MEP risked Taliban kidnap in Afghan undercover mission

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol.7, No.41, 8.11.01, p1
Publication Date 08/11/2001
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Date: 08/11/01

By Martin Banks

MEP Emma Nicholson risked being kidnapped by the Taliban during an 'undercover' fact-finding trip to Afghanistan.

The British deputy posed as a doctor to get into a Taliban-run refugee camp on the Afghan-Iran border. Wearing a headscarf to partially obscure her features and using an assumed name, she gained access to the Makaki camp just inside Afghanistan's western border with Iran.

It was not until she tried to visit a nearby Taliban-controlled village with a group of charity workers that the potential danger she faced sank in. "I wanted to see how the Afghan people were living and we asked if we could visit a village nearby. The Taliban guards took us to the edge of the village but then I think they smelled a rat and refused to let us go any further.

I think they thought it was a trap. "I was later told that we ran the risk of being kidnapped." Nicholson, a Liberal Democrat peer who was formerly director of fundraising for the Save the Children charity, is thought to be the first western politician to visit the Makaki camp, which is providing a temporary home for more than 7,000 refugees.

The camp, 40 kilometres inside the Afghan border and close to an area that has been bombed by the US, was circled by armed guards and Nicholson admits she knew she was taking a risk in going into Taliban territory. "That's why I was advised to pretend I was a doctor and use an assumed name," she says. "We didn't go into the village though - it wasn't worth sacrificing our safety."

Nicholson's Iranian guides urged her not to say she was British. She was part of a ten-strong group, which consisted of Iranian health professionals and members of the Iranian Red Crescent charity, which has struck a deal with the Taliban to set up tents and vaccinate children at the camp. Nicholson, who organised the four-day humanitarian aid trip, added: "I also visited refugee camps in Iran but I had no real authority to be in Afghanistan so I had to slip in as a member of the team. Despite the subterfuge, it was a fascinating and disturbing experience to witness at first hand the plight of the Afghan refugees.

I've never seen anything like it in my life. "It's obviously a dangerous place to be but there was no point in being afraid as there was an important job to do."; The risks of going into Afghanistan in disguise were recently highlighted when UK journalist Yvonne Ridley was held by the Taliban for a week after being caught with two guides. Another journalist, Michel Peyrard, who works for Paris Match, was held by the Taliban for more than three weeks in the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad before he was released last Saturday.

Back in Brussels this week, Nicholson, deputy chairperson of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, called on the EU to do more to help the Afghan refugees. She has urged external affairs chief Chris Patten to ensure aid gets through to those most in need.

Nicholson said: "These people are hungry beyond belief and people are dying. The crisis is going to grow and we can only see what's on the surface at the moment. "The local governor told us there were nine provinces of Afghanistan from which people need refuge and Makaki is the camp which would have to receive them. There could be hundreds of thousands of people."

She also criticised the United Nations for maintaining a policy of not helping the Afghan refugees.

  • Development Commissioner Poul Nielson announced yesterday (7 November) that the European Commission was making €25 million available to support humanitarian efforts by the World Food Programme. "All our efforts are focused on ensuring that relief supplies are despactched and, more importantly, delivered, as rapidly as possible." he said.

British MEP Emma Nicholson risked being kidnapped by the Taliban during an 'undercover' fact-finding trip to Afghanistan.

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