While Aid Agencies Warn of Mass Starvation…


N.Y. Times Paints Rosy Picture of Afghan Refugees’ Situation

by Andy Pollack


October 23 — In two articles today the New York Times portrays the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan in terms diametrically opposite to that described by relief agencies (“Refugee Officials Play Down Mass Exodus,” by Jane Perlez; and “U.N. Plans Relief Airlifts,” by Elizabeth Becker). For the Times, everything is under control, relief stocks are increasing and getting where they need to, and refugees are not fleeing in great numbers. For the relief agencies, in contrast, a crisis looms which could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, unless bombing stops immediately and qualitatively greater amounts of aid are trucked, not airlifted, into the country.

Supposedly countering earlier predictions of mass exodus, Perlez claims “Afghans were not fleeing to the Pakistani border in the tens of thousands.” And even when quoting those—such as the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Committee for the Red Cross, and Mercy Corps, who say thousands of people were trying to leave, she says that nevertheless those thousands are “in good health, and relief supplies were still being trucked across the border.”

Perlez then contrasts the massive numbers who had fled wars in Kosovo and Rwanda to the alleged trickles from Afghanistan. She accounts for the current low numbers by admitting that millions had already fled earlier—and that these were the best educated. She neglects to point out the corollary, which is that the poorest, those without the resources to reach Iran, Pakistan, or other countries, are avoiding bombs by fleeing deeper into the countryside—and thus further out of reach of relief efforts.

Perlez claims that many refugees, being Pashtuns like their neighbors in Pakistan, are able to walk without challenge across the border and then “meld into the society where fellow Pashto-speaking people of Pakistan dominate.” This on a day full of reports of Pakistani border guards beating Afghanis trying to gain entry!

Perlez also paints a rosy picture of the amount of supplies and of agencies’ ability to get them where they need to go: “Further, some of the international assistance that has kept drought- stricken Afghanistan more or less afloat during the last four years is still in place, and new supplies are being driven in by commercial Afghan truckers and smugglers eager to make money.” She quotes the executive director of the World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, as saying the agency was “close to meeting its goal of dispatching 52,000 tons of food a month.”

She concludes with a similarly rosy quote from Daniel O’Neill, president of Mercy Corps, who said: “the picture was better than he had anticipated…. ‘We were very pleasantly surprised to find our staff alive and functioning as best they can… Assistance is going forward. On the inside supplies are going forward. None of our supplies have been taken.’”

Becker’s article then discusses the plans by UN officials to rely on airlifts of food and medicine to make up for truck convoys which can’t reach their destinations (a problem which someone who read Perlez’s article wouldn’t think even existed!).  Becker says: “Private American relief organizations have joined the United Nations in pressing the administration to pave the way for airlifts by avoiding bombing certain airstrips that could be used for delivering food and medicine.” The Times must have unique sources, because every other aid worker quoted in any media source in the last two weeks has called not for a halt to bombing “certain airstrips” but for a total bombing halt.

Below I’ll quote from several reports in European papers and on aid agencies’ web sites, all posted in the last two weeks—most in the last week—and all painting a picture diametrically opposite to that of the Times. Any one of these read in the original would be enough to put the lie to the Times’s cheery picture. I’ve quoted extensively from so many of them to make clear how out of whack with reality today’s Times is. We must assume that the New York Times editors, who can’t be unaware of so many accounts at odds with their own, have political reasons for their skewed coverage. And we must also assume that these same political reasons will lead to more disingenuous reporting when the U.S.government needs to cover up or explain away mass starvation after it happens and after its existence can’t be denied.

At the end I’ve appended the opening part of a speech by Noam Chomsky at MIT on October 18. This describes the approaching genocide and, ironically, quotes earlier accounts from the Times itself on the approaching catastrophe, a catastrophe which now the paper is so cavalierly dismissing.

On October 17, Oxfam called for a bombing pause “to allow food to be delivered in safety and in sufficient quantities to sustain people through winter.” This call, issued jointly with Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, CAFOD, ActionAid, Tear Fund, and several other leading agencies (see Oxfam’s website), “comes 24 hours after a [U.S.] missile exploded a few hundred meters from a UN World Food Program depot in Kabul.”

Oxfam’s press release said “laborers and truckers were becoming increasingly afraid to load or unload food, to drive deep into Afghanistan, or to stay overnight in Afghan towns and cities. This series of events has significantly affected the ability of agencies to carry out their work.

