Thousands lack health services since attack on Afghan Red Crescent

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 May 2013 16:58 GMT

A child receives polio vaccination drops as others stand in a line during an anti-polio campaign on the outskirts of Jalalabad February 11, 2013. REUTERS/ Parwiz

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Security situation in Afghanistan worsens as foreign troops battling insurgents carry out their phased withdrawal, exposing local people and aid groups to threat of more violence, senior ICRC official says

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of people in northern Afghanistan have had no basic health services since militants killed two Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) staff last month, forcing the group to suspend its work in the area, a senior official from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The ARCS driver and health worker were shot on April 16 when their vehicle came under fire as they returned from vaccinating villagers in the Khanaqa district of Jawzjan province. Two other staff members were injured.

"According to International Humanitarian Law health care workers should be respected at all times. The tragic consequences go well beyond those who have been attacked," Gherardo Pontrandolfi, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last week during a visit to New Delhi.

"When you have such an incident in an area, the health support is disrupted due to safety concerns and this has a knock-on effect on local populations who are now cut off from any medical supply. I would say thousands of people have been affected by the suspension of ARCS health services as a result."

The ARCS mobile clinic team of four had been working in poor communities in remote areas of Khanaqa where there are no clinics or hospitals and, because of the fear of attacks by Taliban insurgents, villagers cannot travel to get treatment when they are ill.

Pontrandolfi said the attack had forced the ARCS, one of the few aid groups providing medical care in the area, to suspend its operations until the facts of the attack were known.

For now, thousands of poor Afghans will have no medical services, he said. "They are cut off while the Afghan Red Crescent Society tries to establish the facts -- who is behind the attack, why did it happen -- and then receive assurances from the parties involved that this incident won't recur."

"MULTIPLE FRONT LINES"

Aid workers often face the threat of violence as they try to bring relief to communities in areas of conflict in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) , a project set up by the research consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes, 308 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or wounded in 2011 -- the highest number since the project began tracking attacks on aid workers in 1997.

Organisations such as the ICRC and Medicins Sans Frontieres say attacks on medical workers appear to be more pronounced, and both groups have launched campaigns to draw attention to the damaging impact on local people when an aid worker is attacked.

Pontrandolfi said the security situation in Afghanistan was worsening – for both aid workers and the civilian population -- as NATO-led forces, which have been fighting militant groups linked to al Qaeda since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, carry out the phased withdrawal they will complete by the end of next year, despite high levels of insurgency.

"The situation in Afghanistan certainly remains fragile and volatile. I think one of the elements is the drawdown of the international military forces, which is taking place at quite a considerable speed," he said.

"People have more difficulty in moving to urban centres where they can get help because of the shift in power structures, and the civilian populations find themselves trapped between multiple front lines and shifting alliances where they are exposed to threats, intimidation and explosive devices."

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