November 22, 2010
Criticism Sharp After NATO Official Portrays Kabul as Safe for Children
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO’s senior civilian representative here provoked sharp criticism from children’s advocates on Monday after he said Kabul was safer for children than many Western cities.
“In Kabul and the other big cities, there are very few of these bombs,” the representative, Mark Sedwill, told an interviewer for a BBC children’s television program that was broadcast on Monday. “The children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities.”
“Most children can go about their lives in safety,” Mr. Sedwill added. “It’s a very family-orientated society. So it is a little bit like a city of villages.”
Children’s advocates were quick to dispute his characterization. Peter Crowley, Unicef’s Afghanistan representative, said the agency continued to regard Afghanistan “as being one of the worst countries in the world to be a child.”
“Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and one in five children dies before the age of 5,” Mr. Crowley said.
Mr. Sedwill served as the British ambassador here before taking over as NATO’s top civilian official in January.
As word of his remarks spread around Kabul, Mr. Sedwill sent out an e-mail statement that tried to reframe his comments.
“I was trying to explain to an audience of British children how uneven violence is across Afghanistan,” he said. “In cities like Kabul where security has improved, the total levels of violence, including criminal violence, are comparable to those which many Western children would experience. For most Afghans, the biggest challenges are from poverty — the absence of clean water, open sewers, malnutrition, disease — and many more children are at risk from those problems than from the insurgency.”
But the clarification appeared not to alter the jarring nature of his comments.
At the Aschiana Children’s Shelter in downtown Kabul, which provides schooling and social services to homeless and street children, 277 children — most under 12 — share three unheated classrooms and use floors for desks. The shelter can no longer afford to provide meals.
“More than 60 to 70 percent of these children are victims of the war in different ways,” said Raziya Forogh, a teacher who was instructing 25 boys in math on Monday. “And they have all been victims of crimes. Here, everything is possible to happen to a child when he is working on the streets. To say they are no worse off than children in London is illogical.”
Another teacher at the shelter, Abdul Bari Daad Khan, who had a class of 35 girls, said that Western children would in most cases not hear bombs go off in their neighborhoods, which had happened to his students repeatedly. “When suicide bombers hit the shopping center near here, all of the children were screaming, and two of them fainted,” he said.
Naziya, 11, said she had heard explosions “many times,” but was much more bothered by the frequent beatings by shopkeepers who were angry at her for selling plastic shopping bags for about a dime in front of their businesses.
While levels of insurgent violence are much lower in the capital than other parts of the country, crime is severe in impoverished neighborhoods.
Bismullah, a 7-year-old boy who sells chewing gum on the street, stood up in class and recalled the time he was attacked by an older boy, who stole his earnings of about $4. “I asked an old guy for help, and he caught him and beat him, but then he took my money.”
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says such episodes are increasingly common. A new report by the commission noted what it said was a worrying increase in violence against children as well as child labor in all Afghan provinces.
“Mr. Sedwill should come to the Human Rights Commission and consider the reports we receive on a daily basis,” said Hussein Mushrat, the report’s author. “Children are not safer here.”