For the past week, the world’s attention has dramatically shifted from the misery that Afghanistan is facing to the invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of Russia. The Ukraine war is indeed very very serious and frightening, especially with Russian President Putin asking his country’s nuclear deterrent forces to be on high alert. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian residents are escaping from the war, and showing up as refugees in neighbouring countries. While this tragedy in Eastern Europe unfolds, we should also remain focused on the humanitarian crisis that is in Afghanistan.
In addition to our special correspondent in Kabul sending us his reports in the form of Letter from Afghanistan (please see Simerg’s Special Afghanistan Page), we also rely on authentic and accurate coverage of Afghanistan from the world media. In this respect, we find the Voice of America (VOA) to be a reliable and very useful source of information through reports that are produced on its website from journalists such as Ayaz Gul in Islamabad, Ayesha Tanzeem, who heads VOA’s Pakistan and Afghanistan bureau in Islamabad, and Lisa Schlein in Geneva. They are fair and factual in their news and commentary about the situation in the country.
To keep our readers up to date about the various aspects of life in Afghanistan, we share below a compilation from stories that appeared on VOA this past week, between February 23 and February 27, 2022. Readers may access VOA’s full coverage as well as special episodes on Afghanistan by clicking on VOA: Central and South Asia.
1. Experts: More Than Half of Afghanistan’s Population Need Lifesaving Assistance
By LISA SCHLEIN, VOA
Humanitarian experts warn that more than 24 million people, or 59% of Afghanistan’s population, are living on starvation diets and forced to take extreme measures to survive. Eight senior emergency experts from U.N. and non-governmental organizations recently concluded a five-day mission to Afghanistan. They describe the level of humanitarian needs as unprecedented. They say they are shocked at the enormity of human suffering they witnessed. The experts say many Afghans will not survive the dire conditions under which they are living without international support. And this, they note is severely lacking. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA) reports only 13 percent of the United Nations’ $4.44 billion appeal for this year has been funded. OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke told VOA the competition for donor support from a myriad of countries including Ukraine, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is intense and growing. Nevertheless, he said the plight of the Afghan people must not and cannot be ignored.
“People’s reserves are exhausted, forcing many into harmful coping mechanisms to survive, including child marriages and child labor. Women and girls in particular are affected with their human rights, participation in society, their ability to work, and access to education under threat,” he said. Laerke said the number of people requiring lifesaving assistance has risen 30% since the Taliban takeover of the country in August. He said the consequences of not responding to their needs are very stark. “It simply means that women who are pregnant will not have a hospital to go to for giving birth…We talk about girls and their access to school but here — this means that nobody goes to school… Peoples’ need for nutrition and food will not be met. People simply will not have enough to eat. They will starve,” he said. Laerke said donors’ fear that their money will go to the Taliban and not toward helping the Afghan people is unwarranted. He said all the money goes to the U.N. and private humanitarian organizations for which it is intended. Over the past months, he says aid agencies have been able to scale up their operations without interference to provide life-saving assistance to people in desperate need. (VOA full report HERE)
2. All Public Universities in Afghanistan Open to Male, Female Students
By AYAZ GUL, VOA
Public universities in Afghanistan’s colder areas, including Kabul, reopened Saturday, February 26, 2022, to both male and female students six months after the Islamist Taliban returned to power. The reopening marked the resumption of education in all of about 40 state-run universities in Afghanistan after Taliban authorities allowed university students earlier this month to return to their classes in provinces with a warm climate. The opening day at the country’s oldest and biggest university in the Afghan capital as well as campuses elsewhere was marred by low attendance and a lack of teaching staff. University administrations enforced gender segregation, including staggered operating hours and separate classes for men and women in accordance with the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam. Women must also wear hijabs. The Taliban banned co-education after taking control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15 .
Students’ reaction was mixed after their first day back on Saturday. “I am very happy today as the Islamic Emirate reopened our universities,” Razia Kamal, a female student, was quoted by the Afghan TOLO news channel as saying. The Islamic Emirate is the official name of the Taliban government. In Kabul, student Haseenat said campus life for women was now very different than it was before. “There is no cafeteria anymore … we are not allowed to go to the university’s courtyard.”
“I am happy that the university resumed … we want to continue our studies,” said an English major who asked to be identified only as Basira. There was also a shortage of lecturers, she said, adding: “Maybe because some have left the country.” Tens of thousands of mostly educated Afghans have left the country fearing Taliban reprisals since the United States and other Western nations withdrew their troops in late August after a 20-year occupation.
