Afghanistan's refugees face harsh winter

Relief to hungry, cold difficult after snows

War On Terrorism : The World

October 15, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ANABA REFUGEE CAMP, Afghanistan - Winter is coming to the lower Panjshir Valley, where hundreds of a long war's forgotten victims huddle in plastic tents on the rocky banks of a tumbling river.

They trekked from a village about 20 miles south of here three years ago, driven out by rockets and chattering Kalashnikovs in fierce fighting between Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance and the ruling Taliban regime.

Brothers and sons, wives and daughters died as they fled down dusty roads or dashed through vineyards at midnight. Now, about 1,600 survivors wait, hoping the war will change their fortunes for the better.

"It is hard, very hard," said Aharib Allah, a 30-year-old schoolteacher. "We are always hungry. We have no food. No clothes. No oil."

International agencies have a hard time serving this remote, war-scarred region. And refugees here say local authorities are too poor and preoccupied with the seven-year war against the Taliban to offer much help.

Anaba's temporary plastic tents, donated three years ago, have begun to tear. Many people have just one set of clothes, worn too thin to insulate them from the coming winter. Soon, the camp will be muffled by several feet of snow. Families will struggle to pay the 50 cents it costs for a day's worth of firewood.

Children go to school in a makeshift tent and try to learn to read with worn books that rely on drawings of familiar objects - like Kalashnikov rifles.

Once hard-working farmers, they are now mostly idle. They had four-room houses with stoves, rugs and furniture, bean fields and apple orchards in one of this country's richest agricultural areas. Today, they live five and six to a tent in a stretch of the long Panjshir Valley turned barren by drought, full of gravel and dust, with threadbare comforters to cover them at night. Their children are beggars.

Anaba's residents welcome the American bombing campaign against the Taliban, saying that soon they might return to their home village, Kabat, a few miles from the front lines.

"We want freedom," Allah said. "We want the peace process."

Foreign aid officials say this war-ravaged country's needs are overwhelming, and that though Anaba's residents are suffering, they are only some of the millions of people in Afghanistan who critically need food and other aid.

What sets Anaba apart from other refugee settlements is its isolation. Pierre Andre Junod, head of the local International Committee of the Red Cross office, said that in recent years, the Taliban have pushed the opposition Northern Alliance into the Hindu Kush Mountains to the south, west and north, cutting off the people living here from the outside world.

There is only one narrow, treacherous supply road into National Alliance-controlled areas along the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush - the route over the 13,000-foot Anjemon Pass.

Snow is expected during the next several weeks. When that happens, Junod said, the area could be cut off. A lot will depend on the course of the war.

"The fighting will decide where we can help and where we can't help," he said.

Meanwhile, the refugees of Anaba cling to their stony outpost here - where the sun bakes in the summer and cold winds blast through in the winter.

Like almost all of his neighbors, Allah lives under a 10-foot-by-10-foot tent, with walls of stone and a floor of canvas

Five members of his family sleep on the floor, occupying almost every square foot. In one corner is a stove built of mud. In the other is a pile of blankets and a store of the camp's staple foods - old bread from area bakeries and mulberries, which are ground and sprinkled with a little sugar.

The people of Kabat were driven from their homes in 1998, when the Taliban swept through the tiny village in the farmlands of the Somali Plain north of Kabul.

The Taliban caught up with his fleeing family in an orchard, Allah said, and shot his brother on the spot. Allah said he witnessed the execution.

"That changed me, as a man, to see this," he said. "I couldn't even speak."

To help support his family, Allah shovels gravel along the road that runs by the Panjshir River, in the hope that passing drivers will pay for the roadwork. Usually a driver doles out 10,000 Afghanis - about 40 cents.

The camp consists of about 240 tents, an abandoned bus resting on rocks, some outhouses and a few scattered gravesites. At the top of one hill is the grave of a 14-year-old girl with leprosy who died last year of starvation, one resident said.

Nearby is the grave of a 7-month-old whose mother was malnourished and couldn't nurse her child. Camp residents say several died last winter of the cold.

The Anaba School is housed in a tent made of a tarpaulin stamped "USAID" lashed over a rectangle of tree limbs. Children ages 7 to 12 attend four grades of school, receiving instruction in Islam, mathematics and two languages, Dari, the language of their Tajik ethnic group, and Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group.

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