Pakistan is keeping its border closed to any new refugees from Afghanistan, but a few -- those considered to be most in need of help -- are being admitted to a single UN camp in the southwest of the country near the city of Quetta. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel recently visited Quetta and sends this report about the newly arriving refugees and how they regard the crisis in their country.
Quetta, Pakistan; 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some 8,000 Afghan refugees are camped in the vicinity of the Pakistani border-crossing at Chaman, not far from Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's southwest province of Baluchistan.
Most have no chance to get across legally. The border is closed and only very occasionally do Pakistani officials open it to let a few enter. Those few are the ones the border guards deem to be the weakest and most vulnerable in the crowd, usually families including very elderly, very young, or very sick members. The officials at the border make their own determinations of who should come across, independent of the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.
Those admitted over the past four weeks since U.S. military strikes began on 7 October against targets in Afghanistan have been sent a few hundred meters into Pakistan, where the UNHCR is being allowed to operate a single camp to help them.
The camp, called Killi Fiazo, has some 2,500 people and Pakistani officials recently said it had already reached its capacity. The local authorities now are barring the admission of any more refugees until the capacity is increased or new camps are opened. The UNHCR announced November 9 that Islamabad has given it permission to move people from the transit camp to another camp farther from the border. The agency gave no timeframe for the move.
Inside the camp, there are rows of tents pitched just a few meters apart and swarms of people wandering about. They are among the roughly 1 million people the UN estimates have been uprooted from their homes in Afghanistan due to drought, the civil war between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, and the U.S. military strikes against the Taliban and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
Most of those 1 million people are unable to escape Afghanistan because all the neighboring states have closed their frontiers to refugees. But some 100,000 are believed to have slipped across the Pakistani border illegally by paying smugglers to guide them across mountain routes. Others are trying to make their way illegally into Iran, which is keeping all would-be refugees in camps on the Afghan side of its border.
Here at Killi Fiazo, every refugee family has a story. RFE/RL spoke at length with several who have come from across Afghanistan, including from Kandahar, Kabul, and the western city of Herat.
One, a middle-aged Tajik woman who gave her name only as Miriam, said she came 10 days ago from the Afghan capital. She spoke animatedly about the problems she now faces as a refugee, living with 20 others in a single tent. But when asked why she left Kabul, she broke down into sobs because she says she fled after her house was hit in U.S. strikes by an errant bomb and her husband was killed. Miriam says: "We have so many problems here. We have no food, no medicine. There are more than 20 of us in one tent. We are very poor, please help us. This is our terrible misfortune."
She continued: "The U.S. strikes forced us to flee. That's the main reason."
Abdul Qadir, a Pashtun in his 50s from Kandahar, said he has now come to Pakistan for a second time as a refugee, after fleeing Afghanistan once eight years ago. He said he, too, is escaping the U.S. strikes, which have been particularly heavy in the area of Kandahar -- the headquarters of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Abdul Qadir said: "Before these [U.S.] strikes there was stability in Afghanistan. We already have been refugees once before. We came to Pakistan eight years ago. Then we went back to Kandahar and things were alright. And then the strikes against Afghanistan began and we again came here with all of our problems."
He continued: "The [bombs] hit the houses. The doors of the houses and the windows are all broken. The bombing is day and night and we can't face it. So we came here."
There is no way to independently confirm the refugees' accounts of the intensity of the bombing, but anti-American passions run high in the camp over the air strikes. Pakistani officials permit foreign journalists to visit the camp only in groups escorted by soldiers for security. The groups sometimes have had to turn back due to stone-throwing and other violence by protesting refugees.
Amnesty International said yesterday that it and other NGOs that are in close contact with the refugees believe the majority of them have fled Afghanistan because of the bombing. The U.S. Defense Department has said it is flying between 60 and 120 sorties a day over Afghanistan depending on weather conditions, with most strikes now targeting Taliban frontline positions near Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Asked what motivates the U.S.-led strikes against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, refugee Qadir said he knows nothing of the causes. But he blames America for what he says is the suffering of poor people like himself.
The Taliban have claimed that some 1,500 civilians have died in the air strikes, a figure that is hotly contested by Washington and London. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused the Taliban of deliberately lying to exaggerate civilian casualties. He has said U.S. forces are taking maximum care to target only military facilities or troop concentrations.
Mohammed Karim is another ethnic Pashtun, but he is from the largely Dari-speaking city of Herat. The 50-year-old says he fled that city after an air strike destroyed a military hospital there on 22 October -- an incident confirmed by the UN. The Taliban claimed that 100 people, military and civilian, died in the attack, and Karim says that news helped convince him it was time to leave: "We lived in Herat city. The U.S. hit Herat, an army hospital was hit, all the people were killed there, so many people have died. It was not only military targets. We didn't see the hospital, but the Taliban say 100 people died there. I left Herat 10 days ago."
Karim said many people fleeing Herat have headed to the nearby Iranian border, but as an ethnic Pashtun he chose Pakistan, which has a large Pashtun minority. Asked about the possible U.S. reasons for the attacks, he said the issue is bin Laden and that some in Afghanistan want him to go while others want him to stay. But he blames America for not finding some solution other than a military one to the crisis. Karim says: "Basically, America started the bombing of Afghanistan. America started with no warning. We face a lot of problems. We can't go through creating yet another government in Afghanistan. People should stop the bombing and start all over again with tolerance. We don't know what's behind all this. America started very suddenly and that's not good."
Pressed for his opinions regarding the 11 September attack on America, and regarding Washington's weeks of calling on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or face military action, Karim said: "We don't want such things [as the 11 September attack to happen] and Islam doesn't condone such things. We condemn that. We don't know who is responsible for that, but it is a very bad thing. We again request America to start again with tolerance."
UN and Pakistani officials say that anti-American sentiment is building not only here at Killi Fiazo but also at long-established refugee camps elsewhere in the country. Those camps are populated by refugees who fled their homes during the Soviet-Afghan war and later from continued factional fighting and drought.
Pro-Taliban Islamic militants among the refugees portray the U.S. strikes as an attack on Afghanistan and upon Islam in general and urge people to turn out for anti-American rallies. The Pakistani government this week restricted the movement of Afghan refugees to their respective camps and warned that participating in protests could lead to deportation.
As the latest refugees from Afghanistan settle in to Killi Fiazo, most say their biggest problem now is coping with the crowded living conditions. Ethnic Pashtuns, in particular, say the limited space between tents makes it difficult to maintain the traditional seclusion of their families' womenfolk so they are not seen by outsiders.
The camp physician, Dr. Najibullah, says many of the refugees also suffer from health problems, most commonly conjunctivitis and diarrhea. Of the camp's nearly 2,500 people, some 115 male patients and 56 females a day visit Najibullah and a second doctor.
Najibullah says he also receives four or five injured people a day who are brought by a Pakistani-run charity in ambulances from Afghanistan. The doctor says most of the injuries are from air strikes and that he regularly forwards serious cases for surgery to the main hospital in Quetta.
(Shahmardin Muradi, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondent in Pakistan, conducted the interviews with the refugees.)