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News about the civilian deaths in Afghanistan due to bombings under the United States' "war on terrorism" does filter through. Mentions of it being regrettable to almost dismissal ("collateral damage") cover the range of reaction and statement. We're told that it's a "war" and sometimes innocents die (the farther away they are and the less they look like a typical "American," the easier it is to swallow).

A starving country with serious humanitarian needs before (and much worse since) it became a target, the people of Afghanistan need help. An estimated seven million are in danger because of lack of food and shelter—Afghanistan has the largest refugee population in the world.

Of course, the food aid the US has been patting itself on the back about (apparently feeling safe and secure that it has mitigated the destruction of one of the poorest countries in the world) cannot even come close to serving the numbers of people who needed it before the "war on terrorism" (2001 world tour) began, let alone the thousands that had to flee their homes for fear of fighting and the bombing. Now the refugee camps are swollen (disease, inadequate medical supplies, few doctors, and inadequate sanitation to go along with limited supplies of food and water), many have no homes to return to and have lost any hope of growing food—the country has been suffering a three-year long drought—or any means to purchase it).

A country that has been ravaged by invasion, civil war, and the current "situation," can use all the aid it can get. What they don't need is to be attacked by the aid, itself.

But that's what has happened. And despite such stories more often than not getting mention in "bizarre news" sections of papers and websites—being played as a "humor" piece—one should consider the seriousness of the subject.

Herat is a town in northwest Afghanistan. In the fifteenth century, it was a center of culture, "noted for its music, poetry, calligraphy, art and architecture. Its splendid mosques, shrines and minarets were admired throughout Central Asia" (www.miami.com). Today, much of that is gone or in ruin or disrepair. Invaluable cultural relics have been taken and sold or brought out of the country. A statue of Buddha, dating back 1,600 years was destroyed by the Taleban. Paintings at one of the mosques were also destroyed. The military museum was vandalized and looted, antique weapons carried off, as the Taleban forces left town.

And then the Americans came bearing gifts.

Herat was not bombed with explosive ordnance, it was bombed with care packages. On 20 November, five hundred pound pallets of food were dropped from aircraft in the middle of the night. One landed on a favorite shrine called Gazar Gah, known as a fine example of its type of architecture. Another hit the tomb of a famous and revered Sufi poet and philosopher, Abdullah Ansari, also damaging the nearby tombstone.

The "food not bombs" also landed on at least four of the houses in the area, in one case crashing through the roof where four women and three children were sleeping (at least two other houses had shipments drop through their roofs)—a two year old was briefly trapped under the wreckage. Fortunately, it fell into an adjoining room, and there were no casualties. This time.

The father of the family, who has no way to afford the repairs to his home, wants compensation from the US (litigation apparently being part of that "democratic spirit" the US is spreading throughout the world). He said that "They should drop smaller packages, or they should drop nothing. This is no less than a bomb. We'll have to pay at least 20 times more to repair the damage than we gain from the extra food" (Reuters). Winter in Afghanistan, especially without proper shelter is far from comic material.

Another person whose home was partially destroyed hadn't been there at the time, having fled when a Taleban military base only a mile (0.6 km) away was being bombed (with real bombs). Any food that was salvagable would be long gone before his return. Someone else who will probably have to spend the winter in the cold or a camp.

What was the type of "bomb" visited upon the villagers? It included "a melange of rice, potatoes, shortbread cookies, vegetable biscuits, and strawberry jam" (New York Times), much of which spilled open on impact. Reuters added in its description that "Yellow food packages, labeled 'a gift from the people of the United States,' packets of peanut butter, and Pop Tarts littered nearby gardens." Some of the people eyed and sniffed the food suspiciously. One of the victims wryly mentioned that "We're going to do a test and feed it to the chickens first" (NYT).

Some of the food, gathered the next day, would be used as it was intended (though not until night, as Ramadan was still being celebrated), the rest most likely sold for whatever money they could get, rations getting as much as 50¢ a piece, therefore any extra was a viable commodity.

Of course, they were all lucky. On 29 November, a woman in Mazar-e-Sharif was killed when an aid package of wheat, blankets, and cold weather gear crushed her house with her inside.

Additionally, the yellow food packages that the aid was being delivered in look similar enough to the unexploded bomblets spread by US cluster bombs to cause confusion for some. The United Nations regional de-mining manager sent a message to his headquarters urgently requesting the US to cease dropping aid packages near unexploded ordnance. He noted an incident on 21 November where a fifteen year old was killed and another lost a hand and forearm when they mistook a bomblet for food. Of course, bombing areas where food is dropped and dropping food where bombs are dropped is poor thinking, at best.

It's felt by other countries that the US "lacks experience in dealing with aid operations and that relief work in Afghanistan will be hampered until a large-scale peacekeeping force is deployed on the ground" (www.unfoundation.org) and that "we don't need the military to do the humanitarian job, but to do what they do best, which is to provide security" and "it is not that the U.S. is ungenerous. It is just that it is not sharing the insight that other countries have got, and it is very important that we try to get them there" (Clare Short, British Secretary of State for International Development, quoted from the above source).

(Sources: www.miami.com/herald/content/news/national/digdocs/009375.htm, www.unfoundation.org/unwire/2001/11/21/current.asp, other news stories were quoted on a variety of sites)

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