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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Oxfam's Alex Renton on Afghan refugees
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More than one million Afghans have fled their homes, driven out by food shortages and fear of US attacks.

The United Nations says that at least 15,000 refugees have entered Pakistan in the last week, despite attempts to close the border.

Food supplies have been suspended, international aid workers withdrawn and winter on the way, relief agencies say millions face starvation.

What is the situation on the borders in Afghanistan? Are supplies getting through?

Alex Renton is Oxfam's crisis co-ordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions.

Transcript of highlights

SUSANNAH PRICE: Hello and Welcome to Islamabad, I'm Susannah Price, today we'll be discussing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, a country already wracked by the worst drought in living memory and now facing the threat of American attacks. Well I'm joined to discuss this by the spokesman for the Aid Agency Oxfam, Alex Renton and I'll be reading your e-mails. Alex first of all we have an e-mail from Martin Bray in Glasgow, he says: I see it's absolutely essential that aid gets to Pakistan first of all very rapidly preferably within days and in large quantities. How can it be done and if so when?

ALEX RENTON: Well the problem isn't getting aid to Pakistan, I mean that's needed because we're seeing a massive influx of refugees across this border. The thing that is worrying us more though is the people needing aid in Afghanistan itself - there are three million people in Afghanistan who are receiving food aid from Oxfam who are distributing World Food programme supplies and those supplies stopped on September 11th. And those people face in a very few weeks, starvation.

SUSANNAH PRICE: Renate from London asks how can we help other than with money, is there a way of sending in food via Oxfam?

ALEX RENTON: I'm afraid it's not practical Renate to send in food, money is the simplest and cheapest way, we try very hard to keep administration costs as low as possible. And honestly what we're delivering chiefly is corn and rice in Afghanistan, when we get the chance to and we can buy that here far cheaper than you can buy it in London. So it's cost effective to send us money.

SUSANNAH PRICE: Well, following on from that Hannah Beadman in Los Angeles wants to know that if she gives aid to help organisations in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, how do we really know it's getting through to the innocent women and children?

ALEX RENTON: It would be hard to describe any of the people we're seeing as anything other than innocent. They are victims of twenty years of war, a war first begun by Russia in 1979. They are the victims of a natural disaster which is appalling drought which has gripped at least half the country for the last three/four years, and they're now the victims of a threat which is way outside their understanding. They're the victims of an open threat of retaliation - a rumour has spread across Afghanistan that the allies lead by America intend to avenge the killings in America on Afghanistan, this means they all believe they are targets.

Now this is obviously untrue, it's obviously not what George Bush or Tony Blair want, but fear has spread across this, this tragic country and it's meant that we have had to stop supplying food to these innocent people. We can't do it any longer because of the security situation, because truck drivers in Afghanistan are too frightened to drive the trucks up into the hills. I also should point out that many of the people, the poor people that we're giving food aid to, the poor people who are fleeing for the frontiers here are not supporters of the Taleban.

If they have the chance to think about politics at all they, many of them are coming from the Northern part of the country which is opposed to the Taleban and which has been fighting a civil war against them, for, for a similar amount of time. So, I can't sit here and make a promise to you that I will, we will provide no food to a supporter of the Taleban. What I can promise is that of the two million people that we see as being in need over the next couple of months, every one of them will need that food and that not a single one of them is in a position to make any choices about how they live their lives.

SUSANNAH PRICE: Well there's a more political question now from Amsterdam, saying: during the past years NGOs have been actively protesting against globalisation - WTO, IMF and US farm policy. In some cases such as Seattle they've been able to raise their voices enough to be taken into account when decisions are taken. Why aren't they reacting more strongly in the light of these current events?

ALEX RENTON: That's a very interesting question. I mean the history of Oxfam and politics is a difficult one, I, you may not be aware that in Britain the charity laws prevent political activity by charities, otherwise you loose your status and all the necessary tax breaks that you get with it. On the other hand we do increasingly indulge in global campaigning and we were part of the drop the debt campaign, we spend a lot of time and energy lobbying the World Trade Organisation and the IMF and World Bank. Because we see that tackling them, is the only real way of tackling the root causes of poverty.

We work in the fields, we build schools and help in hospitals and help educate people, but in the end we have to sort out the global, the global pressures that make countries poor. So we do do that sort of work and we're going to do it more and more I think. Here, it, it's difficult again, the politics are extremely complicated, we risk our own staff's lives sometimes if we dabble too much. We have a hundred and forty staff, Afghanis, who are in Afghanistan still trying to do work. We, we do not want to put them, make them more insecure than they already are. But on the other hand we have been political today if you like, we delivered a letter to Tony Blair as a member of the Alliance Against Terrorism, asking that he represent to George Bush and the other countries involved the problem here, and state very clearly that unless the fear is lifted off the ordinary people of Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis of really quite catastrophic proportions is on its way. So we've asked that that a political decision be made, that it's just simply spelt out that the ordinary people of Afghanistan are not targets in this war against terrorism.

Otherwise we are going to see - some people are calling it Kosovo x 5, the figures are unimaginable, two million people already on the move perhaps within Afghanistan, a hundred and seventy thousand on the borders with Afghanistan, up in these mountains that you can see behind me. And as winter approaches, the three million we were feeding before are all facing starvation.

SUSANNAH PRICE: Well an interesting question now about what the Taleban's actually doing - D McDonald from Edinburgh in Scotland says, is there any aid infrastructure or effort undertaken by the Taleban aimed at providing food et cetera for those that need it which could be disrupted by military action?

ALEX RENTON: I mean the Taleban rule a part of Afghanistan as any government rules it in some ways, I mean they operate a civil society, they operate hospitals and indeed Islam is a religion which has always prided itself and part of its work is the caring for the poor. And certainly our Oxfam staff in those parts of Afghanistan where the Taleban operate have to work alongside the government in helping distribute food. So, yes certainly their own humanitarian efforts will be damaged or in fact have stopped already, because all humanitarian effort has stopped at the moment.

SUSANNAH PRICE: James from Auckland New Zealand wants to know if the refugees arriving at the Pakistani border really know what they're fleeing from and do they support the thinking of the Taleban?

ALEX RENTON: No, I mean if you go up to the border you will be appalled, you would find - these are people who as I said earlier have, have suffered twenty years of war. If you asked an ordinary Afghan farmer what was going on I'm sure he has no idea at all. I mean you're talking about a country that is obviously among the poorest in the world, a place where twenty-five percent of children die before they're aged five. A place where someone said to one of our workers the other day, if this food stops this village will die, this winter. Global politics are certainly not part of most of these people's daily existence. Their daily existence is about trying to find a way to exist. But again as I said a little earlier, a large proportion of these people, the refugees we're seeing now, have come from areas which are not Taleban controlled and are controlled by the opposition.

SUSANNAH PRICE: And briefly Ruth Burnett from Bangkok in Thailand has asked: is it true that a humanitarian crisis already exists in Afghanistan and is about to reach panic levels, a tidal wave of refugees to neighbouring countries may be taking place, but what about those who have been left behind?

ALEX RENTON: Ruth, you raise a very good point. We're seeing - over a hundred thousand people already crossing THIS border. But the view is that up to two million people could already be on the move, looking for food sources because they're aware that the food deliveries they were getting, there's three million who were getting them, are already drying out. Now these people are people I should stress are primarily looking for food, they're not fleeing fear of attack. We've seen the cities empty because of fear of attack, but there's a great rural population which is just worrying about how to feed themselves as winter comes.

See also:

20 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan exodus still growing
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