The conflict in Afghanistan has intensified in recent weeks, with Taliban fighters reaching Kabul over the weekend. More than 1,000 people have been killed or wounded in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including in Helmand, Kandahar and Herat provinces.
On Friday, Secretary General António Guterres said that the time has come to end the offensive, start serious negotiations and avoid a prolonged civil war or the isolation of Afghanistan.
According to UNICEF, more than 18 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Some four million children are not in school. Approximately 400,000 people have left their homes to seek refuge, more than half of whom are children.
To learn more about the reality on the ground, especially for displaced Afghan children, UN News reached Mustapha Ben Messaoud, UNICEF's Chief of Field Operations and Emergency Response in Afghanistan, in Kabul earlier this week, after he returned from a 10-day mission to Kandahar.
NOTE: This lightly edited interview was held on 12 August and reflects the situation at that time.
UN News: What was the objective of your mission in Kandahar?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: First of all, thank you for your question. The last 4 to 6 weeks have been really intense in Afghanistan. The conflict has taken a turn for the worse and this has led to huge population movement. Today there are around 360,000 displaced people who have been pushed out of their villages. The reason I went up to Kandahar is because in Helmand province, which is not very far from Kandahar, the fighting is raging as we speak.Some of the people have managed to get to Kandahar.
So, the idea was to go and help the teams on the ground to coordinate the response and try to provide immediate support to all these families who have fled with almost nothing. Most of them left everything they had, the little they had, in the houses that no longer exist because street fighting in the city had basically destroyed everything.
They lost [possessions], but many of them also lost their loved ones, including women and young children. I could tell you about cases that I have seen with my own eyes. The violence of war, especially against women and children, is something quite terrible for anyone and especially for us at UNICEF.
UN News: Could you give us an overview of the situation in Kandahar and what it means in relation to the rest of the country?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: Kandahar was and still is relatively calm. I was there for about 10 days and it's true that at night you can hear the noise of the fighting – there are planes, there is artillery fire – but it's relatively far from the city center. It's really in the area, for those of you who know Kandahar, which is pretty close to the Kandahar prison. But in the morning, the activities of the city are quite normal, with the markets the stores being open.
That being said, many of them, those who have the means, those who have been able, have already flown to Kabul and elsewhere.
UN News: You went to find these people, these families, who fled Helmand. What did they tell you?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: These stories are very hard to hear; stories that were very hard to live with for most of these families. There is a particular case that really touched me. A little boy named Refiqullah*, who is 10 years old and was sleeping deeply and peacefully in Lashkar Gah, when a projectile exploded not far from his house. A piece of this projectile went into the house, into his room. It was so hot that it set the child's room on fire. His bed caught fire and thin his clothes caught fire. They were made of cotton and polyester, so they stuck to his skin and some of his skin must have gone with it. Now he's got scars from a second degree burn and probably the high end of the second degree. And that's really... he's still a baby at 10. He goes to sleep and then he wakes up...he wakes up on fire, literally on fire...and he may have been a lucky child! Because many didn't wake up. And it's really those stories that we hear from families. These are families who have lost everything.
Afghanistan today is suffering from a drought that affects almost 85 per cent of the country. The estimated harvests for this year are extremely poor. As a result, the population is hungry and will become increasingly so. And, as far as we are concerned, there are children who are in a state that is becoming a medical condition. They are so malnourished that they need medical treatment to avoid succumbing to hunger. And we must intervene quickly if we don't want the situation to get worse.
And just a quick word on nutrition. You should know that by the end of 2021, if the situation remains as it is, one child out of two under the age of five will be in a situation of food distress. They will be seriously malnourished. For the general population, our estimates for the year 2021 were about 18 million. That's roughly half the population. We don't have an exact count of the Afghan population, but there are 18 million Afghans who are in need and who will need humanitarian assistance. This number will most likely increase and be between 20 and 24 [million]. It all depends on the duration and intensity of the conflict that is spreading throughout the country.
UN News: You mentioned food distress and the need to respond urgently. Do you have the possibility and the capacity in the current context to act with urgency and to reach the populations in need?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: It is very difficult today because we have cuts in terms of access because the conflict is really intense. So, there are areas, including Kandahar, including Herat and other substructures, where the UN Mission (UNAMA) has ordered the evacuations.
That said, we work with partners. So, the partners are on site with reduced efficiency, of course, because they have a kind of hibernation that happens at a certain point when the conflict becomes really intense. The idea is to be able to protect them so that they can go and save lives afterwards. But you always manage to have programmes that work.