“‘It is now evident that we cannot, in reasonable safety, get food to hungry Afghan people,’ said Oxfam America President Raymond C. Offenheiser, ‘We’ve reached the point where it is simply unrealistic for us to do our job in Afghanistan. We’ve run out of food, the borders are closed, we can’t reach our staff and time is running out.’

“The agencies say that a pause in the bombing now gives the best hope of averting a humanitarian crisis on a large scale: 400,000 people are already thought to be surviving on wild vegetation and essential livestock; two million people do not have enough food aid to last the winter, and of those, half-a-million people will be cut off by snow by mid-November; millions more are on the move and we just do not know the scale of their need. The UN says 5.5 million people are short of food; UN food stocks within Afghanistan are now down to just two weeks’ supply (9,000 tons).

“We just don’t know how many people may die if the bombing is not suspended and the aid effort assured. We do know that the Afghans are an extremely resilient people who will do all that it takes to survive. But if nothing changes, we fear there will be huge loss of life and unspeakable suffering this winter,’ Offenheiser said.”

Quite a different picture, no?  Note in particular the phrase “time is running out,” a notion repeated over and over by aid workers.

In the October 14 Observer (London) Mary Riddell wrote: “Last year, as winter fell and the temperature dropped to 26 degrees Celsius, an Afghan aid worker watched, helpless, as 100 children died of cold. In Herat, a young Unicef volunteer found a father, a mother and their three children huddled in a frozen embrace of death. This year, human ice sculptures will go unnoticed. As many as seven million Afghan citizens may perish in the months to come unless food convoys resume immediately. Even if the UN’s pleas for a ceasefire are heeded, it will be too late for many. Last year, one in four Afghan children died before the age of five. This year, they will not be so lucky.” (Emphasis added.)

Riddell is bitter about Bush’s use of food as propaganda: “Scattering food parcels, whose rations are unsuitable for starving children, has been insultingly useless. Even if all the airdrops missed minefields and reached the neediest, the $320 million earmarked by the US would feed only a quarter of the hungry for one day.”

Compare this $320 million, described as inadequate, with the $38.5 million of additional U.S. aid for which Bertini of the UN’s WFP thanks the US. But even Bertini, in her own press releases, paints a bleaker picture than her Times quotes alone would indicate: “… nothing is guaranteed, and if there are serious impediments [i.e. to delivery of aid] then we could be looking at a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Jonathan Schell, in the November 5 Nation, quotes an October 12 warning by Mary Robinson, UN commissioner for human rights, who “called for a halt to the bombing of Afghanistan in order to permit humanitarian aid—above all, food—to be sent into Afghanistan before the winter snows cut off access to the population. ‘It is a very, very urgent situation,’ she noted. ‘It is very hard to get convoys of food in when there is a military campaign...You have millions of people, they say up to 7 million, at risk.’ And she asked, ‘Are we going to preside over deaths from starvation of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people this winter because we did not use the window of opportunity?’”

Schell continues: “Her words, though widely quoted around the world, went almost entirely unreported in the United States. The next day, among the thirty or so newspapers that the Lexis/Nexis database of newspapers calls major, only one—the San Francisco Chronicle—saw fit to mention it, and none of the major television networks did. (The day after that, Steven Erlanger briefly mentioned her comments in the New York Times in a story about eroding support in Germany for the bombing.) Not until four days later, when an American bomb destroyed a Red Cross warehouse in Kabul and humanitarian groups joined Robinson’s call for a bombing halt, did the appeal begin to get attention in this country.”

Has the situation changed so drastically since the issuance of these urgent pleas — some less than a week old — that New York Times complacency is now justified?  Not even the Times claims that the numbers of trucks, their tonnage, and their access to those starving inside the country, have changed in any significant way. If you reread the Times articles, you’ll see very carefully chosen quotes to depict — or to claim to see even when they’re not there — a few pinpricks of light in a situation where the shadows of impending horror cover almost the entire landscape.

