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Afghanistan: Refugees Coming Faster Than Aid Agencies Can Handle

The number of Afghan refugees is growing at an alarming rate. Well over 100,000 people have fled fighting, drought and poverty to reach refugee camps inside Afghanistan and beyond its borders. Now extremely cold weather is added to their misery. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the plight of the refugees.

Prague, 1 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- They fled war, drought and poverty by the thousands to make it to the "sanctuary" of refugee camps in Afghanistan and now they are trying to keep from freezing to death.

Some 110 Afghan refugees at a camp outside Herat in western Afghanistan lost that fight Tuesday night as temperatures plunged to minus 25 degrees Celsius.

Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the UN in Afghanistan, gives an idea of just how cold it is and what conditions both refugees and aid workers are facing:

"Yesterday morning it was 16 [degrees Fahrenheit, minus 25 Celsius] below and they [the aid workers] couldn't start the cars. So they couldn't even get out to the camps."

Each day brings hundreds of new people to the camps, joining the more than 80,000 refugees already sheltering there. Bunker gave an idea of how difficult it is to provide needed help to the refugees in Afghanistan.

"There are 80,000 people in the camps (in Afghanistan) in total. The point is that they're still coming in every day, hundreds [are] coming in every day, between 300 to 500 people [are] coming in every day. They are putting three families to each tent and these are tents that are meant for one family."

And that is just the situation inside Afghanistan.

In Pakistan some 150,000 Afghan refugees have arrived since September. The situation there is so grim that even Afghanistan's Taliban movement this week appealed to the Pakistani government and people to show "brotherly treatment" to the refugees. Pakistan is already in a difficult position trying to provide basic food and care for its own 140 million people plus more than one million Afghan refugees who arrived during the last 20 years of fighting in the neighboring country.

Yusuf Hassan works for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in northern Pakistan. He spoke to RFE/RL just after he returned from the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar.

"We have now 72,000 people who have congregated there since 12 January and their conditions are not any better. They're crammed in a very little strip of land with no sanitation facilities. The situation there is desperate."

Hassan said just finding space for the refugees presents tremendous logistic difficulties.

"The main problem is that we are not able to move them as quickly as possible because we simply do not have a site to accommodate them. All the other sites are now full because there are more than 150,000 Afghans who have come into Pakistan seeking assistance since September."

The situation is also dire for more than 10,000 Afghan refugees huddled on islands in the Pyanj River between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is nearly impossible for any aid to reach them as fighting continues in northern Afghanistan, not far from their camps, and Tajikistan has sealed its border against them. International aid agencies are already overburdened and Bunker indicated there is no relief in sight.

"It's a question of how fast can you act when the numbers are increasing everyday. We have a serious problem of displacement all over the country and this (the camp outside Herat where refugees have died) is just one of the case loads. We've calculated that so far over a half million Afghans have left their homes."

Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmonov today refused a request from the United Nations to allow the island refugees to enter the country. He did, however, pledge that his government would help transport aid supplies to the refugees.

The UN and other international relief organizations have launched campaigns to find donors to aid the Afghan refugees. But even for those who have reached refugee camps inside and out of Afghanistan it appears there is little relief in sight any time soon.

(RFE/RL's Tajik service contributed to this report)