A 100-ton barge loaded with emergency relief supplies from three United Nations agencies cast off from a pier at the Uzbek port of Termez and slowly moved upstream through the muddy Amu Darya River on November 14, opening an important aid conduit between Uzbekistan and beleaguered Afghanistan. Some UN officials described the opening of this aid route as a breakthrough in the international relief effort for Afghanistan. Ultimately, the UN hopes to ship 40 percent of its aid to Afghanistan via Termez.
Frustrated relief workers had kept three aid barges docked in Termez for almost a week before a UN team in Afghanistan said the relief mission could depart for Hairaton, on the Afghan side of the river. UN workers would not say exactly how the security situation changed in northern Afghanistan, but cautiously described this first shipment a "test run." Previously, there were fears that roving units of Taliban fighters could loot or attack the humanitarian mission. Termez is located approximately 40 miles north of the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which fell to Northern Alliance fighters on November 9.
"The aid will go to the most vulnerable and needy people in northern Afghanistan," said Richard Conroy, a UN coordinator in Uzbekistan.
Until now, shipments of emergency supplies for Afghanistan had entered mostly from Pakistan in the south. Aid has also trickled through treacherous mountain roads that run across Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan, and from Turkmenistan to the west.
But UN officials say those supplies have been inaccessible to hundreds of thousands of Afghans, who have been cut off or forced to flee to various northern areas during recent fighting. With winter already descending in the Afghan highlands, relief workers say there is an urgent need to expand relief efforts. "These are the people in desperate need of international support," Conroy said.
Warfare, combined with a severe drought, have brought 1.5 million Afghans to very the brink of starvation, according to some estimates. Overall, up to 7 million people who have been displaced by conflict are in desperate need of care, said Andrew Natsios, director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Natsios visited Termez on November 13 during a tour of Central Asia.
"Ten days ago, I was very depressed. Now I am optimistic," Natsios said, "I didn't think we could do this. The amount of food we have going into the country has dramatically increased in the last 10 days."
Still, he said, there was cause for frustrations.
With the Northern Alliance now in control of over 50 percent of Afghanistan - including the capital Kabul and the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif - aid officials hope Uzbek authorities will permit humanitarian shipments to move over the Friendship Bridge spanning the Amu Darya near Termez. That bridge -- built by the Soviets for their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan - serves as the only overland link between the two countries, and is just 18 kilometers south of Termez. Using it would save aid workers the task of loading, unloading and ferrying the supplies, which takes several hours.
Despite the Northern Alliance success, Uzbek authorities have hesitated to grant the United Nations access to the half-mile span, fearing that instability or refugees from Afghanistan might spill across the border. "Until the Uzbek government feels secure about the situation on the Afghan side of the river, they don't intend to open up the bridge," said Rupa Joshi, communications officer for United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, in Uzbekistan. "They're not saying, 'No;' they're just saying, 'Not yet.'"
With the Taliban retreating from the north, the chances that "not yet" will become "yes" look more promising than weeks ago. Uzbekistan sealed its border with Afghanistan in 1997, when a Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, fled the country during a Taliban onslaught. Last week, supported by US special forces and bombers, Dostum reoccupied Mazar-i-Sharif, which is connected to the Uzbek border by a well-paved stretch of road running through desert-like steppe. UN workers say the city, with its nearby airport, could serve as a major transit point for the further distribution of aid once it enters Afghanistan.
But the Northern Alliance's grip on the region has proven tenuous in the past, and security here has been visibly forceful. On this frontier riverbank, Uzbek soldiers kept stern eyes on the opposing shore.
Once the barges reached the southern side of the Amu Darya, Afghans working for UN agencies unloaded the supplies into warehouses in the Afghan port city of Hairaton. The aid will sit there until trucks distribute it throughout northern Afghanistan. Aid officials say security guarantees must be in place before aid leaves Hairaton. Ultimately, the humanitarian aid passing through Termez will fan out through northern Afghanistan to the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh, Baghram, Kunduz, Samongan, Jawzan, Faryab and Sarigul, according to Joshi of UNICEF.
The November 14 trial shipment across the river included 50 metric tons of wheat, flour from the World Food Program, winter clothing, water containers and tarps from UNICEF, and blankets from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, or UNHCR. In the future, the United Nations intends to ship aid across the river on three barges daily, and move more than 50,000 tons of food in per month through Termez, which has a well-developed infrastructure.
Raffi Khatchadourian is a Tashkent-based freelance journalist.