Hungry Prisoners Welcome Red Cross
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SHIBERGAN, Afghanistan (AP) _ For Abdullah, a Taliban foot soldier who has languished for five months at a prison in northern Afghanistan, an emergency feeding program that went into full swing Sunday comes just in time.
One of 2,700 prisoners ravished by severe malnutrition and living in squalor at Shibergan prison, Abdullah has lost 33 pounds on a diet of mostly bread and rice _ and little of either.
The prisoners were captured by the northern alliance during the U.S.-led war on terrorism and accused of collaborating with the Taliban.
Last week the international Red Cross stepped in to feed those on the verge of starvation _ some 500 prisoners who are now getting vitamin-enriched liquid meals five days a day.
On Sunday the Red Cross extended the program to the entire prison population, with those who can digest solid food getting peas and rice in addition to three pieces of bread allowed by Afghan authorities each day.
Meanwhile, authorities have moved many of the prisoners from sweltering cells where they slept in shifts because they were packed in too tightly to all lie down at once.
Abdullah is among those now staying in four tents, each 40 feet by 80 feet, set up in the prison courtyard.
``It’s very good. When we were in the cells we couldn’t sleep at night,″ he said as he struggled to tie a strap around his waist to keep his pants from falling from his emaciated frame. He complained of diarrhea, something many prisoners are suffering from, and not being able to clean his clothes.
The Red Cross stresses the special feedings are only temporary and that responsibility for maintaining humane conditions at Shibergan lies with Afghanistan’s interim administration.
The administration’s envoy to the region is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the main warlord in the north who is also a deputy defense minister.
The Red Cross ``is talking not only at a regional level but national and international level to address what is a rather pathetic situation for a group of prisoners who are suffering miserably,″ said Simon Brooks, head of the Red Cross delegation in the north.
Those living in the tents are allowed to move freely in small yards surrounded by coils of razor wire and barbed wire fences, and have a working pump for water and newly dug latrines. On Sunday afternoon, prisoners in one of the Pakistani tents kneeled down together to pray.
``We feel like we’ve been freed,″ said Wahid Ahmad, an 18-year-old Pakistani, who was moved here after an uprising in November of prisoners at the Qalai Janghi fortress, also in northern Afghanistan.
CIA agent Johnny ``Mike″ Spann was killed in that fighting, the first U.S. casualty of the war, and the American John Walker Lindh was discovered among Taliban and al-Qaida suspects detained there.
The commander at the prison, Jura Bek, said he welcomed the Red Cross help.
``We couldn’t afford to do anything here,″ he said. ``In the past five months we gave them all that we had.″
Authorities have said they provided prisoners with two meals a day, consisting mainly of a gruel of mushy rice.
Barbara Troesch, a Red Cross nutritionist, said the prisoners received just 600 to 800 calories of food a day, which she said was ``probably what you have for breakfast.″ A normal intake is around 2,100 to 2,400 calories a day, she said.
A visitor found the feeding program had apparently not yet reached some of the cell blocks by Sunday afternoon.
Amir Muhammad, 19, a Taliban captured in fighting outside the northern city of Kunduz, looked longingly through the bars of his window at the nearby tents as flies buzzed from his cell. He said there were 43 people living with him in a room meant for a third that many, and all were sick from the food and dirty conditions.
``I’d be so happy if they carried me to that tent _ we’ll get a new life when we get there,″ he said.
Asked how much he had to eat, Muhammad said he was fed twice a day with rice and a little water and small piece of bread. A guard, sensing he was complaining, shouted, ``It’s not enough for you?″ Muhammad quickly said that it was.
There have been several releases of prisoners, including a few hundred freed by Dostum last month. U.S. military investigators have also talked to some prisoners to find Taliban leaders or detainees with ties to al-Qaida, and Bek said more than 150 were handed over to the Americans.
But other than that, the prisoners’ situation remains unclear with no one really knowing whether they’ll be freed, put on trial or just live out their days in the packed cells for the foreseeable future.
Few guards are visible around the barbed-wire enclosure for the tents, and there also aren’t many to be seen around the 16-foot-high walls at the prison, located 75 miles west of the northern capital of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The risk of any kind of prison uprising seemed remote over the past months in the prisoners’ weakened state. Bek insisted Sunday that the situation is still secure with 400 guards on duty, and that the newly fed and strengthening prisoners aren’t going to stage a repeat of what happened at Qalai Janghi.
``All the prisoners promised me they will never escape from here,″ he said.