In the western Afghan city of Herat, students also complained about a lack of tutors. “Some of our professors have also left the country, but we are happy that the university gates are open,” said Parisa Narwan, an arts major. The Taliban allowed males and females to resume education in some 150 private universities in the country in September under a gender-segregated classroom system. But they took time to reopen public universities, citing financial constraints and a lack of separate classrooms for men and women in accordance with Islamic Sharia law.
“It’s a positive move albeit late,” said Mohsin Amin, an Afghan policy analyst and researcher. “It’s of utmost importance to enhance the quality of education in all universities across Afghanistan for girls and address the scarcity of female teachers as well as professors.
“High schools for girls in all provinces should resume as soon as possible,” Amin told VOA. While the Taliban allowed boys to rejoin secondary schools in early September, most Afghan girls are still waiting for permission to resume class. Taliban officials have pledged to allow all girls to be back in school in late March, dismissing fears they intend to ban female education, as happened during the hardline group’s previous rule from 1996-2001. (VOA full report HERE)
3. US to Allow All Commercial Transactions with Afghanistan
By VOA NEWS
The U.S. Treasury on Friday [February 25, 2022] issued a new general license authorizing all commercial transactions with Afghanistan’s governing institutions, expanding recently announced exemptions from sanctions against the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The new license, the seventh issued by Treasury in recent months, allows “all transactions involving Afghanistan and its governing institutions that would otherwise be prohibited by U.S. sanctions,” the Treasury Department said.
The action came after talks between the Treasury Department and private sector executives doing business in Afghanistan and is similar to a series of sanctions exemptions granted in recent months to nongovernmental organizations. “Our action today recognizes that in light of this dire crisis, it is essential that we address concerns that sanctions inhibit commercial and financial activity while we continue to deny financial resources to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other malign actors,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. Wide-ranging U.S. economic sanctions against the Taliban date to their first time in power in the 1990s. However, in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, the Treasury Department has issued a series of sanctions exemptions to allow Afghanistan to cope with a teetering economy and a humanitarian crisis. “There are too many Afghans starving today, too many Afghans who are cold; we all need to act faster,” a senior administration official told reporters during a press call announcing the general license. (VOA full report HERE)
4. New Wave of COVID-19, Measles Outbreak Stretch Fragile Afghan Health System
By AYAZ GUL, VOA
Aid groups warned Wednesday [February 23, 2022] that a spike in COVID-19 infections and an alarming measles outbreak have compounded the health emergencies in Afghanistan, stretching the impoverished, war-torn country’s fragile health care system. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement that urgent global support, including health and testing services, as well as vaccinations, was needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus that is surging across Afghanistan.
“A new wave is hitting Afghanistan hard. Testing is inadequate, and the World Health Organization reports that almost half of tested samples are coming back positive, indicating an alarming spread of the virus,” the statement added.
It said the underfunded and understaffed national health system was struggling to cope with the surge in cases. Dozens of COVID-19 health facilities have closed because they didn’t have enough medicines, essential medical supplies and funds to pay the utilities and health workers’ salaries.
The aid group said that fewer than 10 of the country’s 37 public COVID-19 health facilities remained functional, and that they were unable to keep up with demand. Only 10% of the country’s estimated population of 40 million is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Mawlawi Mutiul Haq Khales, the acting president of Afghan Red Crescent, stressed the need for increasing the number of functional health facilities so that pressure can be eased on the few functioning hospitals.
“As the number of COVID-19 infections increases from cities to remote corners of the country, the international community needs to open up the doors to support critical health care, testing and other essential services before it’s too late for the people of Afghanistan,” Khales said. The IFRC noted in its statement that the measles outbreak has infected thousands and killed dozens of people in the last month in Afghanistan.
“The measles outbreak is alarming since Afghanistan is in the middle of one of the worst droughts and food crises in decades, leaving children malnourished and far more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease,” said Necephor Mghendi, IFRC’s country head.
Doctors Without Borders, an international charity known by its French acronym MSF, said in a separate statement that most of its programs, including those in southern Helmand and western Herat provinces, have seen high numbers of patients. It described the malnutrition rates as concerning.
“MSF is treating a high number of patients with measles in our projects in Helmand and Herat. Our teams are concerned about how the situation will progress unless more children are vaccinated against the disease,” the charity said. The ripple effect of long-running sanctions on the Taliban and the financial measures against the new rulers in Afghanistan are being felt nationwide, according to MSF. (VOA full report HERE)
Date posted: February 28, 2022.
Please also see VOA Special Project: Afghan Families Begin a New Chapter.
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