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For Afghans, no hope, no help, no time left

Afghanistan, October 29, 2001

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    Dan O'Neill is the Founder of Mercy Corps. Photo: Mercy Corps. Photo:

As this bleak moonscape we call Afghanistan disgorges its dazed masses into this country, one is struck by the sheer magnitude of bad news borne by an essentially hospitable, beautiful people: 22 years of continuous war, including a brutal decade of Soviet occupation; years more of civil war; four years of epic drought and the resulting collapse of agriculture and normal village life; the harsh tyranny of ruling fanatics; and now fire from the skies, propelling panicked families to seek refuge somewhere, anywhere, but the devastation of home. It is a sobering picture of suffering from every conceivable angle.

The timing is merciless. As winter approaches, deep snows in the mountains are certain to choke off hundreds of thousands from the outside world with little or nothing to sustain them for any length of time. No help, no hope and little time left.

As aid organizations provide relief inside Afghanistan and in bordering nations, there is a growing dread about the prospects for survival of millions. It is a slow-motion catastrophe unfolding hour by hour. To add to the misery, there is the unseen enemy--as many as 10 million land mines. Afghanistan's wars have littered the country with these explosives, maiming and killing those who wander unaware into the unmarked minefields. As traumatized refugees surge through the country, casualties are sure to climb, according to an official with the Mine Action Program at a recent U.N. briefing in Islamabad.

To make already horrible circumstances even worse, the U.S.-led military campaign has unintentionally added to the morbid list of hazards that will surely kill long after the guns fall silent. Of all explosives dropped from the air, up to 30% will turn out to be bombs and missiles that fail to detonate. This figure is based on analysis of airstrikes in the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo. Smart bombs? Tell that to the elementary students in Kabul where a 2,000-pound, unexploded bomb lies partly buried in the schoolyard awaiting some brave soul to render it harmless, hopefully someday soon. But until then?

Fate, folly, Mother Nature, hatred, foreign invaders, lust for power and evil designs have served up a shockingly long menu of possibilities for suffering and death among the Afghans. Some of them cannot be controlled by mere humans. But most of them can be.