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In Afghanistan, Winter Kills

Death is descending on the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Aside from the upcoming war, a starving mass of human beings are experiencing the worst drought in 30 years and the approaching bitter winter.

For Julian Smith, Save the Children U.K.?s Afghan program manager, the next few months will be depressingly dismal. He compares his work to the effort to clear away the collapsed World Trade Center, where you work as hard as you can every day, but it doesn?t seem to make any difference. ?People are about to die on a massive scale; that is basic fact. All we can do is try to minimize the number. This is a devastating situation. It has been a slowly evolving crisis, but since the tragedy in America it has begun to spiral out of control and winter isn?t even here,? he says.

Up to 1.5 million anxious Afghans are thought to be descending on Pakistan, while 500,000 to one million are drifting north to Tajikistan. The Pakistan Government has officially closed the border, so people are crossing wherever they can and squeezing into refugee camps, some of which are already crammed with up to 100,000 people. In most cases there is little or no safe drinking water or sanitation.

?Under normal circumstances at least a quarter of all Afghan children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and only about 12 per cent of the entire population have access to clean drinking water,? says Smith. ?But circumstances are now far from normal. I have never seen anything on this scale.?

The winter will bring new dangers. Night temperatures can plummet to minus 30 degrees. On a good day, the thermometer may rise to zero. Everything, except the war, will grind to a halt.

Smith says exposure killed 500 people in one night at one camp last year. But those who reach the camps can consider themselves lucky. ?Those still stuck in Afghanistan are in a very bad way. I visited one village this year that had not seen any rain for 2 1/2 years. The crops failed for three years running ... But even so they were offering me whatever they had. This is a very hospitable, proud people. It is a privilege to work with them.

?Several generations have now grown up knowing nothing but war and famine. Sixty per cent of children have seen brothers, sisters or parents die. Who knows what that will do to the country.?

Insight: We are receiving a lot of hate mail because of this article, from people who are saying that we are 'giving aid and comfort to the enemy.' The President, however, has said that the Afghan people are not our enemy. He has correctly identified the enemy as the terrorists and the states who harbor them, not the innocent civilians who are unfortunate enough to be trapped in those states. Irrational hate will not win our war on terrorism, but we have the feeling that our President will.

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