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Fears Mount After International Red Cross Departure From Restive Afghan Province

A security official stands guard outside the office of International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) in Kunduz on October 9.
A security official stands guard outside the office of International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) in Kunduz on October 9.

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan -- The residents of a beleaguered province in northeastern Afghanistan fear losing essential services and key aid after the departure of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Activists, civilians, patients, and aid recipients for the global emergency relief organization in Kunduz say the ICRC’s departure will have a negative effect on their lives as many vulnerable residents already struggle with insecurity, displacement, and poverty.

Sanga, a 30-year-old women who goes by one name only, says the ICRC helped them survive displacement. Last year, intense fighting forced her family to move to the provincial capital, also called Kunduz, from the neighboring district of Aliabad.

“We are now bound to face many more hardships after the ICRC ceases operations,” Sanga told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They were doing a great job here. They were providing us with oil, food, tea, and other essentials.”

On October 9, Monica Zanarelli, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, said her organization was shutting down operations in Kunduz and neighboring Balkh Province. The closures are part of the ICRC’s decision to "drastically" downsize its operations in Afghanistan after seven of its staff members were killed in attacks this year.

"Exposure to risk has become our greatest challenge and concern," Zanarelli said. "We have no choice but to drastically reduce our presence in Afghanistan.”

She said the ICRC has been directly targeted in northern Afghanistan three times since last December. “These incidents have affected not only the ICRC in Afghanistan but the organization as a whole," Zanarelli said.

Rafiullah Hidayat, an activist in Kunduz, says few nongovernmental organizations are capable of replacing the ICRC’s role.

“The departure of the ICRC is a major loss for Kunduz residents,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The government must ensure their [the ICRC’s] security so they can continue their important work.”

Currently, Afghanistan is the ICRC’s fourth-largest humanitarian program. The organization has operated in the country for more than 30 years. In addition to humanitarian assistance, the ICRC provides access to clean drinking water, physical rehabilitation of those wounded in war, and health care.

Kunduz resident Sayed Jamaluddin Frutun hopes the ICRC will reconsider its decision.

“We want the ICRC to prioritize or problems and resume its operations in our region,” he said.

Kunduz police chief General Hamidullah Hamidi, however, says he had offered improved security to the ICRC.

“We had assured their employees here about security, and we still do not see any major security threat for them,” he said.

But an ICRC statement on October 9 painted a different picture. It said that in December an ICRC staff member was abducted in Kunduz for four weeks.

The statement said the incident was followed by “the brutal killing of six staff and the abduction of two others in [northern] Jawzjan Province.”

While the abducted ICRC staff were released on September 5, a wheelchair-bound patient shot a physiotherapist dead inside an ICRC rehabilitation center in Mazar-e Sharif six days later.

Lorena Enebral Perez, 38, was Spanish. She helped disabled children and adults including amputees, the ICRC said.

“[Perez was] the heart of our office in Mazar,” Zanarelli said after her murder on September 11.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Ajmal Aryan’s reporting from Kunduz, Afghanistan.