Between Taliban and freedom

SUN JOURNAL

Refugees: Homeless and starving, 14,000 Afghans can't return to or flee their country.

September 22, 2001

They have been camped for nearly a year on bits of island in the river that separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan, 14,000 Afghan men, women and children who oppose the Taliban. They are homeless, almost starving and largely forgotten, even as the rest of the world has become preoccupied with a possible attack on the Taliban.

Tajikistan has repeatedly refused entry to the refugees, and Thursday, President Emomali Rakhmonov reiterated that he would not change his mind even if the United States begins military strikes in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan, he says, remains too weak to accept refugees as a result of a civil war from 1992 to 1997, fought between former Communists and Muslims trying to restore a culture and religion destroyed during nearly 70 years of Soviet rule. The former Communists won.

Robyn Dixon, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, recently visited the refugees. Here is her report:

JANGALI SUHTA, Tajikistan - Every day for months, 11-year-old Latifa Abduljabor has been picking the grass to feed her family on this river island in the no man's land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It is mostly children who search for the grass. Their mothers then boil it into a watery green soup. But no matter how much they dunk the grass in the river, they cannot wash away its taste.

"It tastes like dirt. It's bitter," says Latifa, who fled war in Afghanistan with her family and thousands of others, leaving everything behind, including her one treasured possession, a flowing dress of many colors.

The harsh sun has been drying out the grass that is life to nearly 14,000 Afghan refugees settled on territories in the Panj River, which forms part of the border between the two countries. The sun beats down on the landscape of stunted dry shrubs, and the slightest motion stirs the creamy, invasive dust.

The refugees fled the advance of the ruling Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan nearly a year ago, but Tajikistan refuses to accept them, blaming economic and sanitary reasons and the guerrilla fighters in their midst.

"We had to swim across the river at night on inflated inner tubes," recalls Abdul Kayum, 52, a teacher. "When we swam across, we were sure that - out of respect for humanity and because we are of the same religion - the Tajik authorities would let us in."

In this hellish landscape of scorpions, snakes, hunger and disease, it is mystifying when people insist on staying. They need food, medicine, schoolbooks and other aid - the United Nations refugee agency stopped providing relief in February on the grounds it could not be sure whether the assistance was supporting combatants - but they say they won't move.

The fighters with whom their fates are inextricably linked belong to the opposition forces of Afghan guerrilla warrior Gen. Ahmed Shah Masoud that are still resisting the Taliban, a radical Islamic regime. Masoud was assassinated last week.

The Taliban gained control of about 95 percent of Afghanistan last fall, and fighting died down. But after 12 years of civil war and a decade of fighting the Soviets before that, warriors such as Col. Sufi Abdulmanon, 38, insist that their war is not over and that no human should be foolish enough to wonder when it ever will be. That is Allah's domain.

On a rough mat laid on the dust, among three women shrouded in red and white shawls, 11-year-old Latifa smiles shyly. She wears a white head scarf and the blue and silver plastic bangles she had on when the Taliban came to her village in the middle of the night, driving families out of their houses. One of the three women, Bolbibi Chutaboi, 40, says that in two months, her family was given food aid once: enough flour to last them 10 days. The rest of that time, they ate grass soup.

Another woman, Asalbibi Rajabmuhammad, 50, with 13 people to feed, cries and clutches her head wretchedly as she describes dividing flat bread into small pieces, one for each child, while the adults eat grass.

"No one thinks about the suffering Afghan people," she says. "The war in Afghanistan has been going on for more than 20 years, but no one seems to care, not the U.N., not anyone."

On a promontory on the Tajik side where the refugees have also huddled, Aziza Muhammadumar, an 18-year-old mother of two, pulls out a couple of pounds of flour wrapped in a rough cloth, all that remains for two families, nine people in all. To spin the flour out, they alternate eating grass for six days and flour for two.

The children hate the green soup, but when they refuse it, she says, there is no choice but to smack them. "If they don't eat it, they'll be hungry," she says. "We know it's better than nothing."

These days, the children have to search longer and dig for the roots, which are boiled to make an odious, milky yellow soup. "We look for grass from morning till afternoon," Latifa says. "It's hard to find. You have to wander around looking for it and then bend over to pick it."

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