Afghan refugee crisis looms as thousands flee

With winter nearing, Pakistan border shut, U.N. fears disaster

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 27, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - They have survived invasion, civil war, repression and drought, only to face the danger of a freezing winter on the run. Nearly 7.5 million Afghans are at risk of disaster, a United Nations official said yesterday, trapped along closed borders and largely unattended by humanitarian agencies.

"The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has reached a crisis point," Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Assistance for Afghanistan, said yesterday. "For the Afghan population, as humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan dwindles, their grip on survival is tragically slipping."

Fearing that the United States will attack the Taliban government because it is protecting Osama bin Laden, tens of thousands of people are on the move, fleeing cities for their home villages or the nearest border, U.N. officials say.

Their flight is worsening the dire conditions created by three years of drought, more than 20 years of war and the Taliban's neglect of social problems.

As a result, an earlier estimate that 5.5 million to 6 million of the country's 26 million people would need help to survive the winter has been revised to 7.5 million, with about 2.2 million people considered to be in danger of displacement.

The terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11 have exacerbated the problem, not only because more people are fleeing, but also because the United Nations and other relief organizations have pulled all of their staff members from Afghanistan, noting security concerns stemming from possible retaliatory military action against the Taliban.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expects an influx of 1 million Afghan refugees into Pakistan, about 400,000 into Iran, 50,000 into Tajikistan and 50,000 into Turkmenistan. The agency says it needs $252 million to respond to such a large-scale emergency.

At points along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, which has stopped accepting refugees, 10,000 to 20,000 Afghans have massed.

Pakistan said it closed the border because it could not manage a flood of refugees and because the United States was concerned that bin Laden associates might hide among the refugees.

More than 2 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, escaping war and drought. Thousands more poured in after the attacks on the United States, until the border was closed last week.

U.N. officials are pushing Pakistan to allow entry to refugees waiting at the border checkpoints and to any other refugees who arrive.

"In accordance with international law, the borders must be open to civilians seeking refuge," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement. "Innocent civilians should not be punished for the actions of their government. The world is united against terrorism. Let it be equally united in protecting and assisting the innocent victims of emergencies and disasters."

Pakistani officials have said the border will remain closed to everyone lacking proper travel documents.

Still, Pakistani authorities have been unable to stop the flow of Afghans using donkey trails and footpaths in the high mountains along the 1,500-mile border that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan.

This week, relief workers are evaluating 75 potential campsites in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, where up to 1 million refugees could be cared for if necessary. The U.N. refugee agency plans to deliver more than 80,000 tents to the region and to send in 700 more staff members to deal with the crisis.

The preparations for assisting Afghan refugees mark the agency's largest operation since the 1999 Kosovo crisis, when Serbian forces drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes after NATO's airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government is placing the country on war footing as the United States continues to prepare to hunt for bin Laden, who has been living in Afghanistan since 1996 as a "guest" of the militant Islamic government.

In Herat, in southwestern Afghanistan, Taliban officials are recruiting young people into military service, according to the U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan. The Taliban said this week that they have mobilized 300,000 soldiers to defend against any invasion by the United States.

In the capital, Kabul, thousands of people protested yesterday at the U.S. Embassy compound, abandoned since 1988, tearing down the U.S. seal and burning cars, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. military officials were in Islamabad, discussing preparations for an anti-terrorism campaign with Pakistani officials. Pakistan has played a key role in U.S. plans to combat terrorism. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Pakistan sent a high-level delegation to Kabul in a failed attempt to negotiate the handover of bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have broken off ties in the past week, leaving Pakistan as the only country to maintain diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

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