WASHINGTON -- A representative of the aid group Save the Children praised the U.S. pledge of $320 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as a "solid down payment" but said the war on terrorism is hurting innocent people there.
"We know that the United States is making every effort to minimize civilian casualties," said Andrew Wilder, the group's director for Pakistan and Afghanistan, in a hearing with the House International Relations Committee via satellite from Pakistan.
At the same time, he said, civilians are suffering.
"The destruction of power generation plants has led to major health and sanitation concerns in cities like Kandahar, which require electricity to pump water," prompting people to leave the city. Save the Children recently "had to purchase storm lanterns for hospitals in Kabul, due to intermittent electrical supplies," he said.
Unexploded ordnance also poses a danger, including the possibility that children will "mistake the colorful yellow bomblets released by cluster bombs for either air-dropped food packets -- which are also yellow -- or for toys," Wilder said.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that U.S. planes have dropped leaflets with pictures and instructions in the local language explaining how to differentiate between the food packets and the unexploded bomblets. He said the color of the packets will be changed, possibly to blue, to avoid such confusion.
Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said he was asked to decide where the food drops should be and told the Pentagon they should only be distributed in otherwise inaccessible areas where no bombs were falling.
"Since there is no bombing going on in the areas where we're dropping these packages, I don't see that as an issue," he said.
Separately, Wilder noted that the three-year drought -- along with 22 years of internal conflict and five years of repressive Taliban rule -- seemed to be ending, as it was raining in Islamabad.
While praising U.S. aid, Wilder said he was concerned about "the blurring of the military and humanitarian missions," saying that could imperil the lives of Save the Children staff.
Natsios said non-Afghan staff of aid organizations started to be withdrawn before the Sept. 11 terror attacks because of the arrests of eight foreigners accused of religious proselytizing. They knew it was political because some of these groups had been in Afghanistan for decades, he said.
President Bush's promise to send $320 million in aid to Afghanistan came as a surprise to Natsios: "We would never have believed we were going to get that much, but everything we asked for was approved."
Natsios noted that he sent a disaster assistance team to work on mitigating the effects of Afghanistan's famine in June, three months before the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked.
The problem isn't just a lack of food, but the fact that many people have so depleted their savings over the last three years. Families that had 300-500 sheep or goats three years ago may now have only three to five and can't pay for food that is available, he said.
"People have no more coping mechanisms," said Natsios, adding the United States is trying to stabilize food markets.
Part of the U.S. strategy is to avoid famine-driven population movements, because many will die en route or in refugee camps, he said.
Save the Children was making efforts to distribute aid in villages where they live, Wilder said. He also encouraged Pakistan and Iran to open their borders to refugees.
"We're trying everything we can to prevent displacement," he said.
Asked by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the committee's top Democrat, why the expected flood of refugees hadn't materialized, Wilder said it was because the people knew the borders were sealed, and many went instead to rural areas, "places where they think they will be safe," such as their home villages.
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