National Geographic : 2005 Dec
AFGHANISTAN Nitin Madhav is no stranger to the risks of humanitarian relief. On his first mission for Doctors of the World, in 1997, his team was attacked by Interahamwe, a rebel group, a few days after he arrived in Kigali, Rwanda. Three colleagues were killed; Madhav survived by pretending to be dead, but his left leg had to be amputated. Now, four years after coalition forces in Afghan istan toppled the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, when Madhav works in the capital city of Kabul he is surrounded by concertina wire in the American Embassy compound. He and his colleagues with the U.S. Agency for International Development venture beyond city limits only with the embassy's security detail or a military escort. Humanitarian space, where aid workers can operate neutrally without interference in con flict zones like Afghanistan, has become harder to define. In lawless frontline zones, aid work ers themselves have become targets, victims of a Kalashnikov culture where gun-toting civilians target aid workers for a variety of self serving purposes. While much of the violence has been con centrated in a clutch of countries-Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan-and in central Africa, humanitar ian workers are deliberately, and increasingly, targeted elsewhere. From July 2003 to July 2004, more than a hundred UN and NGO personnel were killed. "This makes the work of agencies more precarious," wrote Denis Caillaux of CARE International. "But worse than that, every time workers are targeted or cannot operate for fear of attack, it's the civilians who pay the price." Indeed, Doctors Without Borders closed down operations in Afghanistan after five of its work ers were assassinated in 2004. The organization protested that the Kabul government made no attempts to arrest the suspected perpetrators. "The trouble is that even with relief workers getting kidnapped and killed, you soon find yourself regarding everything as normal," says Leslie Wilson, a former American Peace Corps volunteer now with Save the Children in Kabul. 36 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2005 "It's all relative, and that's dangerous. Tolerance levels go up. Just look at the horrors that occur in conflict zones like Darfur, where the military thinks it's OK to kill aid workers and civilians." As in many conflict situations, aid workers withstand the risks they face by indulging in the pleasures of their former lives. "You've got to be careful, but you've also got to live," said Amaury Coste, a 32-year-old Frenchman who invited me to a dinner party. Coste and I had traveled to eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan and Konar Provinces two years earlier. Today, both are no-go areas for aid workers and journalists (last June rebels shot down a Chinook helicop ter in Konar, killing all 16 U.S. soldiers on board). The evening of Coste's dinner party the mood was relaxed in his modest rental house in one of Kabul's war-shattered western districts. The host lounged against pillows on a ruby red carpet, smiling in anticipation of the kabuli (rice with mutton) that his Afghan cook had prepared, and the flavorful red wine that would complement the traditional dish. As usual, the conversation turned to security issues. For the past three years Coste and some of his friends had taken part in the internationally supported recovery opera tion by producing such innovative media proj ects as traveling theater to raise environmental awareness and comic books for children on con stitutional reform. After dinner Coste walked me out into the cold spring night. "By the way, we're going ski ing up by the Salang this weekend. Why not join us?" he suggested, referring to the mighty, snow clad Hindu Kush range just north of Kabul. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I imagined ski ing those slopes. But then I hesitated. "What about land mines?" I asked, slightly embarrassed. "It's best not to think of them," Coste answered with a shrug. "One's got to be philosophical about these things."