- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Returning Afghan refugees face a winter of hunger unless the West rethinks its strategy of distributing food and other supplies to rural areas, a leading private aid group warned yesterday.

"The winter will be there, people will be flooding out of the mountains and there will be a crisis," said Norm Leatherwood, executive director of Shelter for Life International, a Christian group active in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

With a transitional government in place in Afghanistan, he said, hundreds of thousands of refugees driven into the mountains by war and drought soon will return to their homes for the winter, when food is scarce in the mountains.

Because of a lack of funding and planning by Western aid providers, the group fears there will be nowhere to put the masses and nothing to feed them until the spring.

Nearly 1.2 million Afghan refugees of an estimated 4 million living abroad have poured back into the nation from Pakistan and other neighboring countries since the Taliban was ousted in November.

In a recent report, the group said that many rural areas, especially districts near the western city of Herat, are not ready to support a sudden flood of immigrants. Those regions provide inadequate water, food and housing, pushing refugees into major urban centers, such as Herat.

But those cities are not prepared for them either, sending Afghans into a hunger-driven cycle of searching for safety before the onset of a hard winter. The refugees face starvation, Mr. Leatherwood said, and rural provinces face rapid depopulation and destabilization.

"There are going to be serious life-threatening circumstances if something is not done in the near future," he said. "If we don't have a sustained plan and effort, this will destabilize the government."

The United Nations estimated that 800,000 Afghans would return this year, and Western nations contributed $180 million toward their resettlement, according to the U.N. refugee agency. That was $91 million shy of what the agency said it would need.

Revised U.N. estimates say that about 2 million refugees will return this year the fastest voluntary refugee surge ever.

The group's report recommends establishing provincial shelters and food stores in Gohr, Badghis and Herat provinces that would provide for refugees there through the winter months.

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