Afghanistan´s Plight Prompts Papal Plea

Refugee Camps Face Epidemics and Brutal Weather

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 28, 2001 ( John Paul II called attention today to the “grave humanitarian emergency” in Afghanistan, where thousands of people are dying.

Before the end of this morning´s general audience, John Paul II read some sentences he prepared at the last minute.

“A grave humanitarian emergency is arising in Afghanistan,” the Holy Father said. “Every day there is alarming news of innumerable victims among the evacuees due to drought and civil war. Thousands of people are endangered by hunger and cold, especially children, the sick and the elderly.”

“I express my heartfelt appreciation for the efforts of humanitarian organizations, which are trying to take urgent help to the Afghan people,” he said. “At the same time, I request the international community not to forget this tragic situation, and appeal to the parties in conflict in this very long and bloody struggle to declare an immediate cease-fire so that help can arrive in time to areas at risk.”

Afghanistan has the most refugees in the world. Among its 25 million inhabitants are a half-million refugees. Another 3 million refugees live outside its borders, many in Pakistan and Iran.

On Feb. 18, Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (ACNUR), told the press that in some instances the situation is extreme. At the Jalozai transit camp on the border with Pakistan, she said, 80,000 people face the risk of epidemics because of a lack of sewerage and potable water.

For two decades Afghanistan has faced wars and famine. First it endured the long and bloody war against the Soviet Communist regime. Russian soldiers left the country in 1988. A violent civil war followed among the different Muslim factions.

The situation worsened when the Taliban fundamentalist militia took over the capital, Kabul, in 1996, imposing Islamic law. The present drought, the worst in 30 years, has made the situation desperate.

Also, the cold is intense; temperatures may drop to 30 degrees below zero. In just one night in a refugee camp in northeastern Pakistan, 110 refugees froze to death, ACNUR reported. On the nights of Jan. 29, 30 and 31, close to 480 people, most of them children, died in Herart.

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