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After more than three decades of medical work by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan, it’s pulling most of its staff out of Afghanistan after a string of attacks on its employees.  The decision came after seven ICRC employees were killed in a series of attacks this year.  On December 19 2016,  ICRC employee Juan Carlos was abducted as he travelled from Mazar-e Sharif to Kunduz and held hostage for a month.  In February 2017, six Red Cross employees were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in northern Jowzjan province. Two others were abducted and later released.

Last month, Red Cross physiotherapist Lorena Enebral Perez was killed by a patient in Mazar-e Sharif.  Perez helped people who had lost limbs or had other forms of disability, learn to stand, walk or feed themselves again.  She was targeted by one of the patients, a man who had suffered polio as a child and had been coming to the rehabilitation center for 19 years, ever since he was two years old. He shot her with a gun he had concealed in his wheelchair.

The ICRC country head said the “painful decision” meant people in the north would no longer get help they needed.  She said they would not leave Afghanistan but they have to limit the risks faced by its staff as threats continue.  “After internal discussions with our highest level at the headquarters, we have reached the conclusion that we have no choice but to drastically reduce our presence and activities, and in particular in the north of Afghanistan.”

The ICRC’s operation in Afghanistan is the their fourth largest worldwide, with about 1,800 staff offering medical assistance, helping disabled people and visiting inmates in jail as well as enabling them to keep in contact with their families.  In some areas, particularly in the north, the ICRC is the only international group offering such services.  Many other humanitarian organizations have pulled out of Afghanistan in recent years as Taliban and Islamic State militants have stepped up attacks.

Head of delegation, Monica Zanarelli, announced the reduction. “After 30 years of continuous presence in the country, we are reducing our presence and operations.”  She went on to say that it’s hard to say whether they are being specifically targeted or if these are random attacks that they have suffered.

The ICRC is laying off staff and closing two of its offices, in Faryab and Kunduz provinces, while its sub-delegation in Mazar-e Sharif will be “seriously downsized.”  Those three ICRC offices cover nine provinces in the north and north west of Afghanistan. Activities run out of the Mazar office will now be limited to the ICRC’s Re-establishing Family Links program (tracing separate family members, facilitating phone calls to detainees and arranging family visits) and cooperation with the Afghan Red Crescent Society.   The orthopedics center in Mazar, which treats those who have lost arms and legs and need prosthetic limbs as well as those with other disabilities, will remain open for now, but the ICRC is looking for others to run it. All other activities out of Mazar will be stopped, including the ICRC’s assistance programs.

Most international humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, have already modified their operations to try to protect staff while continuing to reach the most vulnerable. The ICRC has a reputation for neutrality and service built up over decades but has had to accept that it can no longer work safely in parts of Afghanistan.  Many believe it is a sign of just how brutal the conflict in Afghanistan has become.

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