David Snyder of Catholic Relief Services spent much of October in Pakistan with other CRS staffers, preparing to assist thousands of Afghan refugees.
Snyder, 31, a native of Baltimore, joined Catholic Relief Services five years ago after earning a master's degree from Towson State College in Maryland.
He soon joined the U.S. bishops’ relief agency's Emergency Response Team, which took him to Sudan, Sierra Leone and Kosovo. He spoke by telephone Nov. 1 from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, to Register staff writer John Burger.
How have you been able to bring aid to the Afghan refugees in the wake of the U.S. led air strikes?
I've been in Pakistan for the past month. All international staff from the U.N. on down have left Afghanistan since mid-September. I was up in Peshawar last weekend, 40 miles from the border.
It's been a fairly unstable area since September but it's calmed down in the past couple of weeks. It's a tribal area, where there's a lot of sympathy with the Taliban. There were anti-Western demonstrations there. The U.N. has warned Westerners not to go into those areas, and the Pakistan government couldn't guarantee the safety of anyone going into the area.
Where are the refugee camps? Who do the refugees consist of, and how many are there?
Some camps have existed since the early 1980s, in what is called the North-West Frontier Province. There are also camps in Balochistan Province, just to the west. Then there are new camps that have been set up in the event there is a refugee influx related to the air strikes in Afghanistan. They are in the tribal area of the North-West Frontier Province.
We've been working with local partners there for water assessment and water rehabilitation. Each camp holds about 100,000 people, and the U.N. has identified 100 camps. So they're aiming to assist 1 million refugees, if the border opens. Right now, Pakistan is not allowing anyone to come in.
There are also people displaced within Afghanistan. We don't know how many, where they are or what their needs are.
Of the camps I went to, one had between 50,000 and 55,000 refugees.
Many have been there 10 to 20 years. And there are some coming illegally across the border. If they are found out, they'd be deported. They are afraid to register. I was in the Jalozai camp two weeks ago with our executive director [Ken Hackett]. A lot of people came up to us saying they are afraid to register. So we've scheduled for blankets, tents and food to be sent there Nov. 12.
We've had teams go there to assess who is most vulnerable. They are living under scraps of plastic. The U.N. estimates that 80,000 refugees have come in; Pakistan puts the figure at 40,000.
The border is mountainous and porous, and many refugees are passing repeatedly back and forth. They go back to collect the rest of their valuables. A lot are paying smugglers to get them across.
Are you encountering any obstacles?
With the overall logistics — how many people we're trying to reach. It's too early to tell whether it will be a camp situation, if the government opens the border, or if we operate a relief pipeline into Afghanistan, which brings with it a whole new set of logistical challenges. It looks now like it will be both.
There was the attack on the Catholic Church [in Bahawalpur] Sunday, but we're hoping that will be an isolated incident. Nobody knows if it's related to the events in Afghanistan. There is a concern that it is.
There are Muslim-Christian tensions inherent in the country. The fear is that this is the first of more to come. They've made some arrests, and they suspected immediately some Islamic extremists.
There was an obvious tension when I first got here. Pakistan is in a difficult position. It's taken in millions of refugees over the past 20 years. It's strained financially, strained in terms of its resources. It's understandable they'd be leery about taking in any more refugees.
In terms of unrest, there's not much you can do. The government will have to take care of itself. [Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez] Musharraf has done what he's had to do. He's concerned for Pakistan. He has to take the next step by allowing the border to open and let these people be cared for by international aid agencies.
What are the feelings among the refugees about the U.S.-led action against terrorism? Is there a lot of resentment, a lot of sympathy for the Taliban or Al Qaeda?
I met with refugees, trying to get a sense of what they're all about. I sat down to hear their stories. One thing that struck me most was that the majority coming across the border are wealthier — people who could afford to pay a smuggler $12 or afford to take public transportation to the border. If the wealthy are allowed to leave the country, those who are left behind are in worse shape.
Some that I met in the camps were down to their last 20 rupees [about 33 cents]. They were in bad shape; winter is two or three weeks away, and they have no blankets.
I didn't hear any animosity toward the U.S. The average guy who left the country didn't care who was doing what to whom; he just wanted to go back home — “I don't care who's in power.” Afghanistan has been under the gun for 23 years; they're used to war; they're a tough people. War is not going to keep them out of their country.
Do you and the other CRS staffers feel in danger? How do you deal with that?
No. Here, from the word go, given the tensions that exist, we pay strict attention to security. Our security person makes evacuation plans and liaises with the U.N. and the embassies and keeps us updated; puts together a plan with considerations for things like the dangers of driving in Pakistan, using phones, procedures for traveling at night, traveling outside Islamabad.
I haven't felt in danger. Even in Peshawar, we were careful about our visibility. You don't necessarily announce your presence as an American or as a Catholic agency.
What do you make of the claim that the United States is sending the Afghans poisoned food?
We've all heard rhetoric from so many camps on so many issues. It's so difficult to know what's going on. It could affect our work within Afghanistan when you hear rumors. Rumors can be as dangerous as truth in many cases. So far, it hasn't affected our plans to work inside of Afghanistan.
We hope to be moving into the country within the next week or two with the first shipment of food and blankets.
We're targeting initially 200,000 people with blankets. That's a first-step response. It could potentially far exceed the resources expended in Kosovo in 1999 — tens of millions of dollars from CRS. We have a partner — Coordination of Afghan Relief, a non-governmental organization. We're just solidifying how much they're going to need, what our partner's capacity is and if they can reach the most vulnerable population, which is always women, children and the elderly.