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Dealing with the Taliban on humanitarian issues

Unlike big international aid organisations in Afghanistan, young volunteers working for the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) in central Ghazni Province are easily able to reach and assist needy people.

"We do not have problems with the Taliban," Ghulam Mohammad Mujahid, the director of ARCS in Ghazni, told IRIN.

"Our volunteers have always delivered available humanitarian aid to the people affected in natural disasters and conflicts," Mujahid added.

In a country where large swathes of territory remain inaccessible to the UN and other aid organisations owing to security restrictions, the poorly equipped ARCS volunteers are responding to humanitarian challenges in their impoverished province.

Drought, poor health services, widespread poverty, armed conflict and acute vulnerability to sporadic flooding are major problems which have kept thousands of people in Ghazni on the threshold of a complex humanitarian emergency, experts say.

Staying safe is of paramount importance to volunteers and makes it all the more important that they adhere to their guiding principles of neutrality and impartiality.

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"We do not display any [Afghan] government or US markings when we deliver aid," Faez Ahmad, a volunteer, said, describing the secret of his ability to deliver relief to areas constantly under surveillance by both sides in the conflict.

Hostage crisis

On 19 July, Taliban fighters kidnapped 23 South Korean Christian aid workers who wanted to travel from the capital, Kabul, to Kandahar Province in the south by bus. Two of the hostages were murdered after Afghan authorities refused to comply with the Taliban's demand for the release of several of their prisoners from Afghan government jails.

Taliban representatives and South Korean diplomats held direct talks at the ARCS office in Ghazni town on 10 August - the first time Taliban representatives have attended a formal meeting to discuss their officially proscribed activities since their ouster from power in 2001.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its Afghan partner, ARCS, facilitated the meeting which was designed to find “mutually beneficial” ways of safely releasing the 21 remaining South Koreans kidnapped by the Taliban. Since 10 August, representatives of the Taliban and South Korean diplomats have repeatedly held talks at the ARCS office in Ghazni.

Three days after the first meeting, the insurgents handed over Kim Kyung-ja, 37, and Kim Ji-na, 32, to the ICRC.

"We are happy we managed to play this role and we are proud the early results are positive," said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan.

Expanding accessibility

The ability of the ICRC and the ARCS to facilitate dialogue with the insurgents has prompted some Afghans to ask whether it might be possible to establish contacts with the Taliban for purely humanitarian reasons.

''We think that, in terms of people needing our assistance because they have been affected by the conflict, who they are and where they are should not make a difference to our efforts to help them.''

Many of those who distrust the insurgents, however, say that any effort to achieve Taliban consent for humanitarian and development operations will undoubtedly end in failure.

“The Taliban have always deliberately defied international humanitarian law and other rules applied in times of armed conflict," said a UN official, who preferred anonymity.

However, the Red Cross and its Afghan partner, who maintain contacts with both warring sides in Afghanistan, are trying to expand the limited humanitarian room for manoeuvre throughout the country.

"We think that, in terms of people needing our assistance because they have been affected by the conflict, who they are and where they are should not make a difference to our efforts to help them," Stocker told IRIN in his office in Kabul.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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