KABUL -- Afghans afflicted by war, violence or natural disasters can now receive critical information through the country's first toll-free nationwide call centre, established by the United Nations (UN) last month.
The Awaaz Afghanistan call centre, situated in Kabul, started as a pilot programme May 28 and officially began receiving calls September 17.
The toll-free number -- 410 -- is staffed by eight multi-lingual operators, half of whom are women. Calls made to the toll-free number are all confidential.
The call centre, able to answer about 400 calls daily, according to UN officials in Kabul, was established to help Afghans receive support and critical life-saving information.
The UN World Food Programme initiated the call centre with the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) as the implementing partner, according to Awaaz Afghanistan.
"UNOPS secured additional funding from the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," the organisers said in a statement.
Previously, the Afghan government established the 119 toll-free call centre for the police, while the Afghan Independent Election Commission introduced the 190 toll-free number for obtaining election-related information.
Meanwhile, Kabul Ambulance introduced the 102 toll-free number for emergency medical care and transportation.
Awaaz Afghanistan covers three categories of Afghans seeking help, Ahmed Khalid, an official at the call centre, told Salaam Times.
"The first category includes those refugees who return to Afghanistan -- by force or by choice -- from neighbouring Iran or Pakistan and need information," he said.
"The second category includes those who have become vulnerable and internally displaced by the conflict," he said. "The third category is for those who have suffered from natural disasters and, as a result, have lost their homes."
"We receive information about the problems that these individuals have to face," Khalid said. "We work from 7am to 7pm, and we respond to calls we receive."
"Our colleagues listen to callers' problems, and if they need humanitarian assistance, we record it and share the information with our local and international colleagues, including the UN agencies, so that organisations can address their problems in a timely manner," he said.
If callers need something other than information or humanitarian assistance, operators are prepared to give them the relevant ministry's phone number, added Khalid.
The Afghan government and public welcome the establishment of Awaaz Afghanistan, calling it an effective measure to provide public assistance.
The call centre will help officials become aware of citizens' needs and problems, said Omar Mohammadi, a spokesperson for the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA).
"The Afghan government welcomes this UN initiative ... and is committed to helping citizens who have been affected by natural disasters and drought," he told Salaam Times. "We will try to help our citizens based on any information that reaches us through the centre."
"This year's drought and famine caused our citizens, mostly farmers, to suffer a great deal, and they need help," said Mohammad Juma, a resident of Nili District, Daikundi Province, who works at a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that he asked not to identify for security reasons.
"The toll-free 410 hotline is a good option for conveying sources of public concern to the government and for transmitting our message to relief organisations and to the government," he told Salaam Times.
Awaaz Afghanistan is a worthy initiative for meeting Afghans' needs, said Amanullah, an agriculture student at Bamiyan University.
"Because of the drought this year, residents of Bamiyan Province and several other provinces across the country have suffered losses," he told Salaam Times. "It's a great thing that they are now able to send their messages to the UN and to other humanitarian agencies."
"Although the Afghan people can address their government through the media, the 410 hotline can help connect them with humanitarian institutions," he said.
So far, Awaaz Afghanistan has received 16,000 calls since the pilot programme began, said Khalid, the call centre official.
Most of the calls concerned food insecurity, which has affected at least 20 provinces; internally displaced individuals; and returning immigrants who needed guidance and assistance, he said.
The call centre marks a milestone in Afghanistan, Toby Lanzer, the UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Afghanistan, said at the opening ceremony of the call centre in Kabul.
"The UN agencies are here to listen to the Afghans, who can now reach us day or night with feedback or questions about our response to natural disasters or conflict," he said, according to TOLONews. "And, together, agencies will work to get the best answers and the best response to [the public], on time."
"The Afghan government and the international agencies should know about the situation of the public and what it needs and what it wants," said Najib Aqa Fahim, the state minister for ANDMA.
Is a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban possible before the presidential election in April?