Schell then quotes Dominic Nutt, “the emergency officer for the relief group Christian Aid, who told the Guardian [London], ‘It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people. We can drag them back from it or push them in.’ On September 24, two weeks before the military campaign began, the UN warned in a report that ‘a humanitarian crisis of stunning proportions is unfolding in Afghanistan,’ and Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for assistance to head off ‘the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.’ [Note: not “a” humanitarian disaster, but “the world’s worst”! — A P.]  On October 5 twenty relief organizations again reminded the world that Afghanistan was on the ‘brink of disaster.’ ‘It must be remembered,’ the statement said, ‘that these potential refugees are currently trapped inside a closed country.’ Two days later, the bombing began, and the vast internal migration from the cities to inaccessible rural parts of Afghanistan began. The new element introduced by Robinson’s appeal was her delineation of the terrible significance of the bombing campaign in view of the deadline for assistance imposed by approaching winter.”

Those “inaccessible rural parts” are they key to the situation, for that is where the refugees that the Times so happily reports are not coming can be found—and that is where they will starve unless something is done quickly.

In the October 18 Guardian, Madeleine Bunting also makes clear how U.S. actions are preventing agencies from carrying out their job: “You can’t blow up fuel dumps, as the US has done in Herat and Kabul, without crippling the distribution of aid. You can’t bomb a country from high altitude without hitting depots and spreading fear amongst truck drivers and warehouse labourers.

“The point is that the aid is piling up in warehouses but not reaching the hungry stomachs that need it, a problem exacerbated by the fact that thousands have fled the cities for the countryside for fear of the bombs.

“What makes the humanitarian situation so frightening is the scale. Over 7 million people are believed to be at risk. What the war risks doing is turning a desperate, fragile situation into one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of recent decades.

“The attacks of September 11 came at a terrible moment for Afghanistan; just as aid would have been stepped up to stockpile for the winter, it was reduced to a mere 20% of its previous capacity. Now there is only a one-month window to get enough aid into remote villages before entry routes become impassable for the winter.

“Unicef are predicting that the staggeringly high infant mortality rates in Afghanistan (25%) will rise because of the war and claim another 100,000 children’s lives this winter. Other vulnerable groups of the population, such as the elderly, will also be disproportionately hit as the Afghan population undertakes a desperate struggle to survive. Some are already reduced to eating leaves and grass.”

This Sunday, October 21, the Observer’s Jason Burke reported from Peshawar: “The United Nations is set to issue an unprecedented appeal to the United States and its coalition allies to halt the war on Afghanistan and allow time for a huge relief operation. UN sources in Pakistan said growing concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country — in part, they say, caused by the relentless bombing campaign — has forced them to take the radical step. Aid officials estimate that up to 7.5 million Afghans might be threatened with starvation.

“‘The situation is completely untenable inside Afghanistan. We really need to get our point across here and have to be very bold in doing it. Unless the air strikes stop, there will be a huge number of deaths,’ one UN source said.”

Burke then points out the dilemma this poses for British officials who, like the Times, are trying to minimize the coming catastrophe: “The move will embarrass Clare Short, the [British] International Development Secretary, who said last week that there was no ‘cause and effect’ between the bombing and the ability of aid agencies to deliver much-needed food and shelter.  Aid workers yesterday strongly rejected Short’s statements. ‘Basically the bombing makes it difficult to get enough supplies in. It is as simple as that,’ an Islamabad-based aid official told The Observer.”

Burke too quotes Nutt, who “called Short’s remarks sickening. ‘Needy people are being put at risk by government spin-doctors who are showing a callous disregard for life,’ he said. ‘To say that there is no link is not just misleading but profoundly dangerous.’ Christian Aid report 600 people have already died in the Dar-e-Suf region of northern Afghanistan due to starvation, malnutrition and related diseases.  Other agencies confirmed that the sick, the young and the old are already dying in refugee camps around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.” Again, these are internal refugees, whom the Times conveniently forgets to mention.

Burke, like the Times, reports that the WFP is accelerating the supply of food, but adds that the WFP “says it is unlikely to be able to bring in more than two-thirds of what is required” and, more significantly, that although they are “getting a significant amount of food into the country,” “we are desperately trying to get it to more remote areas. The usual distribution networks are hugely disrupted. At the moment a trickle is getting through,’ said Michael Huggins, a spokesman for the WFP.”

Huggins, reports Burke, “said the WFP operation was hampered by a lack of truck drivers willing to carry food through Afghanistan because of the bombing raids, high fuel prices and communication difficulties.”

