KABUL, Afghanistan – A senior NATO official said Monday that children in New York or other major Western cities face a greater risk of violence than those in Kabul, where lack of clean water, open sewers and disease pose a greater threat than insurgents.
The remarks by Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian representative in Afghanistan, drew fire from children's advocacy groups who say Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be born.
With few bombings and low levels of crime against children in Kabul, youngsters in the Afghan capital probably are safer than in other big cities like London or New York, Sedwill said on a taped program for the BBC's CBBC Newsround, a daily current events show aimed at children.
He later clarified his remarks in a statement on Monday.
Sedwill, who is the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, said he was trying to explain to an audience of British children how uneven violence is across Afghanistan. He pointed out that half of all insurgent violence takes place in just 10 of the country's more than 300 districts, where he acknowledged "children too often are the victims of bombings and other dangers."
"But in cities like Kabul where security has improved, the total levels of violence, including criminal violence, are comparable to those which many Western children would experience," Sedwill said in the clarification. He said more Afghan children are at risk from poverty, "absence of clean water, open sewers, malnutrition, disease" than from the insurgency.
Life for children in the Afghan capital is far from safe. Troops, police and armed guards are everywhere. Health dangers abound. There are open sewers and piles of garbage, which children pick through for salvageable items. There is razor wire and unclean water, and the dry Kabul River bed is strewn with rubbish. Throughout the city, children clad in soiled clothes play next to garbage dumps and breath dusty air filled with unhealthy pollutants.
The BBC program focused on young people in war zones and quoted several young people living in Kabul who said they felt unsafe on the streets because of the risk of bombings.
Manija, an 11-year-old girl who goes by only one name, said: "When there are explosions I get sad because people are dying. But the next day, when they are living a normal life and celebrating, I get happy."
Still, the children of Kabul are living in one of the safer locales of the war zone. In other parts of the nation, especially in the south and east, children navigate roads and fields littered with homemade bombs planted by insurgents.
Speaking on the program, Sedwill noted that in recent months there have been few bombings in the city.
"The children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities," Sedwill said. "Most children can go about their lives in safety. It's a very family oriented society. So it is a little bit like a city of villages."
Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, called Sedwill's comments misleading.
"Afghanistan is the worst place on earth to be born a child," Forsyth said, referring to the entire nation, not Kabul city itself. "One in four children living there will die before they reach the age of five."
According to the United Nations Children's Fund's mid-year report for 2010, around 5 million children — most of them girls — are out of school across Afghanistan.
"Ongoing conflict including threats and attacks on schools deprives over 400,000 children in most insecure and conflict affected areas of education. About 106 incidents of attacks against schools have been recorded during the first four months of 2010," UNICEF reported.
In 2008, UNICEF said there were are about 14.5 million people in Afghanistan under the age of 18 in a population of just over 27 million. The country, which is mostly rural, has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world at 44 for both men and women.
So far this year, civilians have died in several major attacks in Kabul — the last in August when two suicide bombers attacked a building rented by a private security company, killing two drivers.
In June, insurgents fired rockets at the site of a national peace conference, and Taliban fighters wearing suicide bomb vests battled security forces at the site. Two militants were killed and three civilians were wounded, but none of the 1,500 dignitaries, lawmakers and civil society activists attending the conference were injured.
In May, a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy, killing 18 people, including six NATO service members.
Suicide attackers struck two residential hotels in late February, killing 20 people — seven Indians, one Italian, one French citizen, three Afghan and five civilians and three attackers.
In January, suicide bombers and gunmen targeted government buildings, leaving 12 dead, including seven attackers.
Overall, the number of Afghan civilians killed or injured in the war soared 31 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2009, according to a report by the United Nations. Children made up a rising proportion of the victims, with child casualties rising 55 percent in the same period.
The report said Taliban attacks were responsible for most of the civilian casualties, while deaths and injuries caused by NATO and Afghan government forces dropped 30 percent.