‘Even the Taliban respects us for our work in Afghanistan’

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Gherado Pontrandolfi, Head of the ICRC  Delegation in Afghanistan. Photo Baba Umar
Gherado Pontrandolfi, Head of the ICRC Delegation in Afghanistan. Photo Baba Umar

Most of the international organisations are leaving Afghanistan and on the contrary ICRC is expanding its work and staff. Why?

We are still unfortunately facing a conflict in Afghanistan—a high intensity one. Last year there were some 15000-20000 incidents, with some 7000 civilian causalities. This conflict is a reality for the civilian population particularly in the rural areas. They face difficulties to access basic services particularly health. This is the reason why we are there. We have been there since 1987 and now have more than 1700 staffers across 17 offices in the country. ICRC is there and expanding because there are still humanitarian needs stemming from this conflict. The 2014 withdrawal of international troops is a reality for us. It’s an important event. Our concern is not who will take over but what will be the effect on the local population. And those effects are unknown. I think ICRC is certainly not one of the organisations who would leave when the focus of international attention moves to other conflicts. ICRC will focus on the country and we want to stay close to the Afghans.

Most of the Afghans depend on western aid. After 2014 this war-economy will come to an end. So what would be the situation like?

One thing is quite certain the war time economy is coming to an end with all of its consequences associated with the economy. To cite an example, prices of apartments had skyrocketed but these days most of the houses are empty in Kabul’s residential areas. I feel Afghans need to adapt to the new era as the aid that has come to Afghanistan will come to an end. This will tell on the micro-economics of the country and the GDP which is pretty much running on foreign aid. All this will shift inevitably with the withdrawal of the international forces. There is a commitment by the international community to assist Afghanistan after 2014 and we hope this will be the case.

So if ICRC continues to work, does it mean it will have an acceptance from opposition groups and Taliban particularly whose writ runs large in most parts of the country? Is it true Taliban respects ICRC?

Yes. We couldn’t work in the country with 17 offices without the agreement of all parties to the conflict which of course includes the Taliban. We have been working with same principle during the time of Taliban. All sides know the ICRC and have seen our neutral work. They know what to expect and what not to expect from us. And for the time being, we are respected for our work and I hope it will continue in the future as well.

So in a post-2014 Afghanistan is there a guarantee that ICRC staffers won’t be harmed by the current opposition groups?

It’s not that there is an agreement in writing. But right now we don’t have any indication that any party to the conflict would harm us. But again you are never certain. The conflict situation is always a fluid situation. Alliances change and power structure shifts. There can be no accurate prediction of our work post 2014. But yes currently ICRC has no indication that any party of the conflict has problem with our work.

Sometime back the ICRC negotiated the release of some Korean hostages who were abducted by gunmen? Why was only the ICRC asked to broker negotiations?

The release was indeed facilitated by the ICRC. We were actually not part of the negotiation, regarding what conditions were put in place for the release, but were asked to take custody of the hostages immediately after their release. We took their custody and brought them home. But ICRC had no role in the modalities that were set for the release.

What is the humanitarian condition like in Afghanistan now?

It is still difficult. I would say that, particular in rural areas, people are struggling to have access to basic services; health being a prime example of it. Locals from remote areas travel long distances to seek medical attention, during which they are exposed to check points and landmines. They get displaced and face intimidations. No humanitarian actor can claim to have the full ability to cover all the needs in Afghanistan because it’s such a big country.

Tehelka has done a story on mass graves of Kashmir. While researching, a Canadian anthropologist, who was allowed by Taliban to dig out bodies for identification purposes from mass graves, told us that the ICRC had supported that process. Is ICRC still accepting unidentified bodies and burying them with proper record?

You’ve raised a very important issue. If you look back at history, the problem of missing people is a big issue. It’s very painful for parents or relatives to locate their missing during a conflict. In Afghanistan we do receive unidentified bodies and do our best to maintain their record. Kandahar is a place where we do so.  Whenever we come across any unidentified body in morgues, we take these bodies and give them a proper burial. People sometime don’t know what to do with these bodies because no one claims them. So ICRC takes care of this. We’ve some identified burial sites where we keep all the records incase anyone comes later to claim the body.

Do people get identified later? Do you have any figure on how many bodies were identified after burial?

I would be lying to you if I give you a figure on this. We only have a limited view of the size of the problem. So it’s rather anecdotal the work we are doing. There are many things we’re not even aware of. Unfortunately there is no figure on this.

Tell us something about your India visit?

India for me is an important step. ICRC is a humanitarian organisation and it’s important to for us to listen and understand the kind of opinion different players and neighboring countries have on the Afghanistan situation. In this I think the voice of India is also important to us.

 

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