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Sunday, October 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aid worker finds anti-Western sentiment

Seattle Times staff reporter

He hadn't seen it before, that intense, cold look.

Dan O'Neill had seen devastation on a massive scale in Kosovo, Bosnia, Beirut, Rwanda. As president and co-founder of Mercy Corps, a Pacific Northwest-based humanitarian-relief organization active in 29 countries, he had interviewed refugees caught in the middle of conflict, their bodies ravaged by starvation and war.

But something was unsettling in Quetta, Pakistan, a town near the border of Afghanistan.

"People gathered outside of mosques would look at us and know we were Westerners," he said. "It was the hard stare which I hadn't perceived before."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, repercussions from the conflict between Afghanistan and the United States pervade the region.

"The whole global context: It's a bizarre, almost surreal linkage," O'Neill said.

O'Neill, 53, returned Friday night from an eight-day visit to Pakistan, where he heard the stories of refugees and humanitarian workers from Mercy Corps.

Mercy Corps has worked in Afghanistan since 1986. It has expanded over the years to a $5.5 million-a-year program that serves some 600,000 people. It employs about 200 Afghans, who have continued to work in the country.

In Kandahar, it focuses on developing irrigation and potable water supplies and staffs a hospital, a health clinic and four smaller health-care facilities that offer medical care for 370,000 people.

The Bellevue- and Portland-based organization has weathered the conflict relatively well, with Afghan workers still active in health clinics around Kandahar. But Western workers were evacuated from the Kandahar headquarters to Islamabad and Quetta, and the Taliban took over the headquarters while also threatening to execute anyone who used any telephones, O'Neill said.

The anti-American sentiment in Pakistan has made some workers edgy, O'Neill said.

On Fridays, Pakistanis have started to gather after prayers to demonstrate against the military attacks, the Pakistani government and Westerners. On those days, the Western workers either fly to Islamabad for the day or lie low in the residential houses. Mercy Corps has about 100 workers in Pakistan.

Last time he was there, O'Neill could wander the streets alone. This time, military guards armed with AK-47s accompanied him everywhere.

"Quetta is pretty highly charged with anti-Western sentiment," he said.

But Mercy Corps has continued to expand its services. On Friday, a new refugee camp in Pakistan opened near the Chaman border crossing that can house up to 1,000 refugees in tents.

While in Pakistan, he interviewed one Afghan woman whose legs were pocked with bullet holes and embedded with shrapnel from the knees down. She was unable to walk after the attack in Kabul that killed her husband and two brothers.

Somehow, the 27-year-old made it to the Pakistan border with her mother and 4-year-old son. Eventually she was sent to a hospital in Quetta, where O'Neill met her.

"You're always struck by the devastation on the lives of one or two or three people," he said.

When you add up the countless families suffering from decades of conflict in Afghanistan and the recent military bombing, "then you have a sense of the magnitude. It's always a shocking and difficult reality."

Nicole Tsong can be reached at 206-464-2793 or at ntsong@seattletimes.com.

INFORMATION

Mercy Corps

For more information about Mercy Corps, contact 800-852-2100 or www.mercycorps.org.

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