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Why are Afghan militants targeting aid workers?

Masood Saifullah
September 18, 2017

The deaths of a minesweeper and a Red Cross employee last week are a sign that Afghanistan has become more dangerous for aid workers. Organizations are being forced to shut down, leaving victims in need.

Afghanistan Attentat auf Rote Kreuz Mitarbeiter
Image: Reuters

Spanish physiotherapist Lorena Enerbral Parez was in Afghanistan working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), helping people learn to walk again. Though Perez had a decade of humanitarian experience, this was her first mission to Afghanistan.

On the morning of Monday, September 11, at the ICRC orthopedic rehabilitation center in Mazar-i-Sharif, a young man who was being treated for polio pulled out a pistol he had concealed in his wheelchair and shot Perez dead as she approached him and another man waiting outside the facility.

According to media reports, the 21-year-old shooter was arrested at the scene, but no motive has yet been given.

The murder of the 38-year-old Spanish woman was the second attack on aid workers in Afghanistan in the span of only four days.

Screenshot Twitter: Physical therapists pay tribute to Lorena Enebral Pérez: http://bit.ly/2xkTtYY
Therapists pay tribute to Lorena Enebral PérezImage: Twitter/WCPT1951

On September 9, a group of armed men murdered an Afghan man working for a demining non-governmental organization (NGO) in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar.

According to a statement released after the incident by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), attackers reportedly affiliated with the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) asked for the man's identity before slitting his throat. He had been working for AREA, an Afghan demining NGO.

The motive of the killing remains unclear, but demining operations in Afghanistan are often the targets of attack. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in 2016 there were 20 separate incidents of attacks against minesweepers, which resulted in nine deaths and 10 injuries.

"One of my neighbors who working for a demining organization received a warning from the Taliban, telling him to leave his job or pay the price for it," a former ICRC employee in southern Kandahar province told DW.

"That man not only left his job but fled to Iran with his whole family because he was worried about his and his family's security," he added, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the media about security related issues.

Afghanistan ICRC Orthopädie
Perez was helping disabled Afghans like these at a ICRC othopedic center in HeratImage: DW/S. Tanha

Aid organizations forced to leave

The two killings last week are not isolated incidents. Aid organizations and their employees are increasingly becoming soft targetsfor the Taliban, IS and other groups of terrorists. The Taliban have boosted their attacks in recent years to gain control over more districts while IS has been trying to re-establish their footprint in Afghanistan since early 2015.

After Perez was killed, the ICRC closed its orthopedic center in Mazar-i-Sharif. It had been the only operational center in northern Afghanistan. The ICRC had previously reduced its operations in Afghanistan after six of its staff members were killed by unknown gunmen in northern Jawzjan province in February 2017.

The ICRC is not the only international aid organization shutting down centers that provide vital help for Afghans. Other organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have also been forced to closed health centers due to security issues.

A new report by the WHO revealed that 164 health facilities were closed due to Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation in this year alone, limiting access to healthcare for around three million Afghans.

Balkh province resident Khalifa Hakim, who lost a leg more than a year ago and was hoping receive and artificial leg from the ICRC center in Mazar-i-Sharif, now has nowhere else to seek help.

"I was hoping to get an artificial leg there and be able to walk again, but now the center is closed. I have lost all hope again," he told DW.

Karte Afghanistan Mazar-i-Sharif Englisch
Image: DW

Afghan victims with nowhere to turn

The ICRC has been one of the longest-operating aid organizations in Afghanistan, helping war and polio victims get access medical assistance, including prosthetics. Perez had been helping people afflicted with these types of disabilities before she was murdered, and now, victims have nowhere to turn for help.

The organization also helps war prisoners of the Afghan conflict to have communication with their families.

"ICRC helps prisoners from both sides of the Afghan conflict and if they come under attack, that means most other aid organization members are at danger too," the former ICRC employee from Kandahar told DW.

"People who work for demining organizations are at more risk because, in most cases,  insurgent groups who plant mines to protect areas under their control don't want them removed," he added.

With the Afghan conflict claiming more victims each day and aid organizations limiting activities in Afghanistan, Afghans will no longer be able to get the help at a time when they need it the most.

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