But ideally, there should be a humanitarian corridor, a humanitarian corridor, a cease-fire, if not an end to the conflict. Because, no matter what we do, no matter how agile we are, we will not be able to arrive in time and save lives.
And I think there's a feeling that's going to spread pretty quickly among the Afghan population: that what we see as “agility and flexibility,” they see as more the United Nations walking away and abandoning us and leaving us to our own misery. Which is not necessarily the case, but when you are in such distress as they are right now….
UN News: Can you tell us a little bit about the daily life of children where you were in Kandahar and in this camp?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: I think that one of the activities that we are working on and that we are trying to increase is psychological and psychosocial support, because there is a trauma that is taking place, whether it is at the level of the children, or at the level of the adults. They see things that we should not see as children, that we should not see as humans.
Now, for many of them, they have left a familiar place, a house, no matter what shape or size, to be under a metal shelter or a tent, when the tent is distributed. You wait in line to get water ration--because the water is rationed. It comes from outside with tankers. They don't necessarily know what they are going to eat.
They arrive in a place where there are a lot of people and they don't know anyone. So, it takes a while to make friends. There's this whole side that we take for granted that they have to redevelop. They must re-learn understand their environment, acquire new reflexes; not to jump every time there is a noise because they have spent days hearing bombs exploding near them. So, the behavior they have is not a healthy behavior.
And so really the idea is to create a kind of cocoon around them. It's not a 5-star hotel but it's really to be able to reassure them and to reframe their mentality a little bit because they were simply traumatized.
The girls are even more complicated because, for some of them, they have listened to their mothers and their aunts about how things were before, and they wonder in which direction the country is going to go.
All the gains that have been made in terms of women's rights, in terms of access to schools, whether primary or secondary, for young girls, is this something that is going to be called into question? Is there a future other than becoming a housewife, a wife, from the age of puberty?
So, there are all these fears and many of them are not expressed because the immediate needs are the basic necessities: to eat, to drink and to have a roof over your head because in Kandahar, I can tell you that the average temperature has been 39°C. That's hot. It's especially hot for people who have been on the road for a long time, scared to death.
UN News: You talked about creating a cocoon, is that possible given the context?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: It is possible, but it is really a cocoon. It's a defined place, which doesn't necessarily have a size that can accommodate everyone. But the idea, our approach, is to make sure that the programmes we have put in place in previous years continue to function.
Where these programmes are interrupted, because the populations have moved, it is to arrive as quickly as possible at the place where these populations have settled and to begin by reassuring them. And we reassure them by making sure that they have water to drink. That they have hygiene: because hygiene is dignity. It's really the image that we transfer to our interlocutor, it's really important to rebuild that.
Then there is the whole medical aspect that must be taken into account. These children, these women.... There are women in their seventh month of pregnancy and who are going through all this, who were followed. Some of them may have complications. So, we have to make sure that, even though they are in a camp, they can have access to a basic medical system, at least that can guarantee their life.
Then, once we have satisfied these needs, we start looking at the case of the children. Are there any traumas that need to be addressed? School is a basic need for little boys and girls, so it is something that we have to put in place.
Often, we integrate them into the surrounding schools, even if it means increasing the capacity of those schools, or we set up. We bring our tents which are mobile classes and then we recruit teachers. This is not to cut them off from the educational system, but it is also, on a practical level, really necessary for the parents. Because parents have this burden that are children, a burden in quotes, sorry for the term, but they also need a moment to breathe a little. I mean, we're all parents, and we know that at some point we all need to release the pressure a little bit, when we're in the thick of things all the time.
So, there are really concentric circles. We start from the smallest, and then we try to increase. But that can only be done if we are allowed to do it, if we are given access to these people. But what is likely to happen today with the nature of the conflict is that people will probably have to move once, twice, three times and change sides each time.
And then we're going to have people who are going to push to the borders, and when they push to the borders, with a conflict zone where, for example, vaccination campaigns are not taking place, we're going to have epidemics of both chicken pox and polio epidemics. As you know, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two areas in the world where polio is still very active.
And so, if we don't let our work be done today, our work tomorrow will be even more complicated because it will expand, and the area we will have to cover will be immense.
UN News: I hear you talking about humanitarian corridors and access, but in the near and immediate future, will you find yourself following the movement of populations?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: Ideally, we should be able to receive the movements of populations because we have a network that is quite well supported.
Whether it is UNICEF, UN agencies or humanitarian actors because we are not alone. There is not only the United Nations, and thank goodness for that, otherwise the task would be far beyond our capacity.
So, we have offices, but it is true that today we are facing successive evacuations. You've probably heard about the personnel evacuated to Kandahar. We had to evacuate Kunduz and other areas.
