Afghans flee from danger to poverty

Potential strikes by U.S. spark latest exodus of thousands

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 24, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan -- The people of Afghanistan have spent much of the past two decades engaged in a long, sad tradition: fleeing their homeland. Woeful tales of Afghan refugees -- there are now millions of them -- have become so commonplace that sometimes the rest of the world barely seems to notice.

Last week, thousands more were on the move, heading across the border into neighboring Pakistan because they fear that the United States, searching for Osama bin Laden, might attack Afghanistan. Following in the footsteps of earlier generations, many of today's refugees are making their way to this oasis city of adobe-walled homes and carpet-sellers several hours' drive from the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Exhausted and impoverished, these newcomers cannot turn for help to the Pakistani government for fear of being deported as illegal immigrants. Instead, many are seeking refuge with the legions who fled before them. Some are fearful of giving too many details about themselves.

When Naeem, a small-time landlord from Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, heard about the threat of a U.S. attack, he dug out an old letter former neighbors had written a few years ago from Quetta.

Naeem had not seen the family since they left for Pakistan with the first wave of refugees who fled after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Now, as he prepared for the long trip to the border, his best hope lay in childhood memories.

Like most, Naeem made his way by foot over the jagged Sulaiman Mountains. After arriving in Quetta, he showed the letter's return address to people crowded around a bus station and asked directions.

A few hours later, he wandered down a dirt road past fruit stands and mule-drawn carts to a metal gate covered with a dusty, torn blanket. Although they had not seen each other in two decades, Naeem and his former neighbors recognized each other immediately.

"They were very happy to see me," said Naeem, an animated 28-year-old who wears a black beard and an argyle, cardigan sweater beneath his pinstriped vest. "When I saw them, I knew these were my neighbors."

For the past week, Naeem has slept on a mat on the floor of the family's television room with his wife and their 2-year-old son, Farhad. Sitting in the room with Farhad on his lap, Naeem says he is grateful for all his neighbors have done, but he feels uncomfortable because he is not contributing to the household.

"I would like to get a job," Naeem said. "I don't want to be a burden."

Since the Soviet invasion, more than 2 million Afghan refugees have traveled to Pakistan. At least another 1.5 million have fled into neighboring Iran.

Recent arrivals here often live in deplorable conditions. They sleep on plastic sheets in drafty tents in crowded conditions like those at Jalozai, a refugee camp near the Khyber Pass in the country's northwest. Many of those who arrived here years earlier have moved into adobe homes on the camp's edges and become permanent residents.

Relatively speaking, Naeem has done well.

Soon after the terrorist strikes against the United States, Pakistan began turning away Afghan refugees from the border for security reasons. Police have caught and deported some, but Naeem has found a place in a decent home and begun to blend into Quetta's sprawling Afghan community.

Khwani, a 40-year-old farmer from northern Afghanistan's Parwan province, has not been as lucky. He was listening to the nightly news at 8:30 on BBC radio's Persian-language service when he heard about the attack on the United States and a potential counter-strike against Afghanistan.

Khwani, who had already endured a three-year drought, decided it was time to flee. The drought has left millions hungry and dependent on foreign aid agencies in a country already regarded as one of the world's poorest.

Some have lost scores of livestock because there is not enough water. Khwani, an ethnic Tajik, grows wheat, onions and potatoes. His fields haven't seen heavy rain in three years. None has fallen in the past five months.

Fearing attack by the world's most powerful military, Khwani arose the next morning and sold all his animals -- four sheep and one donkey -- for $15. He spent the next two days traveling by bus to Kandahar, the Taliban's southern stronghold, with 14 family members, including his 70-year-old mother and 1-year-old son who suffers from malaria.

Completing the final leg of the journey in the back of an old Datsun pickup, Khwani arrived at the border to find thousands of other refugees unable to get through. He set across the mountains, only to be stopped by a member of the Pakistani army's Frontier Corps, who demanded a $3 bribe to let him pass.

When Khwani finally arrived in Quetta, a provincial capital of 1.2 million, he went looking for a friend who had arrived here in the mid-1990s during another exodus. After the Soviet pullout in 1989, the Taliban and the mujahadeen waged civil war for control of the country, again sending waves of refugees across the border.

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