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Afghanistan's challenge: making up for lost years

``We have been fortunate. We have not had much bombing,'' says Azam Khan, an Afghan villager. ``But the war has made it difficult for everyone.'' Just below this mountain village, where Mr. Khan and members of his clan are eating breakfast, there are indeed few signs of war. As with other areas of Nangarhar Province, the irrigated fields of rice, corn, and wheat stand out in contrast to the arid mountains.

While many parts of Afghanistan have been wholly devastated by nine years of war between the Afghan resistance and Soviet and Soviet-backed Afghan troops, some have been spared the ravages.

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But even these better-off areas are underdeveloped, a fact that underscores the massive aid and development requirements of this war-torn country.

``We used to be food sufficient, but that was ruined by the war,'' says a former senior Afghan government official, who has asked to remain anonymous.

``We are a country with great potential and good farmers,'' he says. ``With the right support, we can grow the best apples, the best grapes, the best apricots. We are a people who love our soil.''

According to Anders Fange, director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, ``There is little doubt a massive, long-term aid effort will be needed to help reconstruct Afghanistan.'' His organization, one of the most experienced in providing aid across the border to Afghans inside the country, provides medical supplies to 1,500 Afghan health workers and educational aids to help teach 35,000 children in village schools inside Afghanistan.

``But until there is peace, ... it is not possible to operate a major recovery program,'' Mr. Fange says.

Although the war is far from over, the United Nations is plowing ahead with its aid program. This month it launched ``Operation Salam,'' a $2 billion rebuilding effort. Although the UN plans to operate on a limited scale through the Kabul regime, most projects will be channeled through its own agencies and private groups. Plans range from land-mine clearance and providing agricultural implements to the building of health centers, schools, roads, and communications.

Cross-border humanitarian assistance has never been an easy task. For the past nine years, the international community has found it relatively straightforward to ``officially'' help Afghan refugees outside the country.

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But aiding those civilians living under war conditions in Afghanistan has been tougher. Many governments and major relief agencies were reluctant to become involved with what, by necessity, had to be clandestine cross-border operations. The United States began cross-border humanitarian aid in 1985, though private US groups began providing aid before that.

Had more cross-border aid been instituted during the early stages of the war, some Western relief representatives say, fewer Afghans might have sought refuge in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere.

``We have always believed that it is much more effective to help people inside than in the refugee camps,'' says Peter Rees of Afghanaid, a British group.

At present, Western and Arab aid groups provide $20 million worth of cross-border humanitarian help a year.

With the prospect of more cross-border assistance in the offing, experienced relief representatives say the UN should concentrate on expanding existing operations, as long as the fighting continues. Programs such as clinics, schools, and ``cash for food'' that enables destitute families to buy goods in local markets, could be increased without too much difficulty, they say.

Any new larger-scale operations, they say, will face a gantlet of logistical challenges: almost nonexistent electricity or telecommunications facilities outside of major Afghan towns; rugged terrain; roads that have been destroyed or made impassable because of land mines; conditions that force reliance on traditional means of transport such as pack animals.

Some of these aid officials express concern that too much money, without proper planning and monitoring, could encourage corruption among some Afghans. In addition, the UN will have to cope with a mosaic of local powerholders, ranging from guerrilla commanders to traditional village councils.

Given all these challenges, experienced relief agencies say that even if 60 percent to 80 percent of the aid reaches the people, the results are good. And, relief workers stress, assistance must be as fine-tuned as possible. ``Questions must be asked, and aid must be given in a way that the local bodies feel it is appropriate to their needs,'' says Douglas Saltmarsh, a British agriculturalist, who has traveled several times to Afghanistan to assess conditions.

Many say the UN has a definite role to play. But says Hedayet Amin Arsala, an Afghan economist, whatever is done in Afghanistan must take into account political realities as well as the kind of nation the people want in the future.

``Afghanistan has a new chance. But it is very important that we Afghans do things ourselves,'' the former World Bank official says.

``We won't accept doleouts,'' he says. ``Give us aid, but let us make our own decisions as to the kind of strategy that we wish to follow, and what is useful for us in the long term ... and for creating a stable political environment where our children, who have suffered so much, can breathe freely once again.''

Third of four parts. Next: The lost generation.

Cross-border aid: a risky undertaking

The handful of agencies in the forefront of cross-border assistance to Afghans were mainly French. From 1980 onward, several medical and other groups began operating clandestinely from Pakistan.

``At the time, we had no proper base,'' recalls Juliette Fournot, of Medecins Sans Fronti`eres. ``We were trying to have a very low profile in Pakistan. We were sneaking across the border, organizing hospitals in remote areas.'' Some patients were war injured; most needed basic health care.

Cross-border aid was, and still is, exceedingly dangerous work. Soviet forces deliberately bombed hospitals, ambushed relief caravans, and placed bounties on foreign-aid workers. In 1983, Soviet troops captured a French doctor. At least two Western aid workers are known to have died: a Frenchman, allegedly murdered in 1985 by a fundamentalist Afghan guerrilla group, and a Norwegian, a mother of two, after driving over a land mine this year.

Examples of extraordinary courage abound. In 1982, this correspondent encountered French doctors Laurence Laumonier and Capucine de Bretagne hiding out, exhausted, in a cave during a Soviet-Afghan government offensive in the Panjshair Valley. The Soviets had repeatedly bombed their hospital, which they had to move three times in three days. The two women finally escaped to Pakistan, trekking day and night to avoid capture.

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