Charities pull out as the children of Kabul are sacrificed to sexual politics

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The Independent Online
THE BIG sticker advertising the Duchess of York's charity, Children in Crisis, is still fresh and shiny above the entrance to the nursery department of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Afghanistan's only dedicated children's hospital. But here the children are indeed in crisis, and the British charity is nowhere to be seen.

Last year its team arrived and began providing the filthy and desperately under-equipped nursery with drugs and medical equipment, including vital items such as incubators.

"They worked with us for three months," remembers Dr Jelil Wardak, a surgeon at the hospital for the past six years. "But then they pulled out."

Now, with the temperature around freezing, most of the hospital has no heating. The Save the Children Fund has promised to supply fuel, but it is out of the country. The hospital has no drugs - Children in Crisis and other donors have packed up and gone.

"Now the patients' relatives must buy what is needed from the bazaar," says the hospital's president, Jalal Nasruddin, "but most cannot afford them." The hospital has also lost the wherewithal to determine what the patients are suffering from. "When the agencies were working with us, we carried out 50 X-rays every day," says Mr Nasruddin. "Now we can only do five or six."

The hospital has an operating theatre, but lacks the equipment to carry out many common operations. "We cannot remove foreign bodies such as shrapnel," says Dr Wardak. "These cases have to be taken across the border to Peshawar in Pakistan for treatment."

Whether the sick children are likely to survive the 12-hour trip over ruinous, pot-holed roads, Dr Wardak is unwilling to venture.

The nursery's tiny patients and their mothers are crowded into the one small room the department can afford to heat. The infants are suffering from septicaemia, jaundice and pneumonia. One baby born with a neuro-abdominal condition has just been operated on by Dr Wardak, and is in his mother's arms. Sitting cross-legged in ramshackle beds, the 10 mothers and their babies huddle round a small electric fire and an old-fashioned wood-burning stove, which gives off evil smelling fumes.

"We desperately need proper heaters and heating oil," the doctor says. "The fumes from the stove are very bad, especially for sick children."

The confrontation that led to the departure of Children in Crisis and the other agencies was brewing ever since the Taliban became the masters of Kabul in September 1996, defeating and expelling the government forces. With their rigid belief that women should be excluded from any role in which they might meet men, the Taliban were never going to make a comfortable fit with aid agencies accustomed to having their Western assumptions about sexual equality respected and acted on. Numerous mini-crises erupted between the new rulers and the foreigners.

Last July the Taliban demanded that many agencies move from their offices and homes in the city centre to an abandoned polytechnic in a western suburb. The agencies tried to call the Taliban's bluff, threatening to leave the country if they were made to move. Infuriated, the Taliban sealed some offices and homes, effectively expelling them.

Six months later, with Kabul in the grip of bitter winter, it is hard to understand why they quit.The polytechnic, next to the Hotel Intercontinental, is dirty and run-down, its grounds given over to grazing goats, but the structure is modern and sturdy and in relatively good condition by the standards of this martyred city. It even has electricity. Fleeing the country over such a matter tends to confirm the Afghan-in-the-street's cynical view. "Most of the agents are hypocrites," one student remarked. "They spent most of the money on themselves. Food, cars, houses - everything had to be the best. The people most affected by their leaving were the antique carpet dealers."

After the showdown in July, the situation deteriorated further. In August the United Nations suspended its programme in Kabul after a senior representative was shot dead in the city.

The European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) cut all funding to agencies in Kabul. And in a draconian move that baffled many, Britain's Department for International Development said any agency going back to Afghanistan would automatically lose its British government grant.

A local Afghan journalist says he thought the agencies had provoked the Taliban unnecessarily. "They acted like a fatherless family, going to the Taliban one after another, warning and challenging them, demanding this and that."

Marcus Dolder, head if the Red Cross delegation (which has remained in Kabul) echoes this view. "It's possible to talk with these people [the Taliban leadership]. If you want a dialogue, you have to sit down on the carpet with them. Then if you have this relationship you can start to talk about the access of women to hospitals."

The stated reason for the UN's pulling out and staying out is fears for the security of its staff. But Patricia McPhillips, emergency relief co-ordinator for the American charity Care, one of the agencies still in town, plays down the danger.

"I'm not a risk-taker," she says. "If there is a problem, I'm out of here. I appreciate the concern people have for the security of foreigners in Afghanistan, but there are other countries where aid agencies are working where there are terrible risks. I don't have any real fear of the Taliban at all."