So, it's either we're able to project ourselves back into those areas, and our programmes will continue, and then we'll be able to increase them. Or we are unable, and, in this case, the populations will have no other choice than to come to us. And for them, it is a path full of pitfalls and dangers. Someone who is going to travel all the way from the north of Afghanistan from Mazaar, or Kunduz, or Samangan to Kabul, is going to cross front lines and therefore is going to be exposed to danger, 24 hours a day.
Some of them will not be able to make this journey because they are either too old, or from a health point of view, they have constraints. So, there are lives that will be lost. But we came to this country so it's up to us to go to them and not the other way around. We're here to provide humanitarian assistance, we're not here to open an office in Kandahar, with a message if you want help, well then listen, [you have to] come to us. So that's kind of the problem we have today. That's why we're trying to maintain a capacity on the ground, even if it's minimal, to try to keep people where they are at home, when possible.
UN News: You said at the beginning of the interview that UN staff have been evacuated from several locations, that you are able to rely on your partners on the ground and that you have ad hoc access or mobility. Do you have the possibility to carry out your programmes in the areas controlled by the Taliban as before?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: The provincial capitals that have been taken over by the Taliban movement are areas where our programmes are still running. And I will tell you about a case that happened this morning in the west of the country, where the Taliban took an area and they contacted us and said that they are working – they have shadow cabinets, a little bit like the English system – so the "shadow" minister of health, for lack of a better term, is working with the minister of health in that area. So they work well together, and both have contacted us saying that they would like UNICEF to continue to provide health programmes, particularly polio vaccination.
The concern here is that our own UN security system is a system that requires several safeguards before it can validate a trip, or a field visit. It's a system that's complicated. We have a system that's there to ensure the lives and safety of employees. But it's true that sometimes there's a kind of fit between the emergency in the field and our security protocols.
But, having said that, it's something that we have mastered and that we do everywhere – that we did in Yemen, that we did in Syria. So it takes a little time for the system to analyze and verify that everything is in place so that people can leave and return safely.
It’s a bit complicated, we don't have the agility of MSF or the ICRC, but when we manage to do it, we are generally able to make a difference on a larger scale.
UN News: You mentioned the need for humanitarian corridors. Given the context, what could UNICEF do to help improve the situation?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: I think that today if we are unable, if the international community is unable to have a ceasefire or a resolution of this conflict, we will have to develop a greater appetite for risk and open structures that are fully functional in the areas under Taliban control.
For this to happen, we need to have a high-level dialogue with the military command structure and then with the political leadership of the Taliban group.
We also need to have a dialogue with the Afghan Government and authorities, to make sure that our teams don't get caught in the middle of a fight or get accidentally targeted by one side or the other.
What I mean by that is that we absolutely must be able to provide immediate assistance to the Afghan population. And for this to be done, either the conflict stops or a humanitarian corridor that is set up. Either we accept to work in these areas, and we try to guarantee security as much as possible, but, knowing that it is at this level of commitment, it is very difficult to have a zero risk. Our appetite for risk will probably have to change if we take this option.
UN News: You are in charge of emergencies at UNICEF, could you name your four priorities right now?
Mustapha Ben Messaoud: The first priority is the serious violations against children, so today we have more than 500 deaths since the beginning of the year, with a very significant increase in the last four weeks.
One in two children under the age of five suffers from severe acute malnutrition – they are extremely hungry, to the point of becoming ill.
Today, we have camps being set up with no access to clean water and hygiene, and for us, this means a risk of cholera or other diseases that can spread.
And we must not forget that Afghanistan today is facing three crises.
We have COVID-19. The third wave of COVID-19 is killing 100 people a day. Admitting that the system of keeping count is not necessarily very efficient, we have at least 2,000 positive cases a day, and these are the cases that are counted.
We have the conflict that is hitting very hard. And then we have a drought, which was declared by the President in June. And that means that people will be hungry, and they will not have enough water, they will have nothing to eat. And then there are the bombs that fall on them. And the bombs don't discriminate, they fall on women, children, the young, the not so young, the elderly. This also means that we will probably have a population that will try to reach Iran, Turkey and Europe. It also means that we will have other problems and a situation somewhat similar to what we saw in Syria.
And I am very happy to see that at least two countries or Europe have decided not to send the Afghans back home anymore. But there are still six countries in Europe that have asked the European Commission not to stop repatriating Afghans.
So, I believe we must also have a strong voice, whether it be at the level of the belligerents in Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries, and all the supporters of the parties to the conflict. But we must also have a strong voice at the level of the European countries and the rich countries to make sure that we can provide the necessary aid.