Relief group to come to Herat's rescue

by Gary Tegler

KYOTO — The road from the Iranian border town of Dogaroun to Herat in northwest Afghanistan is a dusty, bumpy track lined with land mines much of the way.

Purposely left unpaved by the Taliban to inhibit the movements of their Northern Alliance foes and to prevent attack from Iran, the journey to the ancient city takes eight hours when it should take only two.

Within the next few days, five members of the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development will brave the perils of this journey to research the needs of the community of Herat as part of a major relief effort coordinated by Japan Platform, a coalition of nongovernment organizations and agencies of the Japanese government.

NICCO is one of Japan’s most active and respected private relief agencies. Working out of modest offices in Kyoto, the group began its activities in 1979, when founder Satoyo Ono organized aid for Cambodian refugees who had fled into Thailand following an invasion by Vietnamese forces.

The 11-member board of NICCO has since raised millions of yen for relief projects and now administers aid programs in Yemen, Jordan, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

It has an official membership of 185 and a full-time paid staff of 16 spread around the globe.

The decision to initiate a new project in Afghanistan was made in October following an appeal to Japan for assistance by a representative of Afghanistan’s interim government.

“There was a meeting of Japan Platform in Tokyo in November, but I was unable to attend because I was in Jordan,” said Osamu Ono, executive director of the organization. The meeting was held to prepare for a three-day conference in mid-December in which people from NGOs in Afghanistan and Japan as well as officials of several governments and the U.N. talked about how to help people in the war-torn country.

“We hastily put together a proposal to bring medical supplies to Herat,” Ono said. “Most of the news regarding Afghan refugees centered on the eastern and southern borders with Pakistan, and little was known about the plight of people in the northwest.

“We believed we had to rush in order to assist the children of Herat before the winter came. We will look into the purchase of vehicles to bus children to schools in Herat from outlying areas and to provide an ambulance, among other things. Because of the lateness of our request, we were only able to secure funds to cover our airfare. The rest of the costs will have to come out of our budget.”

Ono and his wife, Satoyo, president of the organization, traveled to Iran in November to visit refugee camps near Mashad, a famous Islamic pilgrimage site.

During the 20 years of nearly incessant conflict in Afghanistan, 2 1/2 million people fled to Iran and are now settled in several sites stretching south from Mashad.

After their firsthand experience with the squalor of camps in Thailand and Jordan, the Onos were surprised to find the camps in such good condition, despite the financial burden on the Iranian government.

“When we visited Torbat-e Jam near the border, a camp for Afghan people, mostly Hazara, we were surprised at how spacious the facility was,” Ono said. “It was very clean and the people were very lively. The children were healthy and eagerly responded to their teachers in class. I began to wonder whether this was a refugee camp at all. The Iranian people have given good shelter as if they were their own family. This was very heartwarming to see.”

Accompanying the Onos to Herat will be Masayo Kodama, the organization’s vice president; Tsukasa Kobayashi, a surgeon and orthopedist; and Eiko Takayama, a dentist and therapist. Ono stressed that the inclusion of Takayama was essential.

“We have been informed by contacts in Herat that there are many children and widows who suffer from mental trauma. Even though we will be delivering medical equipment, of equal value will be to set up a clinic to provide psychological and mental treatment,” he said.

The Iranian government, with which NICCO has been working with most closely, has been grateful for the group’s assistance, primarily, according to Ono, because of its track record in Cambodia and Vietnam in helping refugees return to their native lands.

The assistance NICCO provides makes it more attractive for people to return home, especially in terms of the medical and educational benefits, and helps relieve the strain on Iran’s coffers.

“There is definitely refugee fatigue among governments and people in general,” Ono said. “Until we can build new families, new generations, a basic lifeline, we cannot hope for the Afghan people to be self-reliant. We can only stay a certain amount of time and then say you are on your own. But this may take 10 years or more.”

Ono, a retired professor of literature at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said he and his wife make at least three excursions a year to oversee the organization’s operations. He is a firm believer in the ability of NGOs to make the most efficient use of relief funds.

“This is a new age where NGOs can do more because they know where and how to help people in distress,” he said. “We do not simply sit behind a table and look at paper. We are in the field with the people. There is no feeling like bringing things to a village and looking into the beaming faces of the people, to bring hope, relief cooperation.”

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