KABUL (Reuters) - Children are probably safer growing up in Afghanistan’s major cities, including the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, than in London, New York, or Glasgow, NATO’s top civilian envoy to Afghanistan has said.
Mark Sedwill’s comments were made during an interview to be aired on Monday on Children’s BBC Newsround, a popular British daily current affairs program aimed at children.
Children living in the Afghan capital Kabul had told the show’s presenter they felt unsafe on the streets because of the risk of bombs. But Sedwill dismissed their fears.
“Here and in Kabul and the other big cities, actually, there are very few of those bombs,” he said.
“The children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities,” he said.
“It’s a very family-orientated society, so it is a little bit like a city of villages,” he said.
His remarks, which feature in a two-part series exploring the lives of children in Afghanistan, were rejected as misleading by an official from the aid group Save the Children.
“One in five children die before they get to the age of five. So to say it’s safer than to live in London, New York or Glasgow is daft,” said the representative from Save the Children, who requested anonymity so he could speak freely.
“Sedwill’s overall message that life is village-like gives a sense of comfort or of a safe environment. It is not like that in Afghanistan, it is dangerous for children, it’s an insecure place,” he said.
The remarks were met with surprise in the capital, where many children have died in insurgent attacks, although some children said they felt security had improved recently.
“There is no safety in Kabul; when I go to school I always feel that something might happen,” said 13-year-old Ahmad Sejad. Teacher Ghulam Jelani said parents are even more worried about violence than their children.
U.N. figures show 1,795 children killed or injured as a result of the war from September 2008 through August 2010.
Sedwill said he had been trying to explain that violence was the same in each part of Afghanistan and that, in cities like Kabul, it was comparable to what many Western children might see.
“Any comment you have to clarify obviously wasn’t very well put and the comparison I made with Western cities distracted attention from the important point I was seeking to make,” Sedwill said in a statement later on Monday.
A report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in November 2009 said Afghanistan was the most dangerous country to be born in. It has the highest infant mortality rate in the world and two-thirds of the population lacks access to clean water.
Forty-three percent of the country was virtually off-limits to aid agencies due to poor security, the UNICEF report said, making it difficult to carry out health campaigns for children.
Another U.N. report on Afghanistan in September said casualties among women increased 6 percent, while those among children jumped by 55 percent. A total of 74 children were killed in the first half of the year by homemade bombs or in suicide attacks, an increase of 155 percent for the same period in 2009.
Last month, at least nine people, including eight children, were killed when a school bus carrying female students was hit by a roadside bomb in Nimroz province in southwestern Afghanistan.
Kabul has been relatively quiet over the past three months but two bombings targeting the Indian embassy in 2008 and 2009 killed around 75 people, including children.
Girls have had acid thrown in their faces while walking to school by hardline Islamists who object to female education, which was banned under Taliban rule. Several girls’ schools, including some in Kabul, have also been hit by mysterious gas poisonings blamed on Islamists.
Some children, especially those from wealthier families, are also kidnapped for ransom. Such kidnappings often go unreported and children have been killed if ransoms were not paid.
Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Andrew Marshall