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Afghanistan: Refugees In Pakistan Are Bitter, Hungry, Cold (Part 1)

  • Jeremy Bransten

For the past two decades, Pakistan has hosted more than 2 million Afghan refugees. The first wave fled Soviet occupation of their homeland, a second wave fled factional fighting in the 1990s, and the latest arrivals are escaping a three-year drought and further conflict as U.S. and Northern Alliance forces attempt to extinguish the Taliban regime. In the first of this two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Peshawar, Pakistan, and the adjoining Afghan border region on the continuing refugee crisis, which shows little sign of abating.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The word from Bonn and Washington may be that stability is returning to Afghanistan, with preparations going ahead for the establishment of a post-Taliban authority in Kabul. But at the dust-blown Torkham border crossing in the Khyber Pass, truckers such as Abdul -- who have just made the 12-hour trip from the Afghan capital -- exchange harrowing tales of their journey.

"We were in Kabul and coming to Pakistan with a group of 16 vehicles, including some trucks," Abdul says. "The new soldiers came and seized four of the vehicles and all the money we had with us -- that was 200,000 rupees ($3,300), as well as some Afghan currency. They did this by force and during the altercation, one driver was wounded, and he is still in the hospital."

Abdul and his colleagues worry about going back. Aside from their vehicles and cash, they had no goods to steal on the trip down from Kabul. But the return trip will be different. The truckers have been commissioned by the United Nations World Food Program to load up with grain in Pakistan and transport it back to Afghanistan -- a valuable cargo in a hunger-plagued land that could make them subject to further attacks.

Whatever their faults, says Abdul, the Taliban eliminated banditry and allowed people to make a living. Now that they are gone, he says, who knows what misfortunes will befall us?

Sixty kilometers away, on the outskirts of Peshawar, the sun-baked plains teem with human misery. This is the New Jalozai refugee camp, where the most recent arrivals -- who continue to flee Afghanistan due to security fears -- huddle under makeshift tents of plastic sheeting and rags. Any outsider quickly becomes a lightning rod for the refugees' anger. They want know why they are not being fed, why they have no warm clothes, why they were made to leave their homes near Kabul, losing all their possessions along the way, only to be left to their own devices in this dusty, forgotten field.

Karim, the self-appointed spokesman of the group, expresses the collective feeling about the latest developments in Afghanistan: "Whatever has happened up to now, we don't support it. We condemn it! When the Taliban were in power, law and order and security arrangements were good. But now that the Taliban have left, everything is going wrong."

Karim fled to Pakistan two weeks ago after his brother and his wife were killed in the U.S.-led bombings of Kabul. He says he expected the Pakistani and international authorities to provide adequate food and shelter to those escaping the war. But he says the miserable conditions at New Jalozai have come as a shock: "We came to Pakistan thinking that we would get every type of support from the Pakistani people and government, but the reality is very different. If someone brings relief goods, they expect us to pay. But unfortunately, we don't have any money. As a result, we get food just once a day."

Even then, Karim says, feeding time at the camp is a free-for-all, with only the physically fit able to fight for a piece of bread and bowl of gruel. If no one brings them anything, he says, the old and the sick go hungry.

Another man says the refugees' concerns are very basic: "The problem is, we don't have clean water. We don't have decent food, and we are worried about the health of our children!"

At night, when the temperature drops near freezing, plastic sheeting offers little protection against the winter winds. Rashid says they will not be able to survive under present conditions much longer. But he adds that even if he wants to return home to Afghanistan, he does not have the means to do so: "You were asking about security in Afghanistan. Well, I had a car. The new soldiers stole it from me! They also took my watch and all my money, and then they threw me out of the country. So how can I go back now?"

The atmosphere grows more tense with each question answered. Empty-handed outsiders are not welcome for long. It is time to move on.

The only optimists amid this kaleidoscope of wrenching experiences are the money changers. Sitting serenely at wooden booths lining the road at the Torkham border crossing, they have seen the value of the Afghan currency double in the last two weeks. And they are banking on a further rise: "The rate of the currency depends on the political situation. After listening to the news that [exiled former Afghan king] Zahir Shah might come back, the rate has gone up. Before, it hovered between 80 to 90 Pakistani rupees for 100,000 afghanis. Now, due to the rumor of Zahir Shah's imminent return, it has gone up to 160 rupees for 100,000 afghanis. We are sure that the afghani currency will go even higher."

The Northern Alliance's political leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who has reclaimed the presidential palace in Kabul, has not welcomed the former king's return. This, and other political issues, may be resolved in the days ahead. But until Kabul's new rulers can provide enough security for truckers to transport their humanitarian cargo and for refugees to return, the Taliban's ouster will mean little to Afghanistan's long-suffering people.

In part two tomorrow, we examine the situation among the longer-term refugees and whether they are planning a return to their homeland.

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