RPCV Jeff Labovitz works in Afghan Relief

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, October 25, 2001 - 5:33 pm: Edit Post

RPCV Jeff Labovitz works in Afghan Relief


Oct 15, 2001 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch Author(s): Jon Sawyer Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief

Jeff Labovitz arrived in Farkhar, on the Afghan border, just before midnight Saturday, riding shotgun on a 12-ton truck filled with quilts, cloth and soap intended for thousands of displaced Afghans in the war zone just across the Panj River.

Barely a soul stirred in the shuttered town. The local relief agency workers who were supposed to take delivery of the shipment and see it safely into Afghanistan had left Farkhar an hour before, it turned out, and wouldn't be back for three more days.

For Labovitz, one of the shock troops of international humanitarian relief, it was just another day at the office.

The 34-year-old Californian is a senior emergency officer for the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based group that serves individuals the world over who have been displaced by war and natural disasters. When trouble breaks out, it's the job of people like him to get in quick, set up an organization and get help from the outside world moving in.

The agency has been active for years in Afghanistan, helping in the operation of huge camps for displaced people. The agency's existing camps, however, were all in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, the Islamic extremist regime that holds 90 percent of the country. The job now was getting help into the fringe of territory along the Tajik border controlled by the northern alliance.

Labovitz arrived in Tajikistan's capital city of Dushanbe on Friday morning, having driven 14 hours straight through desert and mountains along the ancient Silk Road from Samarkand in neighboring Uzbekistan. He had gotten to Uzbekistan by way of Turkmenistan, Istanbul, Singapore and Brisbane, Australia.

His commute to work had begun in Nauru, a speck of land in the South Pacific that forms the second smallest country in the world. Labovitz was there to help set up shelter and food for hundreds of boat people rescued on the high seas. They had become the subject of international controversy because of the refusal of Australia, the nearest country, to take them in.

One of the boats whose passengers wound up on Nauru, as irony would have it, was filled with Afghans.

Rules and bribes

Labovitz has worked in 25 countries so far this year, from Sierra Leone and Eritrea to Kosovo. He spent a month this summer at Maslakh, a camp near Herat, in western Afghanistan, where some 150,000 refugees now live. International relief efforts stepped up after several dozen residents froze to death last winter. The group was in the process of building 12,000 shelters, in a joint project with Habitat for Humanity, when the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 forced the evacuation of international workers.

Herat under Taliban rule was a remarkable place to work.

"They've got a great list of rules for internationals working down there," Labovitz said. "You can't look at a woman. You can't get on the Internet or listen to music and watch movies. You can't walk naked and you can't ring bells.

"It felt like you were going back centuries in time."

The Taliban's propensity for bribes and deal-making, however, was very much up to date.

"This is one of the most corrupt places I've ever worked," Labovitz s aid, "and I've worked in some corrupt places."

He recalled how one Taliban leader had refused delivery of some 20,000 tents unless he got a $30,000 bribe up front, how others had trucked in people at gunpoint to jack up the count at registrations intended to determine the amount of required food and other supplies.

"Some of the Taliban leaders were quite pleasant and some were rougher," Labovitz said. "I definitely got the impression that not all of them are true believers."

Now the migration agency is about to see what it's like on the other side, in territory controlled by the northern alliance, the military force that now has the backing of the United States, Russia and other allied states in the war against terrorism. For relief agencies, the immediate target here is Afghanistan's Takhar province, a region along the Tajik border where an estimated 50,000 individuals have been displaced from their homes.

Labovitz talks about his work as he rides along the road south from Dushanbe, a 130-mile run on a starlit night through a starkly beautiful land of bare mountains and range. The landscape here is like canyon country in the American West, a place where vistas loom large and people seem small. Along the way, his convoy passes a Russian tank, barreling down the two-lane road at 45 mph and headed for the Afghan front.

The truck the agency hired in Dushanbe was Russian, too, the rugged and much beloved Kamaz, a long-haul vehicle that is a perennial winner in the Paris-to-Dakar road race. Its cargo: 500 quilted blankets, 23 bolts of cloth, six diesel cookers and 1,800 bars of soap.

"This is just the first run, to see what's possible," Labovitz said, trailing the truck part of the way in one of the agency's Toyota Land Cruisers. The aim is to get rolling soon with regular convoys, either by land or helicopter, working in concert with the French relief agency ACTED.

Finding the vulnerable

Situations and countries may vary, he said, but the basic drill remains unchanged.

"You've got to establish local contacts, with either a U.N. representative or another (nongovernment organization)," he said. "You set up base in a temporary office, hire a taxi or find a car. You find out where are the IDPs (internally displaced persons) ... who the most vulnerable are, what people are doing for them already and what's missing.

"You check in with local officials," he added. "You find out who is coop erative ... and who isn't. You find out whom you can trust."

Labovitz has been with the migration agency for nearly six years. He worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development before that, after a stint with the Peace Corps in Hungary.

The midnight miscue on arrival in Farkhar leaves Labovitz unperturbed. He barks a bit at the local employees. "They have to know that when they make a commitment to be here they'll be here," he says. Experience tells him the transfer of supplies will be carried off the following morning - it was - and that the agency will be one step closer toward supplying help in one more troubled place.

"That's why I'm here," he says, "to get this running the way it should."

In the meantime, there's the rare chance for sleep. For Labovitz - after traveling halfway round the world this week, after a year of bouncing in to so many trouble spots that he's managed less than two weeks total in his Geneva apartment - the pallet and blanket on the floor of a house without plumbing or electricity look inviting indeed.

You'd assume that a guy like Jeff Labovitz would have an iron stomach. You'd be wrong.

He laughs the question off, as he plows into a suspect-looking piece of pork - a surprise itself in this mostly Muslim country.

"I get sick," he says, "every place I go."

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