KABUL: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been committed in Afghanistan for the past three decades in areas of all warring sides but is now shutting two offices in Kunduz and Faryab.
The ICRC sustained its work during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s and survived the Taliban rule when many other aid groups reduced operations and pulled out staff from Kabul and other areas.
However, a series of attacks, including the recent assassination of one of its physiotherapists, Lorena Enebral Perez, in broad daylight at a clinic in northern Mazar-i-Sharif, the killing of six of its local workers, and the abduction of another three in two separate ambushes, has forced the Red Cross to cut down its operations.
Closing the operations in Mazar, when the ICRC has already packed up in Kunduz and Faryab provinces, would affect nearly 700,000 people in the country's war-riddled north. Deadly clashes have become a routine there as government forces and other armed groups fight for territory, Andrea Catta Preta, ICRC head of communications, told Arab News.
Scaling down of the operations means the wounded, hostages and displaced civilians in need of aid, food and water will be deprived of the vital assistance the organization has rendered in its 29 years in Afghanistan, locked in four decades of foreign interventions.
The affected areas cover seven northern provinces, according to the ICRC officials.
“Since December 2016, the ICRC has been directly targeted in the North three times, including in the Orthopedic Center in Mazar, which was thought one of its safest places, providing what we considered one of the most accepted activities in Afghanistan. Only in 2017, seven colleagues have been killed,” Preta said.
“These incidents have affected not only the ICRC in Afghanistan but the organization as a whole. After internal discussions at the highest level at our headquarters in Geneva, the ICRC in Afghanistan has reached the conclusion that we have no other choice but to reduce drastically our presence and activities, in particular in the North of Afghanistan,” she said.
Preta said the ICRC faced a fragmented conflict landscape in some parts of the country which posed serious security concerns and made it extremely difficult to develop activities, risking the life of staff and making it impossible to reach the people affected by the conflict.
However, the ICRC will also explore alternatives to ensure that services to patients at the orthopedic center in Mazar-e-Sharif continue in the longer term, but with a different involvement from the ICRC. This may include a responsible handover to other organizations or to Afghan authorities, she said. In the coming months, until mid-2018, the ICRC will carefully analyze all possible options, she added.
The violence this year, which has seen a surge both in US and Afghan aerial attacks on one side, and strikes by militants such as the Taliban and Daesh on the other, has claimed far more lives than in previous years.
“Those benefiting from our activities in the north of the country are unfortunately the ones affected the most by our reduced presence. Some might have to travel further to benefit from our programs such as the family visit program and phone calls to detainees,” Preta said.
Mohammad Yousuf Abdal, chief of provincial council of Kunduz, the most volatile province in the north and one which the Taliban captured twice in the past two years, said ICRC’s departure has left the needy people in a vulnerable position.
“The closure of the ICRC office in Kunduz has badly affected the people; it has cast a negative impact on the morale and life of the people because of the years it was engaged in various ways to help us ranging from medical care to emergency food distribution, war prisoners and through their clinic,” he said over the phone from the country’s north.
“No one (aid group or government) has come forward to fill the gap and there is perhaps no group that will be as efficient as ICRC. We hope they reopen their offices here because the people have been badly affected by the war,” Abdal said.
— An earlier version of this story incorrectly mentioned that 7 ICRC staff members were killed. The correct figure is 6.
— The ICRC is exploring alternatives to ensure that services to patients are continued at its orthopedic center in Mazar-e-Sharif. The earlier version gave a wrong impression that this referred to the entire country.