Former Royal Marine JJ Chalmers warns of 'human catastrophe' this winter and urges Scots to help Afghanistan crisis appeal
Ordinary people across Afghanistan are facing a “human catastrophe” this winter, a former Royal Marine has warned, amid fears that up to a million children under five could die over coming months.
JJ Chalmers, one of the public faces of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Afghanistan crisis appeal, warned plummeting temperatures, severe drought, conflict and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic had combined to plunge the country further into jeopardy.
The former Commando, who suffered life-changing injuries from an IED blast while serving in Helmand Province, said he wanted to use his platform to raise awareness about the nation’s plight and help raise as much money as possible.
The broadcaster and television presenter, from Dunfermline, is backing the joint fundraising appeal by leading UK aid agencies to tackle the “catastrophic” rise in severe hunger in the country.
“What they are facing is unimaginable in our society, but it is completely ordinary to Afghans,” he said.
“We can get tied up in the politics of the situation, but we’re talking about children, mothers and fathers who are suffering.”
Those behind the appeal warn that children are already dying, with up to eight million people at risk of starvation over the winter.
The DEC’s 15-strong group of charities, which include the British Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) UK, Save the Children, and Islamic Relief, stressed that urgent action is needed, as temperatures fall as low as -12C during winter.
“The first snow fell in Kabul today, and Afghanistan is a brutal place in the winter – every day it gets colder and the conditions get harsher,” Mr Chalmers stressed.
“There are millions of people that are already suffering … they live hand to mouth. They are just trying to survive the next day.”
Indeed, three million children under five are expected to suffer acute malnutrition due to the fact families are unable to grow or pay for food. The DEC charities are reporting hospitals already struggling to treat severely malnourished mothers and children due to a lack of medicines and supplies.
The money raised through the appeal, Mr Chalmers pointed out, would have an “immediate” impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans.
“The amount raised in the first 24 hours has already been released to aid organisations like Oxfam and Christian Aid, who know how to ensure this money benefits those who need it,” he said. “Just £10 can ensure that a child suffering malnutrition can be given the food they require for three weeks.”
Lance Corporal Chalmers narrowly avoided a double arm amputation following the incident that changed his life in May 2011. He lost two fingers in the blast, and was left with a badly damaged elbow, as well as face and leg injuries.
The son of a church minister, who worked as a teacher in Edinburgh and Balerno before his military service in Afghanistan, said he wanted to bring his own experience and profile to help further the appeal’s reach.
“My circumstances have changed in the past ten years, but my feelings towards the country haven’t,” he said. “I still care deeply about it and I just want to make any difference I can. That’s what I did ten years ago and that’s what I’m doing now.”
While the appeal is hoping to raise millions, the perfect storm facing Afghanistan has already given veteran aid workers cause to reflect on the need for greater political support.
Vicki Aken, the IRC’s Afghanistan director, said that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have already been internally displaced due to conflict as well as drought, with schools closed, widespread food shortages and people turning to desperate measures such as child labour and early marriage for girls.
“Afghanistan needs sustained aid and diplomatic support from both western and regional powers,” she said. "Without this, there is little chance that needs will be met and peace will be found.”
The escalating humanitarian crisis has already led international donors to agree to transfer $280 million (£210m) from a frozen fund to United Nations food and health services in Afghanistan.
Western powers have refused to officially recognise the Taliban government. The US and other nations have frozen billions of pounds worth of Afghan reserves, while the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also halted the country's access to funding.
Asked if the DEC appeal could only be truly effective if accompanied by a breaking of the political deadlock, Mr Chalmers said: “No circumstance can be fixed with a band aid, but that’s not to say a band aid isn’t required to get us through winter. Of course, there needs to be real progress made in the country, but we can’t just think ‘well, if we can’t fix it all, what’s the point?”
Amid the continuing fallout from the controversial US and UK withdrawal from the country, Mr Chalmers also said the focus had to be on helping the Afghan population at large.
“All you can do is control what you can at the time,” he explained.
"I can only use my voice, platform and experience to encourage others to do the right thing from a humanitarian point of view.
“All we can do in this circumstance is hopefully learn for future conflicts, but we have to deal with the situation that lies in front of us, and people’s lives are in severe jeopardy.”
Saleh Saeed, the DEC’s chief executive, said: “We’re urging people to donate to help families feed their children, protect themselves against freezing temperatures and to provide vital medical supplies to deal with malnutrition, hypothermia and acute respiratory infections, otherwise many young children will simply not survive the coming months.”
To donate to the DEC appeal, visit www.dec.org.uk, call the 24-hour hotline on 0370 60 60 610, or to give £10, text SUPPORT to 70150.