Providing aid is difficult, dangerous

By Dawn Schuett

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The gesture was small but generous.

An Afghan girl carrying some bread walked by Frank Anderson Jr. and offered him some of the food. Anderson suspected the bread was all the girl and her family might have to eat for the day.

Offering what little you have, Anderson said, is typical for Afghans.


Anderson is trying to give something back to the Afghan people that's just as important as a loaf of bread.

The Zumbro Falls resident, on leave from his job at Bear Creek Services in Rochester, is in central Asia on assignment for the American Refugee Committee International. He's leading the committee's effort to establish health programs for Afghan refugees as they return to their homeland. The refugee committee is one of several international agencies involved in relief efforts.

So far, Anderson's time has been spent traveling between the cities of Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan and Jalalabad and Kabul in Afghanistan. He also expects to visit Iran to help refugee relief efforts there.

"I have moments where I pause and reflect," Anderson said during a telephone interview last month from a hotel room in Islamabad. "Sometimes, I look around and wonder what the hell am I doing here?"

More often, he's grateful he is there to help.

"I'm scared out of my wits sometimes and other times, it's awesome," Anderson said.

Health programs are priority

Anderson knew when he accepted the humanitarian aid assignment that it would be difficult and intense, but he didn't find out to what extent until he arrived in the region in January.


He'd been on three similar assignments in Southeast Asia and eastern Europe, even serving in Sarajevo during its 1992 siege.

"Neither one of those compares to Kabul," Anderson said of a city decimated by decades of war, including America's war on terrorism.

Thousands of Afghans sought refuge in neighboring countries during the 10-year war with the Soviet Union that began in 1979, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. After Soviet rule ended in 1989, different factions sought control over parts of the country. In 1996, the Islamic Taliban came into power. The Taliban controlled almost 95 percent of the country until the northern alliance, backed by the U.S. military, liberated Taliban strongholds, including the city of Kabul, in fighting that began in October. Before U.S. airstrikes began, thousands of Afghans fled to other parts of the region. Afghanistan's worst drought in 30 years, which occurred from 1998 to 2000, also compelled many people to leave their homes.

More than 150 refugee camps in Baluchistan and near Peshawar in the North-West Frontier Province serve thousands of refugees who hope to return to Afghanistan.

As the United Nations continues the repatriation process for Afghans, Anderson works to improve the health of refugees before they return home.

He's trying to organize health care programs including medical screenings for refugees as they move from Pakistan back into Afghanistan.

He is also working on two proposals by the refugee committee for tuberculosis control and treatment programs. One proposal is for a two-year tuberculosis control project for the North-West Frontier Province, an area with one of the highest rates of tuberculosis cases in the world, Anderson said. The other is a five-year, $27 million proposal to the Global Fund for tuberculosis programs in Afghanistan.

It is important for refugees to be screened for TB and track those diagnosed with the disease to make sure they undergo treatment, which can take eight months, Anderson said.


Incomplete treatment for tuberculosis, an infectious disease that commonly affects the lungs but might occur in any part of the body, is worse than no treatment, Anderson said. Refugees also need to be vaccinated against measles and polio, he said.

Anderson and officials from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jalalabad are assessing and supporting health programs in areas where refugees have returned home. As of Tuesday, 60 percent of the estimated 110,000 returnees have resettled in the Nangahar Province, according to Anderson. The refugee committee and the U.N.'s refugee agency want to advance the programming from serving refugees in transition to focusing on all who have resettled.

None of the refugee committee's proposed programs have been established so far.

Anderson said he hoped the process would go faster, but it takes patience coordinating a large-scale relief effort with officials and other agencies in the region.

"If it was as fast as I hoped for, it would have happened the first day," Anderson said.

On alert in a dangerous land

Part of the challenge of helping refugees is just getting to them safely.

Although Anderson often travels with security officers, he remains mindful of his own vulnerability.


The kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl by alleged extremists and a grenade attack on a church in Pakistan that killed five people, including the wife and daughter of a U.S. diplomat, highlight the level of danger.

Risk is a somber reality for Anderson and other relief workers.

"The next person you pass on the street may be trouble," Anderson said. "I've learned to become much more aware of what's going on around me."

During a visit to a pharmacy, Anderson stopped to show some children his digital camera. Within minutes, the front entrance to the building was plugged with men, some of them armed, Anderson said. Anderson asked the pharmacist if the shop had a second exit and where it led.

"I was going that way if I had to," said Anderson, who eventually went out the front door and maneuvered through the crowd of men.

Security is also an issue on the road.

When traveling between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Anderson is accompanied by security officers. The group uses two four-wheel drive vehicles to cross the border in case they have to abandon one. From Peshawar, a military escort of three or four armed soldiers takes the group to the Afghanistan border. From there, the group is on its own to get to Jalalabad.

Roads are rough and tricky to navigate.


"It's so hard to predict which way to go sometimes," Anderson said.

The 45-mile trip from Jalalabad to Kabul takes about five hours.

Any travel in Afghanistan is dangerous for another reason. Land mines might be buried anywhere. The country is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, Anderson said.

For security reasons, Anderson is careful what and how much he says about some topics.

When asked if he heard any of the fighting between U.S. and allied troops and remaining Taliban and al-Qaida fighters near the city of Gardez, Anderson said security officers advised him not to discuss it.

Recovery is welcome prospect

Despite the turmoil that still exists in Afghanistan, its people remain optimistic for the future, Anderson said.

"It seems with the average person, child or adult, there is hope in the (Hamid) Karzai government," Anderson said, referring to the leader of the interim government set up after the Taliban were forced from power.


"Many Afghans are concerned whether the U.S. or the international community will stay the course" and help the country through its recovery, Anderson said.

Anderson, who will be in central Asia for at least another three months, said it would be a good sign if there was no need for relief workers in Afghanistan.

"Ideally, it's one of those situations where you work yourself out of a job," Anderson said.

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