, which controls most of the country, and opposition forces from the ousted government has continued through the winter.

Taleban leaders say a new round of international sanctions imposed last month by the U.N. Security Council has made conditions worse.

The combination of drought and the sanctions has forced the Taleban to reconsider its refusal to give up bin Laden, accused by the United States of plotting the bomb attacks that leveled U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said after a meeting this month with the Taleban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, that the group might let a panel of Islamic scholars meet in another country to hear evidence and decide bin Laden's fate.

In Herat, the United States and Norway airlifted blankets and tents following a bitter cold snap that contributed to many of the deaths. But U.N. workers are frustrated at the slow response from Western governments.

"This is one of the flash points in the country in terms of the crisis. It took the deaths of more than 100 people to trigger a more coherent response from the donors," said Antonio Donini, the deputy U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan.

Concern is growing about the many thousands of villagers left in remote areas of the provinces of Badghis, Ghor and Faryab.

The aid agency Oxfam has been working in these mountainous areas since August encouraging farmers to stay in their villages rather than leave for the camps.

"We found people eating different types of roots and leaves normally reserved for animal fodder," said Rod Slip, Oxfam's program manager in Herat. "Livestock numbers are down to 20 percent of the normal levels. Farmers don't have the seeds to plant new crops.

"A lot of people in the camps have sold everything to be where they are, and they are pretty much 100 percent reliant on external aid. At least these people who are remaining behind have the chance to work together to find sources to plant a crop."

Aid workers say the refugees who have sought shelter in the camps have no money, no crops to plant and little incentive to return home.

Many Western governments appear reluctant to fund long-term development projects in Afghanistan while the country is run by the Taleban, a hard-line fundamentalist regime recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In recent years, the United Nations has received less than half the money it says is needed for its Afghan assistance program. So far this year, the United Nations has received around $18 million toward its $229 million goal.

"It is not a disaster which occurred yesterday," said Hans-Christian Poulsen, who runs the U.N. relief operation in Herat.

"It has been coming for some time. But because it has happened bit by bit it doesn't attract the same kind of attention as an earthquake. That is the tragedy here."

Last week, the United Nations sent Kenzo Oshima, the new undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, to Afghanistan to discuss the crisis with senior Taleban officials and the ousted president, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

"We are in the presence of a major humanitarian tragedy," Mr. Oshima said after the visit.

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