Waiting for God, fleeing for border

Afghans: Exhausted by years of drought and war, thousands head for the borders to escape the U.S. attack they fear will come.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 18, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHYBER PASS, Pakistan - Thousands of Afghan refugees are arriving at the border with Pakistan, waiting for deliverance from the American bombs and missiles they believe are headed their way.

Pakistan stopped admitting refugees six days ago in the dry, sun-baked hills of this border crossing, one of only two with Afghanistan, but Afghans are continuing to flee in this direction, aid agencies say. The army has deployed soldiers in the rugged mountains to prevent the refugees from getting through.

"The people are waiting for God," said a 35-year-old smuggler named Qand, who transports food and spare car parts through this lawless, tribal area. Angry Afghan refugees who live on the Pakistani side forced soldiers to retreat yesterday when they arrived with foreign journalists. The tension and frustration may be a preview of worse to come.

All of Afghanistan's borders are closed, but large numbers of people are leaving Kabul, the capital, and Kandahar, headquarters of the ruling Taliban, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Many of those leaving the cities are said to be heading for villages where they have family connections," the UNHCR said in a brief report. "But many others are headed for the Pakistan border, and possibly some for the Iranian border."

If the United States takes military action against Afghanistan in retaliation for last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, millions more people could try to reach the 1,500-mile-long border with Pakistan. For the Afghan people, it would be the latest hardship in decades of profound suffering.

"After three years of drought and more than 20 years of fighting, now the richest nation in the world is going to attack," said Jan-Erik Wann, an official with the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, the largest aid organization operating in the country.

Afghans have been fleeing their homeland since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded. After beating back Soviet forces with the help of Pakistan and the United States, Afghan factions have battled among themselves in a grinding civil war. War, drought, poverty and starvation have already sent at least 2 million refugees east across the border into Pakistan.

Arbab Ali Mohammad arrived from Afghanistan several weeks ago, after a four-day flight by minibus. His story illuminates some of the worst conditions in one of the world's most isolated and impoverished countries.

Mohammad, 72, said he lived along the front line in the sputtering civil war between the Taliban and their bitter rival, the Northern Alliance. Exhausted by shelling, he and his family of six decided to leave for what they hoped would be a safer life.

"We sold our property, we sold our donkeys and our cows and we came to Pakistan," said Mohammad, standing amid the sprawling tent city that is the Jalozai refugee camp. "I thought life would be much better here, but when I came, I found nothing."

Jalozai, which lies about an hour and a half's drive from the Afghan border, is home to tens of thousands of refugees. It opened in 1979, after the Soviet invasion. Conditions, never good, would certainly deteriorate if the number of refugees grows.

At dusk, the wailing sound of sick children rises from the dusty tents; women wrapped in shawls crouch over glowing fires of branches and leaves. The cramped and squalid conditions - toilets sit next to tents - ruin refugees' health. Children develop asthma from the ground of fine clay powder; their eyes are ulcerated. Families pack up to six people to a tent, in some cases no more than thin sheets hung from wooden posts.

"If there is rain, if there is sun, we are exposed," said Mohammad, fingering a strand of prayer beads as he stands on the plastic sheet that serves as his floor.

But the refugees have created a semblance of normal life. They leave the camps during the day to make bricks, serve tea in tea houses or spin yarn. At prayer, several hundred crowd under a thatched roof - their mosque - and kneel toward the holy city of Mecca.

Many who remain in Afghanistan have relied on aid agencies, but the foreign-born staffs have fled the country. Traders will be hard hit by the border closures, and if an attack comes, food shortages could drive urban populations toward closed borders.

"A 20-year-old war has made people very skilled at coping with stress," said Jorgen Holmstrom, a management assistant with the Swedish Committee who left Afghanistan last week. "The countryside should be fairly safe."

But reports from the cities are more ominous. The Swedish Committee's office in northern Pakistan has received e-mail messages from Afghan employees still inside the country indicating that Taliban guards at checkpoints near Kabul were turning back people if they were carrying cooking utensils or other goods indicating that they were fleeing, according to aid workers who have seen the messages.

"Afghans have over the years demonstrated immense reserves of strength and resourcefulness," the UNHCR said yesterday, "but the population is now so weakened both physically and mentally, that this is no longer the case.

"After the evacuation of all international aid agency staff," the report continued, "UNHCR is extremely worried that the situation for all these people - and millions of others - could deteriorate very rapidly, leading to major population movements, and even widespread deaths."

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