George Rupp: Still committed to Afghanistan – despite the killings

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The Independent Online

In December 1979, the Soviet Union airlifted troops into the mountainous country of Afghanistan. Thus began three decades of conflict and massive displacement for the Afghan people. Within weeks of the invasion, the International Rescue Committee rushed to the aid of refugees who poured into bordering Pakistan. In 1988, when the Soviets withdrew, the IRC established operations in Afghanistan itself to help its people rebuild. The IRC has remained at work with suffering Afghans in both places through the many traumas that have come their way since then. Our efforts in Afghanistan are now our most long-standing.

It is doubtful that when the then IRC board president John Whitehead made his first visit in 1980 to the Afghan-Pakistan border, he could have known what a long and difficult commitment the IRC was about to embark on. What John did know was that a terrible human tragedy was unfolding: some five million people had fled their homeland and were living in terrible conditions.

By the end of 1980, the IRC was operating an extensive programme of relief. We dispatched mobile clinics and set up dispensary tents. Scouts went into the scattered encampments to find sick refugees, and we ran educational programmes, from preschool to postgraduate courses and including a high school for refugee girls in Peshawar.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the IRC was one of the few aid agencies that continued to operate under the Taliban. With their overthrow, we ramped up efforts to help Afghans rebuild. In 2007, we enrolled some 11,000 students in 400 schools and trained over 1,000 teachers. Nearly 2,000 people graduated from our vocational programs. And we helped to establish locally-elected councils in which villagers make the decisions.

Despite the continuing instability, we remain as committed to Afghanistan and its people as we were nearly 30 years ago. It therefore causes us immense distress that four of our aid workers were killed in cold blood on Wednesday in Afghanistan while carrying out their duties, and that their deaths have forced us to suspend operations.

Our staff is now 99 per cent Afghan – talented colleagues, many of whom have been with the IRC for decades. Over the next few days, I will meet with members of that staff in Kabul, and we will determine our next steps. I will assure them that the International Rescue Committee remains steadfast in its commitment to the Afghan people - as steadfast as I know that they are themselves. As Razia Stanikzai, an Afghan refugee and a field manager for IRC education programs in Pakistan remarked: "We Afghans have bled a lot, and now we want our children to experience peace."

George Rupp is president of the IRC. This is an extract of a blog that first appeared at www.theirc.org

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