Now remember that Becker’s article on airlifts leaves the reader with the impression that accelerated delivery through this method is adequate. But all the agencies quoted above (and below) insist on the use of trucks, not airlifts, for relief adequate in speed and amount.

Karen McVeigh in The Scotsman (October 18, 2001) reports that aid agencies “have issued an urgent plea for the suspension of the air strikes in Afghanistan in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster.  The UN has already warned that 100,000 children under five would die from disease and malnutrition in the harsh Afghan winter if aid did not reach them.” Again Oxfam is called upon for a bleak assessment: “Our backs are against the wall. Food is not getting through.”

McVeigh describes the U.S. destruction of two clearly-marked Red Cross warehouses in Kabul, and agrees with Oxfam on the impact on those counted upon to truck the food across the country: “The nightly bombing of Afghanistan has severely curtailed the aid effort. Local labourers and truckers, on whom they rely, are becoming increasingly afraid to load or unload food, to drive deep into Afghanistan, or to stay overnight.” 

So the New York Times claims about the numbers of refugees, or the amount of aid being stockpiled near Afghanistan, are largely irrelevant, when there is no way to get that aid to those who need them because of the U.S. bombing campaign.

McVeigh also quotes Nutt, who says: “‘children in Afghanistan were already dying and some people were down to their last week’s worth of food.’ Mr Nutt, who toured Afghanistan before the US terror attacks, said: ‘I saw fresh graves dug every day, small graves for children. Now the food supplies have dried up.’“

“Speaking from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, he said: ‘We are beyond the stage where we can sit down and talk about this over tea. If they stop the bombing we can get the food aid in, it’s as simple as that. Tony Blair and George Bush have repeatedly said this is a three-stringed offensive—diplomatic, military and humanitarian. Well the diplomatic and military are there but where is the humanitarian? A few planes throwing lunchboxes around over the mountains is laughable.’“

McVeigh then returns to Oxfam, which “said that it had no food left. ‘We’ve run out of food, the borders are closed, we can’t reach our staff and time’s almost run out,’ said Barbara Stocking of Oxfam International, ‘We’ve reached the point where it is simply unrealistic for us to do what we need to do in Afghanistan.’”

On the amount of food reaching Afghanistan, she says: “There are currently 9,000 tonnes of UN food stocks in warehouses in Afghanistan — which amounts to just two weeks supply. To avoid massive loss of life, the UN estimates over 50,000 tonnes of food per month must be got into Afghanistan, plus a stockpile of 70,000 tonnes for the two mountainous areas of the country.”

Next McVeigh quotes British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose arguments are worth close attention, because they help us understand the peculiar logic which the warmakers use to wave away talk of mass starvation. And understanding this in turn will help us understand the willingness of the New York Times to cover up for them.

Straw, says McVeigh, “rejected aid agencies’ claims that they could not do their job while bombing continued.  ‘The overwhelming number of people who are in dire poverty in Afghanistan were in dire poverty before 11 September and they were in dire poverty because of the actions of the Taleban,’ he said.”

(Let’s leave aside for now the fact that the starvation before September 11 is largely a product of 20 years of civil war, which was provoked and funded by the U.S. government to help bring down the Soviet Union.)

After denying responsibility for mass starvation, Straw tries to justify it as a small piece of the bigger picture: “This is military action for a purpose. It is to ensure the death and destruction which was wreaked on the world as well as on 6,000 human mortals on 11 September can’t happen again. I’m afraid that has to be the overwhelming consideration. We are taking action so that we can provide a much better future for the people of Afghanistan.”

In other words, the problem isn’t as bad as you say, and even if it is, well, better for people to die now so that we can lead their country to “enduring freedom.” This is the same logic used by Madeline Albright who, when asked by Leslie Stahl about the death of half a million Iraqi children because of U.S. sanctions, said, “it’s worth the price.”

Robert Fisk of The Independent goes into some depth on just these kinds of rationalizations, more of which will come as the crisis worsens.  The title for his October 23 article is “As the refugees crowd the borders, we’ll be blaming someone else.”

After referring to the statements of refugees—the ones the Times claims are doing so well — who “speak vividly of their fear and terror as our bombs fall on their cities,” Fisk predicts that “once the winter storms breeze down the mountain gorges of Afghanistan, a tragedy is likely to commence, one which no spin doctor or propaganda expert will be able to divert. We’ll say that the thousands about to die or who are dying of starvation and cold are victims of the Taliban’s intransigence or the Taliban’s support for ‘terrorism’ or the Taliban’s propensity to steal humanitarian supplies.”

