Hundreds of mules led across mountains in race to bring aid before winter sets in

War on terrorism: Refugees
Click to follow

The unique nature of the aid operation attempting to save millions of Afghans from starvation was dramatically illustrated yesterday when one agency revealed it was relying on animals to transport supplies into the country.

Today a British woman is among the Unicef workers preparing to negotiate the treacherous snow-covered Shah Saleem pass using 800 pack mules, carrying their first convoy since the threat of American military action.

Hermione Youngs, 58, from East Cleveland, who started voluntary work after the death of her husband 10 years ago and lived in Afghanistan, is helping to transport clothing, blankets, food, water purification tablets and educational materials over the mountains from Pakistan's North-West Frontier province into the Afghan province of Badakhshan. Yesterday, as they prepared for the two-day, 25-mile leg of the journey through the narrowest part of the pass – which reaches a peak of 4,600 metres – the aid workers were transferring their 200-ton cargo from four-wheel-drive vehicles to their mules.

It remains to be seen whether Mrs Youngs will be allowed into the country but, if she is not, local Unicef workers will take over the convoy. "I know it's going to be a very difficult trip, but it might be our last chance. The snows have already started, so it may well be our last convoy this year," Mrs Youngs said.

Nearly three weeks after all aid agencies pulled out of Afghanistan, the convoys have started again with workers battling to build up supplies as the country faces the worst humanitarian crisis in memory.

Unicef's executive director, David Bull, said: "Time is of the essence. The children and women of Afghanistan need these items now. Winter is coming and conditions will only worsen." He said 1.5 million of those relying on international relief were under five years old.

After delays in gaining clearance from the Iranian authorities, the first humanitarian aid shipment to be sent from Britain set off last night.

Meanwhile, a further four Unicef convoys set off yesterday from Peshawar in Pakistan, towards Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar, laden with hundreds of tons of blankets, medicines, winter clothing, high-protein food mix for children, shelter items and water purification materials.

On Monday, Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned that a "worst-case scenario" would see 1.5 million new Afghan refugees fleeing into neighbouring states.