GENEVA (Reuters Health) - At the same time Sunday that the US announced it had begun bombing Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly stated that along with bombs the US was dropping food for the innocent whose supplies might be cut off because of the raids.
Jean-Herve Bradol, president of the non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), sees it from another angle. For him, the food drops are a public relations move, and a very bad one at that.
While people within the Bush administration have been quick to point out that given the gravity of the situation anything is better than nothing, Bradol disagrees. ``In such circumstances,'' he told Reuters Health from Islamabad, ``you try to reach the most vulnerable. This is totally uncoordinated with no preparation, it's expensive, the most needy won't necessarily get any, much will be wasted, and worse, food dropped like that in the middle of the night may well end up in minefields.''
In its 2001 annual report, Landmine Monitor, published last month, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines--of which Human Rights Watch is a major participant--noted that 724 million square meters of land in Afghanistan is mine contaminated, making it possibly the most mined country in the world. Given the great movements of populations arising from 22 years of war, 3 years of drought and now the bombings, aid agencies differ on what this means, but a figure often advanced is that it translates into 27 persons per day becoming landmine victims.
Christiane Berthiaume, spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP), which has been the main food relief agency in the region and has been planning for its own substantial food drops, stressed the importance of good advance work for food drops to be worthwhile. ``They require much planning and days of preparation to arrange the right circumstances,'' she told Reuters Health.
MSF's Bradol decried so much publicity for an effort she said was likely to have little effect. ``The US dropped 37,500 daily ration units during each of two nights, with no precise idea of where they went nor who might collect them, and there are 8 or 10 million people to feed.''
The greatest danger, however, according to Bradol, is that the planes dropping the bombs are now dropping food, which creates the image of humanitarian aid coming from the attackers. ``There is already much anti-Western feeling in that part of the world,'' he told Reuters Health, ``and there's a tendency to lump together all Westerners, all aid agencies, the UN, etc. We do not want to be perceived as a part of the US military campaign.''
Other non-governmental organizations share this view but have been loath to speak out for fear of being sidelined by the US as its actions more and more dominate the situation. Although UN agencies such as the WFP and UNICEF have so far been silent, UN officials have said, off the record, that some sort of common stance on the question is being worked out. Following the first night of bombings, in Quetta, Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, the UNHCR's building was pelted with stones and UNICEF's was set on fire.