So just as today the Times quotes primarily from those with the most optimistic (and inaccurate) take on the Afghani crisis, and pulls quotes from less optimistic sources out of context, so we can expect that when the Times can no longer deny the real situation, it will rely primarily on quotes from those, like Straw and Albright, who will rationalize away mass starvation or blame it on others.

A few weeks ago the New York Times reported on a debate raging — long after the fact — over why the U.S. government couldn’t or wouldn’t stop genocide in Rwanda. When, a year or two from now, if nothing has been done to stop genocide in Afghanistan, the Times has to report on the death by starvation of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Afghanis, what will it have to say about the fact that at the very moment when action could have been taken to stop that starvation — a moment which once passed can never be regained — it instead helped Bush and Blair lie about the crisis?

Appendix

 Excerpts from a transcript of Noam Chomsky’s speech on October 18 at MIT

(full transcript at www.zmag.org)

1. What’s Happening Right Now?

Starvation of 3 to 4 Million People

Well, let’s start with right now. I’ll talk about the situation in Afghanistan. I’ll just keep to uncontroversial sources like the New York Times [crowd laughter]. According to the New York Times, there are 7 to 8 million people in Afghanistan on the verge of starvation. That was true actually before September 11. They were surviving on international aid. On September 16, the Times reported, I’m quoting it, that the United States demanded from Pakistan the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population. As far as I could determine there was no reaction in the United States or for that matter in Europe. I was on national radio all over Europe the next day. There was no reaction in the United States or in Europe to my knowledge to the demand to impose massive starvation on millions of people. The threat of military strikes right after September 16, or around that time, forced the removal of international aid workers that crippled the assistance programs. Actually, I am quoting again from the New York Times. “Refugees reaching Pakistan after arduous journeys from Afghanistan are describing scenes of desperation and fear at home as the threat of American-led military attacks turns their long running misery into a potential catastrophe. The country was on a lifeline and we just cut the line.” I’m quoting an evacuated aid worker, in the New York Times Magazine.

The World Food Program, the UN program, which is the main one by far, was able to resume after 3 weeks in early October. They began to resume at a lower level, resume food shipments. They don’t have international aid workers within, so the distribution system is hampered. That was suspended as soon as the bombing began. They then resumed but at a lower pace while aid agencies leveled scathing condemnations of U.S. airdrops, condemning them as propaganda tools, which are probably doing more harm than good. That happens to be quoting the London Financial Times but it is easy to continue. After the first week of bombing, the New York Times reported on a back page inside a column on something else, that by the arithmetic of the United Nations there will soon be 7.5 million Afghans in acute need of even a loaf of bread and there are only a few weeks left before the harsh winter will make deliveries to many areas totally impossible, continuing to quote, but with bombs falling the delivery rate is down to ½ of what is needed. Casual comment. Which tells us that Western civilization is anticipating the slaughter of, well do the arithmetic, 3–4 million people or something like that. On the same day, the leader of Western civilization dismissed with contempt, once again, offers of negotiation for delivery of the alleged target, Osama bin Laden, and a request for some evidence to substantiate the demand for total capitulation. It was dismissed. On the same day the Special Rapporteur of the UN in charge of food pleaded with the United States to stop the bombing to try to save millions of victims. As far as I’m aware that was unreported. That was Monday. Yesterday the major aid agencies OXFAM and Christian Aid and others joined in that plea. You can’t find a report in the New York Times. There was a line in the Boston Globe, hidden in a story about another topic, Kashmir.

Silent Genocide

Well we could easily go on….but all of that….first of all indicates to us what’s happening. Looks like what’s happening is some sort of silent genocide. It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the culture that we are part of. It indicates that whatever, what will happen we don’t know, but plans are being made and programs implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next couple of weeks…very casually with no comment, no particular thought about it, that’s just kind of normal, here and in a good part of Europe. Not in the rest of the world. In fact not even in much of Europe. So if you read the Irish press or the press in Scotland…that close, reactions are very different. Well that’s what’s happening now. What’s happening now is very much under our control. We can do a lot to affect what’s happening. And that’s roughly it.