Gunmen in northern Afghanistan captured and torched five vehicles belonging to the World Food Programme at the weekend, in another sign of the increasingly hostile environment facing humanitarian workers in the war-torn country.
The trucks, which were marked with WFP logos, were returning to Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, from a food distribution point when an armed group stopped them. The gunmen held the drivers for one night and, after releasing them, burned the empty trucks. No group has taken responsibility for the incident, which the WFP said it was investigating. It said none of the drivers were harmed.
Recently, Badakhshan has been besieged by violence as insurgents have opened new fronts in their push to take territory in the north of the country. The WFP convoy was returning from delivering food to Yawan, one of the most remote and food-insecure districts in the province.
Afghanistan as a whole is suffering from severe food shortages. In a new , a group of aid organisations that includes UN agencies said 8.8 million Afghans were food-insecure at the peak of this year’s lean season, the period before harvest when food stocks dwindle. Of those, 1.5 million – or 5.9% of the population – were described as “severely food insecure”, up from 4.7% last year. Households headed by women, who are often the widows or daughters of men killed in the conflict, are almost 50% more likely to lack food.
Even more worrying, said the report, is that the number of people who have had to take extreme measures to survive, such as taking their children out of school or selling their land, has doubled.
“When people resort to these measures, they have no resilience against future shocks,” said Claude Jibidar, country director of WFP. “These figures are extremely alarming, especially in a country where one third of all people are already food insecure.” The WFP has suspended all food distribution in Badakhshan until further notice.
In another attack in Jalalabad last week, a roadside bomb apparently targeting an Afghan army convoy damaged a Unicef vehicle. The attacks reflect the growing danger for aid agencies in Afghanistan, where humanitarian workers have been caught in the line of fire this year, or have been targeted by insurgents or criminals.
The surge in attacks has had severe consequences for one of the largest agencies working in Afghanistan. After two employees of German governmental were kidnapped – by the Taliban, the other by unknown gunmen – the agency, which also employs 1,600 Afghans, relocated a large number of its 180 international aid workers to Dubai and Germany. Others have been moved to northern Mazar-i Sharif, where the German army built large, secure facilities, while a small number remain in Kabul.
A spokesperson for GIZ would not go into detail about staffing numbers, but said: “Changes in staffing are part of GIZ’s security system, and allow for continuous engagement, even under changing circumstances.”
According to the in 2014. In June this year, nine Afghan employees of the Czech charity were in a guesthouse in Balkh province. In April, the bodies of five kidnapped Save the Children workers in the mountains of Uruzgan.
The rise in threats to aid workers is “very, very concerning”, said Dominic Parker, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) in . “There’s a high level of insecurity and a general concern [about] the lack of respect for humanitarian aid.”
Parker said organisations have been forced to increase their security. “We have to take high levels of security measures, which makes the distance between us and the beneficiaries difficult to bridge at times,” he said.
Most humanitarian agencies engage in some form of negotiation with insurgents to secure access and security for their staff. But current disarray within the Taliban has made that process harder. The Taliban has begun to fracture since the announcement in July of , and the emergence of groups loyal to Islamic State (Isis).
Parker said: “In some provinces, the splintering of armed opposition groups is a concern to us. You are not necessarily able to pass the message all the way down to all parties.”