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FEATURE-Thousands of Afghans face cold, hungry winter as aid goes missing

Source: Reuters - Fri, 17 Jan 2014 21:00 GMT
Author: Reuters
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Afghan men line up to receive winter aid, donated by Muslim Hands, a U.K.-registered international aid organization, in Kabul January 5, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
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By Jessica Donati and Mirwais Harooni

HERAT, Afghanistan, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Thousands of homeless Afghans are huddling on the sides of freezing roads this winter with little shelter and nothing to eat, not far from warehouses stuffed with food.

The government's inability to help - through mismanagement, corruption, or factors beyond its control - threatens the future of a united Afghanistan after an April presidential election and the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of this year.

It also leaves poor Afghans open to more exploitation and suffering, and makes them ideal recruits for insurgents.

"Warlords are coming at night, asking us for sheep and chickens. We are poor, we cannot afford this," said Ghollam Hassan, part of a cluster of people who have been living for weeks by the side of a road in Herat, one of Afghanistan's few relatively prosperous provinces near the border with Iran.

"I hope the government gives us shelter, tents to protect the children from the cold and snow."

The taskforce meant to respond to emergencies has failed to distribute supplies and, in some provinces, money to transport it has gone missing. Elsewhere, warehouses have been emptied without Kabul's knowledge, Afghan and U.N. officials say.

So thousands of desperate people have abandoned their homes in dangerous provinces and flocked to Herat, many of them with just a blanket for shelter from Afghanistan's harsh winter.

The crisis became so dire that the United Nations and international aid agencies stepped in with emergency provisions, but there is not enough to go around.

Government stocks, mostly paid for with the billions of dollars of foreign aid that have poured into Afghanistan, should have been distributed by the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), a government taskforce.

But precious little has gone out because thousands of tonnes of supplies are missing or are stuck in warehouses.

"There have been significant delays," Bo Schack, the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Afghanistan, told Reuters.

"I have neither an excuse nor a reason for why this has not been distributed yet."

Mohammad Aslam Sayas, deputy ANDMA director, acknowledged there was a problem with distributing aid across Afghanistan, but denied it was because of graft in one of the world's poorest and most corrupt countries.

"It is a point of concern, because if there is a natural disaster and we need food, there is no food left," he said.

"VERY EXPLOSIVE"

Herat has been hit hard. The province absorbed about 40 percent of Afghanistan's displaced people in 2013. The United Nations recorded a 22 percent increase in the number of displaced in 2013, meaning more than 620,000 people.

The government's apparent inability to respond adequately to widespread destitution will enable warlords to increase their influence at a time of uncertain security as foreign forces hand control to Afghans this year.

"The response to this situation has to be how do you deal with slum vulnerability, poverty," said Schack. "This is probably one of the biggest challenges in the country today - because of the lack of attention that there is."

He said this could lead to a "very explosive factor" because of high levels of unemployed young people - a prime target for recruitment by insurgents like the Taliban.

A new national policy on displaced people has been enacted by Kabul, but there are few signs it will translate into direct action like helping the displaced settle permanently or improving their living conditions.

Early signs in Herat have not been promising. So far, the government's solution has simply been to ship families of displaced to new "settlements" miles from town, away from water supplies and healthcare.

"The instinct is to move the problem out of sight," said one U.N. official in Herat, who asked not to be identified.

Officials in Herat are unwilling to take responsibility and say the United Nations should deal with the emergency.

"We don't have any money," said Hamidullah Khatibi, head of the Ministry for Refugees and Repatriation in Herat.

His office is mobbed daily by desperate Afghans, many waving bits of paper promising land they are unlikely to see.

Many of Herat's displaced come from Ghor, a province next to Herat hard-hit by drought and grinding poverty. Just 2,000 tonnes of an allocated 9,000 tonnes of aid have been given out there so far. The governor says he has run out of money and most of the supplies are stuck in Kabul anyway.

"We need money urgently to distribute the rest," governor Sayed Anwar Rahmati said.

The ANDMA's Sayas said more money had already been sent and waved a letter sent to the Ministry of Finance in early December as proof.

Several U.N. officials were also unable to explain where the missing money has gone. One described the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation as a "black hole".

Coordination is just one challenge hampering efforts to distribute badly needed supplies like food and medicine.

Uncertain security is also limiting access to many areas, including some that were still relatively safe, threatening gains made in healthcare and nutrition since the Taliban were ousted at the end of 2001.

"Access is decreasing, not increasing," said the UNHCR's Schack. "We've had a number of places ... that have become more complicated more recently." (Editing by Paul Tait and Ron Popeski)

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