Healing the scars of a 40-year war

The scars of war last generations. Destroyed buildings can one day be rebuilt, but shattered limbs do not regrow. Children re-live trauma long after the bomb blasts subside. Family members killed leave a permanent void.

The people of Afghanistan have lived through 40 years of conflict. In my years as the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross I have seen agony, suffering and despair in many of the world's warzones. But I cannot begin to express how deeply four decades of war damages a nation.

That's why Afghanistan's challenges are so mammoth. The good news is that humanitarian action helps stabilise society. Compassion and empathy help heal the wounds of war. Funding that ensures health care, clean water and schools can help pull Afghan families from misery's depths. It's crucial that the international community finds solutions, even if temporary, to ensure continued funding. The needs of Afghan families can't wait for the resolution of political change.

To be effective, humanitarian work must be inclusive -- of women, girls and ethnic minorities. That's why the ICRC makes sure that women in Afghanistan have access to our services, including medical and rehabilitation, and we make sure we have female medical and rehabilitation staff on our teams. I encourage authorities to continue access to health services for women -- but also -- access to education. In a country where only 50% of the women deliver in a health facility with trained staff, it's critically important that Afghanistan have more educated women midwives and doctors.

During my four-day visit to Afghanistan, I met Mullah Baradar and other Taliban leadership. I emphasised ICRC's neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian work and noted that we have been assisting Afghans affected by conflict for more than 30 years. Our long history in the country tells us that Afghanistan's victims of war will need years of assistance and rehabilitation. The toll from only the most recent fighting has been huge. More than 41,000 people wounded by war were treated at ICRC-supported health facilities from June to August, an 80% increase compared with the same period last year.

Quality medical care is a top concern for Afghan families. Last month the ICRC doubled the number of health facilities we support to 89 clinics and mobile health teams, up from 46, in addition to two hospitals, one in Kandahar and the other in Kabul, which is run by the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society. We want to enhance access to immunisations and primary health care -- including for pregnant women. Sadly, clinics are seeing an increase in the number of children who have been wounded by newly laid mines. De-mining efforts must be prioritised, for the sake of all the naturally curious children who one day soon may pick up a mine and lose a limb -- or their life.

ICRC's orthopaedic services have helped more than 210,000 disabled patients since we began our work in Afghanistan in 1988. We see about 150,000 patients a year. We help them walk again. Just as important, we help them re-integrate into society with dignity. My visit to our Kabul centre put a smile on my face as I watched proud and determined Afghans re-learn to walk or use a new prosthetic arm.

Covid-19 presents another major challenge. When bombs are falling and bullets flying, families do not have the luxury of worrying about masks and physical distancing. Still, Covid continues its spread. But the country hasn't received nearly enough doses of the vaccine, and I'm urging world governments to ensure it gets an equitable share.

Where did 40 years of war leave Afghan families? Some nine out of 10 people live on less than $2 (65 baht) a day. Some 10 million people are experiencing high levels of food insecurity, according to IPC data. Unaccompanied minors were separated from their families during the crush at Kabul airport, a challenge the global Red Cross Red Crescent family will tackle, to reunite as many separated families as possible.

The world has come to know Afghanistan as a land of beauty, but also one of heart break. War shatters bodies and souls. Four decades of war shatters nations. My greatest hope now is that we all pitch in to help the wounded to heal, separated families to find one another again, and that any future fighting spares as many civilians as possible.

Peter Maurer is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This statement was released on Wednesday at the end of his visit to Afghanistan.

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