MSF Suspends Activities in Zhare Dasht Camp, Afghanistan

Violence Against Aid Workers in Afghanistan Esclates

Kandahar, December 4, 2003 - In the wake of recent attacks on aid workers, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has decided to suspend its activities in Zhare Dasht camp near Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, where MSF has been providing basic health care to a population of 40,000 displaced persons. MSF cares for an average of 7,500 patients in Zhare Dasht each month and recently responded to a major diphtheria outbreak in the camp. With winter approaching, the incidence of chest infections among camp residents, including cases of pneumonia, is dramatically on the rise. For the most vulnerable of the Zhare Dasht population, a chest infection can represent a life-threatening condition. In addition to the absence of basic medical services, with MSF's withdrawal the population has lost access to maternal and neonatal health care and vital immunization services for children and pregnant women, as well as a feeding program for malnourished children in the camp.

The Zhare Dasht campsite is situated in the desert approximately 20 kilometers from Kandahar and offers no prospects for self-sufficient existence. The residents of the camp are completely dependent on external assistance. The increased threats to aid workers in southern Afghanistan and the resulting lack of access to health care will leave these people to face increased suffering and danger.

MSF is now evaluating how to continue its assistance to displaced people in southern Afghanistan against the background of escalating violence against aid agencies and amid a confusion of roles to which the agendas of all parties in the conflict have equally contributed. Under the current circumstances, the neutrality of humanitarian action is seriously challenged and the risk for MSF staff working outside of Kandahar has reached unacceptable levels. Recent attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan are unacceptable and must be condemned in the strongest terms.

As an independent humanitarian organisation, MSF's decision to be present in Afghanistan is based on the core principles of humanitarian action: unconditional provision of assistance based on an assessment of human needs without taking sides in a conflict. Independence from political agendas is the cornerstone of our action. The safety of our staff and our ability to offer assistance to those in need depend on it.

Several NGOs have called for the extended deployment of military forces under NATO command to provide 'security' for their operations and this message may also have contributed to the erosion of the image of NGOs as independent and neutral actors. MSF, however, emphasizes once again that its call is NOT for the Coalition Forces, NATO, or the Afghan Government to scale up military intervention to provide security for our workers. MSF's call is instead for all parties in the conflict to respect the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian workers as we strive to provide assistance to people in need in Afghanistan.

MSF continues its programs in Kandahar town and in other parts of Afghanistan.